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Don’t mention the sequel: What’s the bloody point of Fawlty Towers 45 years on?

It’s true — a new series of Fawlty Towers is in the works. Er, que?

“I think everyone would be excited if we did it. The problem is, when you do do something that is generally accepted as being very good, a horrible problem arises, which is: how do you top it? The expectation of what you will do is so high.” — John Cleese, 2009

Well of course, everyone is entitled to change their mind. It shows intelligence and demonstrates a mental flexibility to change course in the face of new information, and to use it in innovative ways.

John Cleese is certainly a Very Intelligent Person who’s starred in some of the most formidable pillars of British viewing. From Monty Python to Clockwise to cameos in Tom Baker era Doctor Who and the last pair of Pierce Brosnan Bond films, he’s a legendary comic actor and, though both he and I loathe the phrase, most certainly a national treasure, however much of anti-establishment eccentric he comes across.

Sounds awfully tiring, right?

But — there’s always a but — as much as I love Fawlty Towers, the idea of reviving it after 45 years because Cleese has a dint in his bank balance after paying off an ex-wife an extortionate sum of moolah is… well, when I saw the headline on the BBC News app this morning, I wasn’t exactly screaming with delight. It‘s as if he‘s hoping for a bit of ABBA Voyage-style magic to wash over him, so much so that all I can sum up in response is  don‘t let me down.

Fawlty Towers was a peerless comedy that ran for just a dozen episodes: six in 1975 and six in 1979.

Good comedy is time-specific – and that’s precisely why it can become immortalised. Fawlty Towers isn’t funny despite its being from the 70s: it’s funny because it is from the 70s, uncomfortable xenophobia and all.

It’s obviously a period piece then. And should remain as such.

I’m such an ardent admirer of the two series that I happily made the journey from London to Berkshire for several weeks in 2013 to be part of the cast of the superb South Hill Park stage production for peanuts. In fact, it was my last acting role in Britain before I emigrated. 

Wisely, no updating was done. The set was brilliantly recreated and so were the scripts, still set in the parochial grey Britain of the ’70s, though the Germans episode, in which I had my biggest role, in was censored for what is now regarded as wokefully un-PC.

When Cleese decided to stage a modified version called Fawlty Towers Live in 2016, he not only announced it at a theatre stop with fellow former Python Eric Idle in Sydney — the awesome Aussie city where I was now resident — but he did so because he’d decided to premiere it later that year in the New South Wales capital. 

Naturally, I was there, and to experience it from the other side was just as thrilling, and certainly less nerve-wracking. It was fantastically clever the way several of the episodes had been spliced together to form one long continuous story. 

But again, it was set in the time it was originally written.

I honestly, don’t know how the socially conservative (with a small C, or perhaps not) Basil Fawlty, with all his merry olde England neuroses and prejudices, will fare in this so-called reboot. Little is known other than it’s ostensibly a vehicle for Cleese, now 83, and his real-life daughter Camilla Cleese (mom was wife number two, the late Barbara Trentham), who will star as the estranged daughter of our favourite ageing brilliantine stick insect.

Besides the premise that the two will team up to run a boutique hotel, little is known about the project. It’s very unlikely to be set in Torquay, as both Gleneagles, the original inspiration for the programme, and Wooburn Grange Country Club, which was used for its iconic exterior shots, have long since gone.

Notably, his three Torquay hotel colleagues won’t be checking in either: co-creator Connie Booth (receptionist, waitress, general dogsbody), Cleese’s first of four wives, was last known to be working as a psychotherapist and gave up acting aeons ago. 

So did Prunella Scales (wife Sybil, his little nest of vipers), but for different reasons, sadly: she is 91 this year and suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Last but certainly not least, Andrew Sachs (hapless waiter from Barcelona) succumbed to the great celebrity holocaust of 2016, while the actors portraying Terry the chef, the Major and Miss Tibbs and Gatsby died several years before him.

The other reason it is a terrible idea is simply that rebooted comedies very rarely work.

Anyone who knows this writer well enough knows that for me, the other jewel in the Beeb’s comedy crown after Fawlty Towers is Absolutely Fabulous. But when that was revived to ever decreasing laughs in 2001 Pats and Eddy had only been off our screens for five years, not 45. Trying to be achingly current was Edina Monsoon’s entire raison d’être, so it never felt like it would struggle to appear contemporary.

This news, welcomed slightly trepidatiously, gives ammunition too those detractors who like to dismiss John Cleese as always playing versions of Basil in everything he does. With the honourable exception of the fantastic Fish Called Wanda, naturally. 

Instead of getting the creative juices flowing by coming up with something shiny and new, it’s living nostalgia for an easy pay check. Cashing in on your catalogue because you’ve run out of ideas. A bit like Madonna’s impending tour. 

Humble pie or bitter fruit? As Fawlty said himself, I mean, what is the bloody point?

Still, he knows best. Naturellement.

Steve Pafford

The time when I was an actor in Fawlty Towers is here

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