There are 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers. Desert island comedies generally make at least three times that many. Two of those made it on to this list. I had two more nominated. Even if I’m a biased judge and, since I made the list, I inherently am, that is an incredibly high hit percentage. The show truly ended up choosing quality over quantity, something that most shows would never even consider.
I introduced Fawlty Towers earlier, but I’ll repeat the gist. Basil Fawlty (Cleese) is a misanthrope of the highest caliber, and is obsessed with class standings to a level that even the British consider a bit overboard. He seems to hate his wife, Sibyl (Prunella Scales) to the extent that her physical pain brings him happiness, and is prone to suffering her wrath. He’s prone to excited outbursts, jumping to wild conclusions, physically abusing his staff, and lying poorly. One of his most famous quirks is that he gets nominal aphasia when he tries to come up with a lie on the spot, saying such things as “I pain my wife. I never want her to be in love.”
Basil and Sibyl run the hotel, and their staff consists of smart, aspiring artist Polly Sherman (Connie Booth, who by this episode was now Cleese’s Ex-wife) and easily-confused Spaniard Manuel (Andrew Sachs), as well as a few background characters. One of the only recurring guests is the Major (Ballard Berkeley), a senile soldier from the Great War.
The overarching theme for this episode was addressed in prior episodes. Something is happening that could kill Basil’s dream of becoming the owner of an upscale, fancy hotel, allowing him to finally achieve the rise in class standing he craves. In this case, it’s the health inspection. After looking over the kitchen at the beginning of the episode, the inspector, Mr. Carnegie (John Quarmby), declares that Fawlty Towers is below the health code standard, owing in no small part to the fact that he found two dead pigeons in the water tank. He gives the staff 24 hours to fix the problem or the inn will have to close. They immediately go about trying to save the hotel. Basil goes to alert Manuel of the emergency, only to find that Manuel has been keeping a pet rat whom he has named Basil. Manuel insists that it was sold to him as a “Siberian Hamster,” despite the fact that those are dwarf hamsters and this is a large rat, but I guess Google Image spoils us. Basil tries to get rid of it, but Manuel threatens to quit if he cannot keep the rat. Basil, not able to clean the hotel up without Manuel, agrees to let the rat stay with a friend of Polly’s, only for Polly to decide to let Manuel keep it in the shed. Manuel then decides to “let Basil get some exercise,” which, of course, results in the rat running into the hotel, setting up the rest of the episode.
What follows is a comedy of errors that manages to feel like it’s several hours long, despite only being around 20 minutes. Part of it is that the show immediately ratchets up the tension by having Basil the human attempt to poison Basil the rat by poisoning a veal cutlet and placing it on the floor, only for a plate of veal cutlets to thereafter fall on the floor, putting the poisoned one into circulation. And, of course, everyone in the restaurant orders the veal, including the health inspector when he returns. The pacing of this episode makes it basically impossible to list every single gag that happens here, but the escalation throughout the episode feels natural, until it finally peaks with a series of quick rat-exchanges that end with Basil the human passing out off-screen from exhaustion, and Sybil trying to distract the health inspector with small-talk. I say without hesitation that the final few minutes are among the best physical comedy on this list.
The reason why this episode stands out despite being the same generic plot as several others within the series is two-fold:
First, unlike other episodes where the potential danger is looming, this episode starts in the middle of the danger, and it only gets greater throughout the episode. There is a tangible problem that has to be solved by the cast, not a future problem which may arise. It creates a more frantic atmosphere, something which can only benefit a well-done physical comedy. The panic makes some of the more far-fetched coincidences or misunderstandings feel more organic. It’s probably why a lot of modern shows tend to adopt this structure when trying to do physical-focused episodes. The escalation is also necessary. It starts off just with the potential closure of the kitchen, then soon becomes a matter of actual life-and-death, and one that the cast tries to handle without alerting the clientele. Every time it appears that a problem has been solved, another occurs, and in solving that, the original is brought back into play, creating a disorienting effect that puts us in the same mindset as Basil Fawlty until his inevitable collapse.
Second, at the end of the episode, we have no idea if they pulled it off. The health inspector himself appears uncertain of exactly what he’s been witness to, seeming to sit in stunned silence at the end of the episode. And that’s how the series itself ends. We don’t know if the hotel closed down due to rats, or if Basil and company managed to pull off the most absurd performance outside of Criss Angel filing unemployment. The show ends with lingering uncertainty, and it really feels appropriate for a show like this. We don’t know if Basil ever gets his higher-class status, or if this dooms him forever, and we should love it that way.
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