Fawlty Towers-The Complete Collection (1975)

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Released 19-Nov-2001

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Comedy Main Menu Audio & Animation
Scene Selection Anim & Audio
Audio Commentary-John Howard Davies (Director Series 1)
Audio Commentary-Bob Spiers (Director Series 2)
Interviews-Cast
Biographies-Cast
Featurette-Torquay Tourist Guide
Featurette-Cheap Tatty Review
Outtakes
Easter Egg-The Grange/Fawlty Towers
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1975
Running Time 374:46 (Case: 487)
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Multi Disc Set (3)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By John Howard Davies
Bob Spiers
Studio
Distributor

Roadshow Home Entertainment
Starring John Cleese
Connie Booth
Prunella Scales
Andrew Sachs
Ballard Berkeley
Case Gatefold
RPI $79.95 Music Dennis Wilson


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
German
French
Dutch
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes, minor
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, at the end of most episodes

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

   It's been a real joy to have the opportunity to review this disc set. There is very little new that I can say about this series of 12 veritable comedy gems. It's been named the No.1 television programme of all time by the British Film Institute. It's been copied several times in the past, and a German derivative has just been announced for production. The characters have become household names over the entire world. That something so great should come out of a mere 6 hours of television is rather miraculous. Perhaps the walls shake whenever they're touched and the sound boom and other assorted "naughties" are occasionally caught on screen, but it is certainly at the apex of its craft and after 25 years still plays as fresh and funny as it did at the time it was created.

   I doubt very much that anyone reading this would not know the wondrous character of Basil Fawlty, the owner from hell of a Torquay hotel, created by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth who plays the role of Polly, the hotel general hand. Basil's wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the Spanish waiter Manuel (the wonderful Andrew Sachs), and the permanent residents of the hotel - the Major (Ballard Berkeley), Miss Tibbs (Gilly Flower) and Miss Gatsby (Renee Roberts) - round out the regular cast, while a host of other actors come and go each episode. Each episode deals with a different subject, sometimes becoming a mini editorial on the archetypal English personality, although some favourites (especially attitudes towards sex and sucking up to professionals and the higher classes) seem to get more than their fair share of attention.

   The idea for Basil Fawlty arose from the true life experiences of the Monty Python gang when they stayed at a hotel in Torquay. The manager was so rude that only John Cleese continued to stay there. However, the visits obviously left their mark, to our benefit. It's entirely possible that the series might never have got off the ground. From the outset BBC studio chiefs apparently thought the idea was ridiculous and bound to fail. Even after several episodes went to air critical reaction was mild. However, like so many other things that reached the status of classics, the series seems to have taken on a life of its own after its initial outing. It is certainly a frequent visitor to our TV screens (on more than one network), and obtaining VHS copies of the complete set was one of the most important objectives when I first obtained a VCR. Happily those tapes can now be discarded, and episodes can be watched now in any order thanks to this new DVD production.

   Series 1 - Episode 1 - A Touch of Class (30:21 min)

   Eager to attract a "better class of person" than the existing hotel guests he dismisses as riff raff, Basil places an advertisement in the Country Life magazine. It immediately gets results in the form of one Lord Melbry (Michael Gwynn), who gets the usual Fawlty treatment until he makes known his rank while checking in. One of the defining characteristics of Basil is his naked ambition to lift himself socially by mixing with the upper classes. This theme recurs frequently throughout the series, and the fact that Basil is such a crude, ignorant and intensely objectionable human being makes the idea (and the series itself) so funny. Basil proceeds to fawn all over Melbry while casting scorn and derision over the other guests, principally Mr Brown (Robin Ellis) who doesn't have sufficient formality in him to suit Basil's idea of a cultured gentleman (despite his ability to converse with Manuel in fluent Spanish). This leads in one part to Basil agreeing to part with 200 quid to His Lordship, and in another to hand over his valued coin collection. He ends up looking a complete fool, but that's only natural.

   There's some wonderful comedic moments in this episode. It's made all the more remarkable because, although this is the first episode in the series, Basil already has all of the traits that make him one of the great comic characters ever created. He's rude, vapid, gullible and aggressive.

