19) Basil the Rat (Fawlty Towers)

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.

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We lost some cast members. So what?

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.

FawltyTowersCast

SUMMARY

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 FawltyTowersRat.pnginspector, 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.

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Who knew this guy could do physical humor?

END SUMMARY

The reason why this episode stands out despite being the same generic plot as several others within the series is two-fold:

FawltyTowersCatFirst, 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.

FawltyTowersCracker.pngSecond, 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.

PREVIOUS – 20: Chappelle’s Show

NEXT – 18: The Twilight Zone

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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75) The Germans (Fawlty Towers)

FawltyTowersCleeseBoothe.jpgFawlty Towers redefined British Comedy. John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth decided to collaborate to write it, and that’s essentially the moment that chocolate got in peanut butter.  Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Ricky Gervais have all openly cited this show as inspirational in both its humour and its format. It constantly combined fast-paced dialogue, high-brow humour, low-brow physicality, and a dynamic cast that could handle it all. The pacing on the show has rarely been replicated, because Cleese and Booth originally wrote it to be an hour-long show and didn’t cut much of the dialogue when they were told episodes could only be 30 minutes. They just spoke faster. In other words, there’s mathematically more humour in most of the episodes than other television shows. And yes, I spelled humor the “British” way in that paragraph in their honour.

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, Sybil (Prunella Scales), to the extent that her physical pain brings him happiness. However, because of his natural incompetence, he is constantly 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.”

FawltyTowersCast.jpg

Basil runs Fawlty Towers, a hotel in the fictional town of Torquay.  The hotel staff includes the chambermaid Polly (Connie Booth) and the Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs). The plots generally involve a relatively simple problem which gets elevated to catastrophic proportions, either due to Polly’s disinterest, Manuel’s inability to understand the English language , or Basil’s general scheming and incompetence. This episode is no exception, except in its exceptionalism.

SUMMARY

FawltyTowersGoosestepThis episode is most remembered for the phrase, uttered throughout it, “don’t mention the war.” When a group of German tourists decides to visit Fawlty Towers, Basil, who hates the Germans on principle of them being German and him being English in the 70s, still tries to run his business while avoiding any discussion of WWII. Unfortunately, due to a recent concussion, Basil ends up making a reference in every single sentence, to the point of him goose stepping while giving himself the Hitler mustache in order to cheer up one of the guests. All while telling his employees “don’t mention the war.” The rest of the staff try to catch him, which results in him running through the hotel, only to be knocked unconscious by a moose head he had failed to properly hang on the wall throughout the episode. Having watched this entire display, the German leader can only say “How ever did they win?” The fact that he can ask that after seeing the physical prowess of Cleese leads me to conclude that Germany doesn’t get how tough pratfalling is. Take 2 minutes, and love this:

END SUMMARY

This really was the perfect timing for an episode like this. Europe was trying to move forward after the war, but tensions were understandably still running high. People were being encouraged to reconcile, but it wasn’t always easy, even if it was necessary for Europe’s economy to start catching up to the US’s dominant global market power. So, this episode is the culmination of those elements.

PREVIOUS – 76: The Andy Griffith Show

NEXT – 74: The Prisoner

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.