Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Makes Basil Run? Part 1

The following article (split into parts because it's just too darn long to post it in one go) was originally presented in the electronic version of Screentalk. It actually got me onto BBC Television as an 'expert witness' in the Fawtly Towers episode of the Britain's Greatest Sitcom series. Quite the honour!

Being made fun of and humiliated by ever-grumpy host of the episode Jack Dee, not so much. Ah, the joys of showbusiness.

But anyway... Here's the first part. Enjoy!

John Cleese’s masterpiece, Fawlty Towers, has been elected as the all-time number one British television programme by the BFI. Not bad for a series of only twelve episodes, which was a ratings failure on its initial run...

In the present article, we will examine the writing of this marvellous show. How did John Cleese and Connie Booth weave their magic? Do they have particular tricks of the trade? And are there lessons to be learned here for us lesser mortals?


Fawlty Towers has its antecedents in farce, a theatrical genre in which structure is extremely important. In a typical farce, characters find themselves in a complex web of misunderstandings and confusion. However, the audience must always remain completely clear about what is going on, or they will lose interest. That’s why a good farce is constructed very carefully like an intricate piece of clockwork. It is no surprise that John Cleese, a known structure fanatic, would work within this genre.

When we consider the script as a whole, it is immediately apparent that Fawlty Towers is far more densely plotted than most other comedy series (and certainly all American sitcoms).

This does not mean that the intrigue is hard to follow, but rather that the plot is full of logical yet unexpected twists and complications. I tend to call Fawlty Towers a ‘plotcom’ rather than a ‘sitcom proper’ (where the characters find themselves in less complex situations e.g. learning to drive, going on a diet...).

One element of the artistic success of Fawlty Towers is this in-depth plot development. In fact, when we analyse the episodes for structure, we find the traditional 10-point screenplay structure in its entirety. This means that within the scope of thirty minutes the plot hits as many main story beats as a full-length film. We will illustrate this dramatic structure by analysing two of the most beloved episodes, Communication Problems and Basil the Rat :


1) Opening : Mrs. Richards, the deaf woman from Hell, arrives at the hotel.
2) Start Plot : Basil gets a horseracing tip from a guest.
3) Plot Point One : Basil sends Manuel off to bet on the horses for him.
4) Focus Point One : Manuel returns with Fawlty’s winnings.
5) Midpoint : Mrs. Richards has some money stolen - the same amount as Basil just won!
6) Focus Point Two : Basil gives his winnings to the Major for safekeeping.
7) Plot Point Two : The money is discovered and handed to Mrs. Richards, to Basil’s dismay.
8) Crisis : Basil is crying hysterically when the man from the shop walks in with Mrs. Richards vase and money.
9) Climax : Basil hands Mrs. Richards her vase when his secret is discovered - the vase drops and is shattered.
10) Resolution : Sybil pays Mrs. Richards for her vase with Basil’s winnings.


1) Opening : Basil discovers a health inspector in his kitchen and gets a stern warning .
2) Start Plot : Manuel has a pet rat called Basil in his room.
3) Plot Point One : Manuel is forced to remove the rat from the hotel.
4) Focus Point One : Manuel’s rat has escaped from the shed.
5) Midpoint : Basil discovers that the rat is loose in the hotel.
6) Focus Point Two : The staff manages to keep the rat’s presence secret from the health inspector.
7) Plot Point Two : The health inspector wants to have dinner in the hotel.
8) Crisis : The rat is discovered by Manuel and Basil in the dining room.
9) Climax : The rat is offered to the health inspector in the cheese biscuits tin; Polly manages to convince him he imagined it.
10) Resolution : Manuel drags a fainted Basil out of the dining room.

Coming soon: part 2!

If for some incomprehensible reason you do not yet have Fawlty Towers in your possession, you can get it here:

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