   Series 1 - Episode 2 - The Builders (28:14 min)

   Not only does Basil suffer from being rude, ignorant and pretentious, he exacerbates all this by also being cheap. As a result, when building work needs to be done at the hotel, whether it's repair to a garden wall or modifications to doorways inside the foyer, he calls on the services of a dodgy builder by the name of O'Rielly (David Kelly). Although this is in fact directly against Sybil's specific instructions, Basil reckons that with both Sybil and he away for the night, O'Rielly can come in, get the job done and no-one will ever know. With Manuel and Polly left in charge, this is just too much to hope for. O'Rielly's men actually end up boarding in the only internal doorway into the hotel's dining room and putting a door on the stair well where no door was required. Being too stupid to admit his mistake and refusing to pay any more money, Basil gets O'Rielly to fix the problem. Obviously, it just all keeps getting worse.

   There are some great laughs throughout this episode, although it doesn't reach the manic levels of comedy reached by several of the other offerings. A real treat for lovers of garden gnomes.

   Series 1 - Episode 3 - The Wedding Party (33:20 min)

   Another opportunity to explore one of Basil's little character traits! And this turns out to be one of the gems of the series too. The show starts off in the usual relaxed fashion, with Basil being flirted with by the slightly more than friendly French woman, Mrs Peignoir (Yvonne Gilan). He shows just how singularly ill equipped he is to deal with the attentions of a woman and moves on to abuse Polly for her lewd behaviour and clothing. Obviously the episode is going to revolve around the topic of sex, or at least the suggestion of it. And this is provided in spades by a young couple who checks into the hotel, apparently intent on more than just a night's sleep. Basil immediately jumps to conclusions and refuses to give them a double room, or even two single rooms on the same floor on the basis that "it's against the law of England!" Sybil comes to their rescue, and the scene is set for a remarkable 30 minutes of pure farce as Basil tries and fails to come to grips with his world as it seems to dissolve into moral depravity. The truth is that the rest of the world and the people in it are just fine and it's Basil's puritanical views and limited mindset that prevent him from perceiving them as such, or even imagining how normal people might behave together.

   Series 1 - Episode 4 - The Hotel Inspectors (28:48 min)

   After having established Basil during the first three episodes as an entirely tasteless and rude hotel manager, Cleese and Booth did something absolutely wonderful with the script - they forced him to suck up to his guests in the most humiliating fashion possible. The episode begins, typically enough, with Basil virtually refusing to help a guest with directions on getting around town. The fact that this guest is a little on the eccentric and annoying side just makes his reception all the funnier. Just to ensure that the level of service at the hotel is understood by guests and viewers alike, we also have Manuel completely botching an attempt to seat another guest at a table for lunch. So we have the perfect setup for the news that there are some hotel inspectors in town! Basil greets the news with panic, and then tries to guess which of his guests might be checking up on him. His behaviour towards each of them becomes completely erratic, ranging from scorn to pitiful pleading, though his true nature is never far from the surface. He eventually figures it out, but not before he gets his own back on an "imposter".

   Series 1 - Episode 5 - Gourmet Night (28:37 min)

   This episode pursues Basil's continuing desire to improve the social standing of his hotel, this time by hosting a series of black tie gourmet dinner evenings. He's got a quality chef, he's got the black tie, and he's got an advertisement in the local newspaper that proclaims "no riff-raff". With a line like that his clientele stays away in droves, and he ends up with only two couples for the inaugural night. A disaster ensues, not through Basil's doing, but rather because the Greek chef falls in love with Manuel. Alas, Manuel's tastes are a little straighter than those of the chef, who promptly drinks himself to oblivion. The rest of the show revolves around the notion of a gourmet night in the absence of gourmet food.

   I personally find this the weakest of all 12 episodes, largely because the comedy seems more forced and reliant on in-gags and relatively unfunny physical humour. Perhaps the idea just didn't have enough in it to sustain a full 30 minutes of story. Of course, it probably contains more than enough for a full season of your average modern TV sitcom.

   Series 1 - Episode 6 - The Germans (31:15 min)

   Now we come to a veritable comedic icon. The first season of the show ended on a triumphal note with this episode with some of the cleverest comedy writing I think has ever been produced in any medium. In fact the Germans of the title appear only in the final few minutes of the episode. Their scene proves to be a nexus of several intertwining plot lines, each of which are outrageously funny in their writing and performances. The manner in which they are managed throughout the full 30 minutes to then reach their conclusions back in the hotel is a magnificent example of the supreme skill of the writers. Long after you've memorised the lines of dialogue this show will continue to produce solid laughs because of the way in which, in particular, Basil, Manuel and the Major perform their roles. This sort of writing and performance never ages.

