Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Makes Basil Run? Extra material

Remember how I said at the end of part 2 that I didn't have the space to give a detailed breakdown of the fire drill sequence in The Germans?

Well, that was when I had to fit the article into a magazine (e-zine at the time). On this blog, however, I have all the space and time in the world. So here it is, the detailed analysis of the fire drill!

Looking at the entire sequence, we see it is basically one huge scene, only interrupted twice for a short cutaway to the kitchen (where Manuel sets everything on fire), and an exterior shot of Fawlty asking the guests to come back inside again. The entire sequence lasts for nearly ten minutes.

The sequence consists of three parts: first the preparation for the drill, then the drill itself during which the kitchen catches fire, and then Fawlty's discovery of the fire and his disastrous attempts to get the situation under control. There are three 'acts', yet they flow seamlessly into one another.

The sequence is probably most remarkable for its expert use of comedic build-up. Things start off quietly with another attempt at hanging up the moose head (a running gag in the episode), then Basil chides a couple of guests who haven't read the notice about the fire drill. This nicely sets up his feeling of superiority and gives the impression that he is control of things. An impression immediately countered to his response to a potential problem Polly brings up(who's going to do her part in checking the hotel when she's not at work), which he simply waves away.

Then we get a phone call from Sybill at the hospital to remind Fawlty about the fire drill (another running gag), and this sets in motion the events of the rest of the sequence when it becomes clear that Sybill has locked the key to the fire alarm in the safe. It's a perfect example of combining comedy with the advancement of the plot.

As Basil goes to open the safe, the burglar alarm goes off - and the guests naturally interpret this as the signal that the fire drill has started. Fawlty tries to explain but gets into a heated discussion with his assembled guests about how they are unable to tell the difference between the alarms as they don't know what they sound like. At this point Fawlty turns on both alarms consecutively - and the guests walk out, as the fire alarm is now ringing. This drives Basil even more crazy (he hasn't started the drill officially yet) to the point where he insults Mrs. Tibbs ('you old fool'), and things get even more hectic when Manuel and Polly barge in to do their part. The continuing ringing of the fire alarm and Basil's shouting add to the nervous energy of the sequence.

There's a marvelous capper when Fawlty finally switches off the alarm, and immediately afterwards Sybill phones again, causing Basil to explode and smash the phone down. The running gag works to perfection, and its inclusion here is totally unexpected yet profoundly logical.

At this point we get a breather. Fawlty officially starts the fire drill in 30 seconds. But the quiet (which is necessary fot the audience to catch its breath) doesn't last long, as Basil quickly gets irritated by the way in which his guests just stand about in the hall, waiting for the alarm to start. (we should let you all burn)

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Manuel manages to start a real fire...

From now on, superior awareness of the audience is at play, and the stakes have been raised (the drill has now become 'real'). As Basil escorts the guests outside, a quiet moment, we know that the moment where he discovers what's really going on cannot be long in coming. However, the moment of discovery is delayed as long as possible. When the smoke-damaged Manuel barrels out of the kitchen (fire, fire), he is pushed back into the kitchen by Fawlty who locks the door (and who doesn't notice his besmudged state, focussing too much on the way he expects things to be).

As Manuel keeps banging and shouting on the door, Basil goes to ask the guests to come back inside (the drill is over) in the second, very short cutaway during the sequence. Manuel keeps up the ruckus, and finally the complaints of a guest force Basil to let Manuel out of the kitchen. And now he finally realizes that there is a real fire in progress.

And once more, we get a delayed reaction (which again creates a small breathing pause for the audience). Fawlty closes the door to the kitchen, calls the guests back and tries to explain in a roundabout fashion that there's a real fire - while Manuel clings to his knees and moans loudly. When Basil pronounces the word 'fire', he finally flips - stalking through the reception area and spitting out the word 'fire' like an insane stork with Tourette's syndrome.

It falls to Polly to call Basil to order and get him to ring the alarm (his first reaction was to call Sybill - like a little boy running to his mother). Which he tries to do - but 'someone' has lost the key! Basil rants and rave and finally ends up shaking his fist at God (Thank you so bloddy much!), blaming everyone but himself for the crisis. Once again, the comedy remains 100% true to the character. Basil cannot admit to anyone that he might be at fault in any way - not even to himself.

Polly admonishes Basil to break the glass, which he tries twice ineffectually. Then, however, Sybill rings again - and Basil uses the phone to smash the glass and start the alarm. Brilliant use of the recurring gag, and also a wonderful demonstration of the Rule of 3 within the sequence.

With the fire alarm ringing merrily, Basil now tries to extinguish the fire, but the fire extinguisher blows up in his face, and after that he hits his head on the pan Manuel is holding (in a slightly contrived bit of business) as the sequence finally climaxes. He wants to punch Manuel in revenge - but falls over in a faint.


John Cleese isn't as big a fan of The Germans as the audience because the structure of the episode isn't as elegant as some of the others. This is true - the fire drill is a story element which is resolved two thirds of the way through the episode, and it mainly provides the reason for Basil's lunatic behaviour with regards to his German guests. The two storylines never intertwine as they do in (say) The Psychiatrists or Communication Problems. But the comic genius and the structural brilliance of the fire drill sequence more than make up for this minor flaw (as does Cleese's Hitler impression, of course).

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