Thursday, February 26, 2009

What Makes Basil Run? Part 2


One specific peculiarity of the way John Cleese and Connie Booth use the midpoint is that it often serves to introduce a new complication.

In Communication Problems the midpoint is the ‘theft’ of Mrs. Richards’ money. In the very first episode, A Touch Of Class, the midpoint is the moment where Basil realises his new guest is a (fake) Lord and starts to fawn over him shamelessly. In Gourmet Night, it’s the moment where the new gourmet chef is discovered dead drunk just when Basil’s select guests have arrived.

Unlike in American sitcoms where the midpoint has to be a cliff-hanger (how are they going to get out of THAT!?), though, the complications do not arise immediately. The perfect pacing and ever increasing tempo of the best Fawlty Towers episodes are due to the fact that the story structure could be developed without having to make room for commercial breaks.

As for the plotting, there is a recurrent formula in most of the episodes (certainly in all of the best ones). There are almost always two plotlines, which start out having very little to do with each other (e.g. Mrs. Richards arriving at the hotel and Basil gambling on the horses, German tourists coming to stay and a fire drill, a psychiatrist staying at the hotel and a lusty Romeo sneaking a girlfriend into his room, a stalling car and a gourmet night), yet which become completely intertwined and totally influence each other’s development so that in the third act it is usually impossible to separate them. The beauty of the system is that all of these interactions are logical and (largely) credible, yet totally impossible to predict.

It is telling that two of the weakest episodes, The Builders and The Anniversary, sin against these principles. In The Builders there is no second plotline to speak of. In The Anniversary there ARE two plotlines, Basil hiding the fact from his friends that Sybil has stormed out before he could spring his surprise party on her, and Manuel wanting to make a paella for said party; yet they hardly interact with each other. Worse, the plot development is forced along by two moments of illogical behaviour : Polly deciding to invent the lie that Sybil is ill in her room for no real reason, and Basil later challenging his disbelieving friends to go see Sybil if they don’t believe him, and keeping this up so long past their embarrassed refusal that they do take him up on the offer.

Another aspect of structure in which Fawlty Towers reigns supreme is in its use of comic build-up. Every episode starts off slowly and keeps building to an expertly managed crescendo. There is an incredible amount of comic material in each of these scripts : in Communication Problems I count approximately 250 jokes, ranging from mild smiles to out-and-out guffaws. That’s almost ten jokes per minute.

The downside to this abundance of riches is that sometimes intended gags are not registered by the audience because of the great speed at which they follow one another. Once the plot takes off, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster of laughter, with a number of carefully conceived setpieces of increasing intensity serving as the comedic highlights of the episodes.

Between these setpieces, Cleese and Booth make sure to insert breathing space for the audience. These ‘lows’ in the rollercoaster do not stop the momentum, however : they are used to set up the next big gag scene. In fact, it is in these ‘low-energy’ moments that the plot develops most, so the interest of the audience never wanes.

The setpieces, invariably the most memorable parts of the episode, get the necessary time for them to work. There is no Seinfeldian ‘one-minute time limit’ to individual scenes in these scripts. This allows the scenes to build as necessary so they achieve a very organic quality.

An extreme example is the fire drill sequence from The Germans : apart from one cutaway to Manuel in the kitchen, this 10 minute sequence plays uninterruptedly in the same set without ever outstaying its welcome. Space does not permit us to analyse this sequence in detail, but it will repay careful study a hundredfold.

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