Friday, February 27, 2009

What Makes Basil Run part 3


As we noted earlier, Fawlty Towers plotting is definitely influenced by farce. Yet whereas farce uses its characters as pawns to further the plot, Cleese and Booth have created one of the richest comical characters of all times in Basil. The psychological depth invested in him lifts the entire series above the mechanically brilliant and infuses it with humanity. Not always the most attractive face of humanity, true, but humanity nevertheless.

Basil is the only character in the series which is this deep, though. The others are more stereotypical and single-minded. Manuel is a loveable oaf. One gets the idea that he’d be pretty far the intellectual food chain even in his native Spain (in order to believe a rat is a Siberian Hamster, one has to be a real ‘witnit’).

Sybil is the moderately shrewish mother-surrogate, Polly the clever maid who tries to get her foolish master out of trouble. The Major is a senile military man whose lapses of reason are either used to further the plot or to get laughs (not always successfully). Terry the Cook, the most recent addition to the cast, is also the least successful. He doesn’t have a comedic archetype, and the potential clash Basil’s snobbery with his Cockney cleverness is never fully realised. But these minor flaws pale into insignificance when we examine how Basil is really put together and how his personality totally drives the entire series.

Basil is someone who sees the world in one particular way, and doesn’t possess the flexibility of mind to accurately react to events which challenge his ideal vision. When he holds a fire drill, the guests have to leave the building when they hear the fire alarm, not the burglar alarm, which, as everyone knows, is at least a semitone lower. Basil does possess an incredible flexibility when it comes to forcing the world to fit his predetermined ideas, though. Unfortunately, the world always proves to resist even his best efforts.

This rigidity of thinking comes from fear and immaturity. Basil is actually still a child inside, though he pretends to be an adult. He is terrified of being found out and humiliated, and will go to any lengths to avoid this. He is pathologically incapable of accepting blame for things that go wrong.

When he has to tell some guests he misunderstood their familial affection for public lewdness in The Wedding Party, he turns the situation around at the last minute and says that Sybil made a mistake. When his car acts up, he prefers to tinker with it rather than take it to a garage and admit that he cannot fix it. His behaviour is like that of a child which doesn’t want to be scolded. So he will cover up the evidence of his mistakes - and in doing so, only makes things worse for himself.

Deep, deep down inside, Basil knows he isn’t as competent as he wants to be - and wants to be seen. And from the gap between his expectations and his worst fears coming true over and over again is born his anger at the world, his fellow men and his truly competent but shallow wife. Basil’s extreme verbal (and occasionally physical) violence is the direct expression of his soul-searing unhappiness.

Though he is insufferable in real life, the audience does take Basil to heart. This is mainly because he is an underdog, who loses control in anger (screaming ‘bastard’ at Lord Melbury while dealing with real aristocratic guests, cursing God) and in grief (he breaks down howling in histrionic displays of despair). He voices the emotions all of us keep bottled inside - we recognise this, laugh at it - but there is some discomfort too. At other times, Basil takes revenge on his tormentors (an obnoxious kid, the spoon salesman, Mrs. Richards) and thus becomes a transgressor himself. Generally, he acts out impulses - mainly negative ones - which we keep under wraps. Once again, this is an example of childlike behaviour in an adult - the main element of Basil’s mental make-up.

The excellence in which characterisation and plotting interact in Fawlty Towers is made very clear by the fact that if Basil truly behaved like an adult and admitted his mistakes, he would have no problems (and there would be no plot). He would not have become the victim of Lord Melbury, he would not have ruined the gourmet night, he would not have been faced with an American-led rebellion of his guests. If he hadn’t gambled on a horse - like a rebellious child going behind mommy Sybil’s back - he wouldn’t have lost all his money to Mrs. Richards. The synergy between main character and plot is complete.

As noted above, none of the other characters has nearly this kind of complexity, but because every episode focuses on Basil, this doesn’t matter. This might have become a problem if many more episodes had been made, but - alas? - this was not the case. The cast serves the needs of the series perfectly.

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