Hugh Grant has been very active in U.K. press reform initiatives, but he knows the problem is even bigger than the media moguls who control the world’s major news outlets. That’s why Hacked Off, the campaign he’s involved with, is also expanding its scope to include the impact of online propaganda.
“It’s particularly terrifying, the triumph of technology over democracy,” Grant told Variety‘s “My Favorite Episode” podcast. “You realize, Trump couldn’t have happened without Facebook manipulation, and Brexit couldn’t have happened without it. It’s all the ability now, people with enough money and resources, to manipulate swing voters through very highly tailored Facebook ads.”
Grant’s solution: “I would just pull the plug on social media,” he said. “I look at the pluses and minuses, and to me the minuses way outweigh the pluses. We had perfectly decent lives before social media. At the very minimum, I would take away anonymity from social media posts.”
Hacked Off’s main focus, however, has been the power of a very few “extremely rich” press barons, including Rupert Murdoch, David and Frederick Barclay, and Richard Desmond. “These people have been running the country for decades and so Hacked Off was about, ‘is that a good thing?’ And it was also an initially, specifically about the power of those newspapers to behave in any way they wanted, without regard to innocent people.”
Among the people he’s worked with on Hacked Off is John Cleese, the British comedy icon who’s also behind one of his favorite series of all time, the classic “Fawlty Towers.”
“My Favorite Episode” sat down with Grant recently to discuss his love of “Fawlty Towers,” how he’s still learning how to stream TV, and how his Amazon limited series, “A Very English Scandal,” still feels resonant today. Listen below.
Grant’s pick for favorite episode is “Gourmet Night,” the fifth episode from season 1 of “Fawlty Towers.”
Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth and directed by John Howard Davies, the episode first aired on October 17, 1975.
In the episode, Basil Fawlty (Cleese) launches a fine dining night at the hotel — but when his new chef winds up drunk, Basil must go out and bring in food from elsewhere. Through a series of increasingly ridiculous circumstances — including a broken car, a kitchen mix-up and various attempts to cover it all up, things go from bad to worse.
“I had a girlfriend once who thought that ‘Fawlty Towers’ was so good that there was no point in watching anything else ever,” Grant said. “It was so brilliantly funny. It hits a particular sweet spot of Englishness, English torture that has never been hit quite so accurately before or since. As a teenager in London, the big treat of the week was ‘Monty Python.’ And then John Cleese went on to do ‘Fawlty Towers,’ so that then became the thing that you quoted all day long to everyone else.”
Grant admitted that the influence of Cleese is so great that British actors frequently fall into the trap of imitating him without thinking about it. “The whole John Cleese persona, you have to be quite careful of it,” he said. “It creeps into one’s performances and other people’s performances all the time, and you suddenly realize, ‘Oh, Christ, I’m just doing John again!’ It’s very infectious.”
Despite the fact that he has become good friends with Cleese, Grant admitted that he doesn’t discuss “Fawlty Towers” with the star, lest he become one of those intrusive fans that Cleese doesn’t like. Instead, he continues to be a fan from afar. But there was once one exception.
“The same girlfriend I mentioned earlier, who was obsessed, did manage to get him to do that thing he does with his opening one eye,” Grant said. “It’s the episode where he’s in the hospital with a with a bandage around his head and it starts with him just opening one in a particularly manic way.”
Coincidentally, “Fawlty Towers” plays a small role in “A Very English Scandal,” which stars Grant as Jeremy Thorpe, who by the 1970s was the leader of the Liberal party and the youngest leader of any British political party in 100 years. But he was also a closeted gay man in a time when homosexuality had just been decriminalized, and it was a secret no politician could reveal. When his former lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), threatens to reveal their relationship, Thorpe’s career is at risk — and he tries to silence him.
“Fawlty Towers” happened to premiere in real life when the Thorpe scandal was unfolding.
“I think ‘Fawlty Towers’ couldn’t have existed in the ’80s, ’90s or the 21st century,” Grant said. “It is a creature of the 1970s, as is the Jeremy Thorpe story. It’s because, in both cases, it’s the last hurrah of the British establishment… Those little snobberies in ‘Fawlty Towers,’ and the trial of Jeremy Thorpe are quintessentially 1970s British.”
Only 12 episodes of “Fawlty Towers” were ever produced, although there were several attempts in the U.S. to adapt the show for American audiences. (All failed.) Asked whether he thinks “Fawlty Towers” should be remade, or if he’d even be interested in playing a new version of Basil Fawlty, Grant doesn’t hesitate to say no.
“Leave well enough alone,” he said.
Variety‘s “My Favorite Episode with Michael Schneider” is where stars and producers gather to discuss their favorite TV episodes ever — from classic sitcoms to modern-day dramas — as well as pick a favorite episode from their own series. On “My Favorite Episode,” some of the biggest names in TV share their creative inspirations — and how those episodes influenced them.
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Variety‘s “My Favorite Episode With Michael Schneider” is where stars and producers gather to discuss their favorite TV episodes ever — from classic sitcoms to modern-day dramas — as well as pick a favorite episode from their own series. On “My Favorite Episode,” some of the biggest names in TV share their creative inspirations — and how those episodes influenced them.