   If, for some remarkable reason, you've never seen this episode, the story begins with Sybil in hospital preparing to have an ingrown toenail removed. Basil is left in charge, and following accidents with a stuffed moose head, a fire in the kitchen, a fire extinguisher and falling over Manuel, he ends up in hospital suffering from concussion. This leaves him, if anything, even less pleasant than usual, as his thin veneer of self control drops away to allow him to liberally spread insults to all those around him. The final few minutes are a tour de force of comedy writing and acting as Basil attempts to wait on a group of German tourists. The phrase "don't mention the war" has entered the English language as a figure of speech from this episode.

   Series 2 - Episode 1 - Communication Problems (31:24 min)

    It had been four years since the end of the first series of the show, and the greatest worry about beginning another series was that nothing could live up to the brilliance of the previous work. This worry was blown away, so much so that I don't think anyone ever even considers the whole 12 episodes to be made up of different series. In any case, in this return episode, Cleese and Booth created a monster character to rival that of Basil, Mrs Richards (Joan Sanderson) and installed her as a guest in the hotel. Her personality and the demands she makes of all the staff begin to generate sympathy even for Basil. Her comment that the views of Torquay from her room window are "not good enough" gives Basil one of his best lines of the entire series, as he questions what she expected to see out of a Torquay hotel room. In the end the plot gets just a tad too messy and contrived for my liking, but nevertheless this remains riveting viewing.

   Series 2 - Episode 2 - The Psychiatrist (36:18 min)

   This is one of my favourite episodes. Nothing seems to extract quite the same magic mixture of behaviour and reaction from Basil as when a doctor is around, and in this case we have two doctors. The psychiatrist of the title brings out a violent paranoia in Basil as he believes that he and the whole staff are being watched. Moreover he links psychiatry to the study of sex, and when he's asked "how often do you manage it?" we have another magic Fawlty moment. What I find so wonderful about this episode (as with several others) is that it manages to weave multiple interlinked stories together so effortlessly in such a short space of time. The appearance of a young and attractive Aussie guest (call that an Australian accent?) and another young guy looking for a good time taxes Basil's brain beyond its limits.

    Series 2 - Episode 3 - Waldorf Salad (32:03 min)

   Basil pockets 20 quid from an American guest (Bruce Boa - a busy actor seen shortly after this series was first aired as General Rieekan in The Empire Strikes Back) to keep the kitchen open while the whole of the staff depart for the night. Americans being Americans, he's far more demanding of service than are the English, and after Basil stuffs up the ordering of two screwdrivers ("so you won't have a drink then?") and a waldorf salad he cops it in "the bottom". A great episode made up of classic comedy without the props of fancy scene changes or camera work. Also see Terence Conoley make a repeat appearance as a hotel guest after also appearing in the pilot episode.

   Series 2 - Episode 4 - The Kipper and the Corpse (31:33 min)

   In his interview John Cleese refers to a comment he had from a hotel worker once to the effect that the biggest problems hotels had is with all the stiffs. This becomes the central theme in this episode as Basil and his staff have to deal with a dead guest. Basil's initial fear is that it was a bad kipper in the breakfast that did the damage, and his show of relief when it turns out that the guest actually died through the night is just marvelous. How many sight gags can you generate with a dead body? More than enough to fill a 30 minute episode.

   Series 2 - Episode 5 - The Anniversary (29:08 min)

   John Cleese describes this as being probably the best episode, largely because the cast had an extra week's rehearsal time following a strike amongst the BBC technical staff at the time. The plot revolves around Basil and Sybil's wedding anniversary, which Basil feigns to forget to suit his plans for a surprise party. Sybil leaves in disgust just in time to miss all her friends arriving. The rest of the episode follows Basil's attempts to cover up Sybil's absence.

