In a recent interview, writer Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill”) hailed “Fawlty Towers” as “the greatest farce ever written in the English language.” That may be an overstatement, but when you consider that there were only 12 episodes of the series, “Fawlty” probably averages more laughs per minute than any other sitcom in TV history. And BBC Video has assembled a smart package of extras that enhances enjoyment of the original material without overwhelming it.
There are three disks, each with four digitally remastered episodes (divided into eight chapters apiece) of the sitcom about the seaside hotel run by the appalling Basil Fawlty and his disdainful wife, Sybil.
Of the three hours of added features, the best are the three interviews (one on each disk) with writer-performer John Cleese. He attributes the series’ success to the fact that each script contained 120-130 pages and each seg had 400 camera cuts — twice the amount of most half-hour sitcoms — and the creative team averaged 20-25 hours editing each segment. But aside from discussing the series, the ever-entertaining Cleese wittily veers off into such side topics as theories of comedy, psychotherapy and sexual anxiety.
Also included are interviews with cast regulars Prunella Scales and Andrew Sachs, who are charming (and charmingly unlike their characters), despite annoying interview questions and arbitrary camera angles.
Oddly absent is Connie Booth, who co-wrote and co-starred in the series with Cleese. (They were married when the six episodes were taped in 1975; they divorced in 1978, a year before the final six segs were produced.)
There also is a humorous docu chronicling the genesis of the series. While filming in the seaside resort of Torquay in 1971, members of the “Monty Python” troupe stayed at the Hotel Gleneagles, run by Donald Sinclair, described by a colleague as a “peppery little man” who felt the presence of hotel guests “spoiled his job.”
The other Pythonites quickly changed hotels, but Cleese stayed on, fascinated by “the rudest man I ever met. He was wonderful.” To this day, the Gleneagles is considered “a shrine,” says one local, but many concede the town feels a slight embarrassment when “Fawlty” is invoked.
Other DVD extras include a who’s who in the cast; 90 seconds of outtakes (would that there were more!); montages of comic moments (under the titles “How to Manage Your Staff,” “Tips for a Successful Marriage” and “Customer Service Tips”); and French, German and English subtitles.
There is also a brief, hilariously macabre film that explores the country club used for “Fawlty” exteriors — after it was destroyed by a 1991 fire.
Plus each seg has a director’s commentary from John Howard Davies or Bob Spiers. The audio sessions were over-miked, with the helmers occasionally heard wheezing into the microphone for long stretches without speaking, or loudly slurping something. But they offer insights into lighting, camera moves and performances on their respective episodes. And there are funny bits, like Spiers pointing out a boom mike peeking into view or a shaky wall on the set. And Davies, during a scene of Sybil in bed, exclaims, “Look at that wonderful nightie! Put you off sex for a year, wouldn’t it?”