   Series 2 - Episode 6 - Basil The Rat (33:45 min)

   It must have been quite a dilemma to decide the manner of ending for the series and the characters. In the event, it was obviously decided to finish the same way as every episode finished - with farce. On a slight twist of the earlier Hotel Inspector episode, this one combines the appearance of a Health Inspector with Manuel's pet rat (although he maintains that it's a rare Siberian hamster) whose name is, appropriately enough, Basil. Perhaps the hotel does get closed down, after Basil the Rat manages to escape and end up on the Health Inspector's plate, but I guess we'll never know.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    In spite of the many technical faults I comment on in the following paragraphs, let me begin by saying this is far and away the best I've ever seen this material look. Really, that should be sufficient for anyone who has even remotely considered purchasing this programme on the basis of what they have enjoyed on TV or VHS. We are, after all, seeing a faithful (probably even a quality) representation of the original material as it first existed. It's difficult to ask for more of any transfer. Nevertheless, Fawlty Towers is a made-for-TV studio produced sitcom. All studio footage (all of the interior scenes) were recorded on studio quality video tape. Exterior scenes were captured on 16mm film stock. Further, it is now up to 26 years old. These facts have a bearing on all the comments regarding picture and sound quality.

   The picture is in its original 1.33:1 full screen format, and therefore has no need for 16x9 enhancement. The most immediate reaction when playing an episode is to note how sharp and well defined the picture is, at least for video material. It obviously benefits from the use of studio cameras, lighting and tape equipment. This results in considerable detail being visible, down to the heavy stage makeup that the women, especially, are wearing. However, by any absolute measurement the picture suffers from many faults. The video image is very soft for all but the closest of closeups and there is frequent shimmer along edges and clothing patterns. Colour blooming is often evident, and camera movement across bright light causes a particularly violent form of colour flaring (see 17:00 in Series 1, Episode 6 for the best example of this effect). The lack of shadow detail is minimised by the bright studio lighting producing only limited and shallow shadows. External scenes captured on 16mm film fare worse than the video footage in most respects. Considerable grain is evident in these shots and contrast levels are quite high, producing a harsh effect that is quite noticeable compared to the studio work. There is no low level noise apparent.

   In the main the colour palette is flat, probably largely due to the bright studio lighting. Sybil manages to brighten up the picture with some of her bold costume colourings. Of course, video isn't the ideal format for displaying a rich colour selection, and an aging English hotel isn't exactly going to have an overabundance of colour anyway. Flesh tones are similarly washed out in spite of the heavy levels of makeup referred to earlier.

   There are no compression artefacts to note. With only three hours of material on each disc this is as it should be. The transfer seems to do a good job of capturing the source material in all its glory.

   Each of the two discs containing the shows is formatted as an Dual Layered disc. I couldn't detect any layer changes, and presume that they're properly located between episodes.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    What can one say about the audio for a TV show that relies on dialogue and visual humour for its very basis?

   We have a single English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Frankly, attempting to dub Basil's tirades into another language with any other actor would be entirely futile (although a German dub would be interesting for THAT episode), so this situation would seem to be satisfactory. Importantly, dialogue is always clear and in sync. Music is close to non-existent except for the very well known opening and closing titles. Audio frequencies don't go any where near levels that even start interesting a sub-woofer, and the surround channels are silent. However the stereo sound stage is wide enough to offer an open and natural effect. Again, given the nature of the material, we can really ask for no more.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu Audio & Animation

   

Scene Selection Anim & Audio

   

Audio Commentary - John Howard Davies (Director - Series 1)

    Oh dear. I've always taken it for granted that an Audio Commentary contains substantial amounts of both audio and commentary. Obviously John Davies has other ideas. His comments are meager - so meager in fact that I decided to time his effort for episode 3. Including momentary breaks between sentences he managed to clock up only 7:18 minutes worth of comments. This was in an episode that lasted over 33 minutes! The rest of it contains no audio at all - even the dialogue has been cut out (although it's still there oh so softly, perhaps that's the residual of what Davies is getting through his own headphones.) What he does have to say is occasionally nasty and surprisingly dismissive of the material. At one point he describes it as being good enough to just warrant a second viewing - just. One would think he'd be a little prouder of his work. All in all this is a terrible bit of material to present on a DVD set such as this.

Audio Commentary - Bob Spiers (Director - Series 2)

    This is far better, although roughly three hours is far more than Bob Spiers really has to offer. His comments tend to be largely technical (camera shots, sets, props, scripting and editing). Having John Cleese alongside would really have been a treasure.

Interview-Cast

    Presented in full frame (4:3) format and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Running time is 83:29 minutes. There are three interviews included in the set.
  1. John Cleese: This is an excellent, virtually compulsory, companion to the Fawlty Towers collection. In this extended interview carried out in 1999 (i.e. unrelated to the production of the DVD), John Cleese discusses an extensive range of topics including the inspirational sources of the characters and stories, the philosophy of comedy and his own background. The style is relaxed and friendly, which throws into stark contrast the differences between this civil gentleman and the character that he describes as a horrible, horrible man. Mention is made of a plot idea for a Basil Fawlty film, and ample justification is given for the limiting of the franchise to the 12 wonderful episodes that we have.
  2. Prunella Scales: This is a made-for-DVD interview which, unfortunately, bears little similarity to the above. The interviewing style is basic and the compilation of camera shots is quite frantic. The clearest message delivered is that Prunella Scales is certainly not Sybil. Several scenes from the series are cut into the interview to illustrate certain comments. Just to confirm the general quality of the interview, watch as Scales does well to hide a yawn at 6:57.
  3. Andrew Sachs: Same style, same interviewer, same scenery, same questions as above. The topic that most caught my attention was when Andrew Sachs discussed an injury he sustained on the Fawlty Towers set during the fire series, when smoke generating chemicals burnt his whole right arm and left him in significant pain for the following few weeks. It was also news to me that Sachs didn't move to the UK until he was several years old. English is therefore his second language after his native German.

Biographies - Cast

    Features audio bios of the series' principal and guest actors. Interestingly, while each actor's list of film and stage achievements is shown on screen their actual bios are provided by voice on the audio track. Several little clues show that an American audience is the prime target (didn't the DVD producers think Americans can read?).

Featurette - Torquay Tourist Guide

    Presented in full frame (4:3) format and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Running time is 11:39 minutes. Not actually a Torquay tourist guide, this interesting and most worthwhile little piece covers a major part of the background story that inspired Fawlty Towers. Apparently the entire Monty Python gang once stayed in Torquay at the Hotel Gleneagle, a relatively good hotel run by what John Cleese describes as the rudest man he has ever met. A number of people are interviewed and their stories provide remarkable similarities between many of Basil Fawlty's antics and those of the Gleneagle's manager. Curiously, you'll hear reference made to "Gleneagles" in Episode 2 of the series.

Featurette-Cheap Tatty Review

    Presented in full frame (4:3) format and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Running time is 1:00 minutes. I don't really know what this is! It's a lead in by Basil Fawlty to a Cheap Tatty Review, but just what that is I'm none the wiser. Watch and wonder.

Outtakes

    Presented in full frame (4:3) format and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Running time is 1:36 minutes. These are very funny but all too short. We basically have a small number of shots of funny faces and fluffed lines but before we get going it's all over. Picture quality is acceptable.

Easter Egg-The Grange/Fawlty Towers

    Presented in full frame (4:3) format and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Running time is 2:30 minutes. This poignant short film shows the fate of the Grange Country Club, the building that provided the exterior face for Basil's hotel and which was destroyed by fire during the early 1990s. Clearly its association with such a well loved show was not enough to save it.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Reviews for overseas versions of this DVD set are fairly scarce. However, it is quite clear that the format of the Region 1 set is different from ours in that the 12 episodes are spread over the three discs, with extras interspersed throughout. Based on some fairly strong suggestion, I can say the following. The Region 4 version of this disc misses out on:

    I have no idea what the "Successful Marriage" featurette is, so can give no firm recommendation as to version.

Summary

    Let's face it: you've loved Fawlty Towers for 25 years and have endured it on a range of media that have never surpassed this version. Just buy the DVD and enjoy it forever.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Murray Glase (read my bio)
Wednesday, November 21, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba SD-K310, using S-Video output
DisplayPioneer SD-T43W1 (125cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationPioneer VSX-D906S
SpeakersRichter Wizard (front), Jamo SAT150 (rear), Yamaha YST-SW120 (subwoofer)

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Comments (Add)
Cheap Tatty Review - Alex H (My biography...in 500 words or less!)
Region 2 DVD -
Audio during commentary -