Whether ten years old or close to a hundred, we have all seen Fawlty Towers at some point in our lives. We have either binge watched the series, casually caught it on a satellite channel or streaming service, or even seen clips on one of the many comedy panel or discussion shows over the years with talking heads discussing the brilliance of John Cleese’s monstrous creation Basil Fawlty.
What, though, is Fawlty Towers really *about*? What are all our comedies *about*, whether in the UK with a long-standing tradition of legendary comedic creations or the US with their penchant for long-running, familiar series? Every drama is about something and comedy is no different. The jokes are born from an idea or theme or societal construct the writer is looking to explore. One Foot in the Grave, which I’m currently examining episode by episode, sees David Renwick unpicking the listlessness of the working man at the tail end of Thatcherite neoliberalism after Victor Meldrew is displaced by a heartless corporate system. Only Fools and Horses was a fantasy of working class meritocracy, of Derek, and in a different way Rodney, Trotter overcoming their background of poverty and struggle to try and prove their worth within an elitist class system where the deck is stacked against them.
Following the surge of protests across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there has been a swift trickle-down effect in terms of racial politics which has proven, this week, to be on some level ‘knee-jerk’. Britbox and BBC iPlayer started by removing the 2000’s Matt Lucas & David Walliams’ series Little Britain, which was always festooned with sketches that were politically incorrect even back then, citing that “times have changed”, while Netflix subsequently pulled The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh as both display characters who engage in what would be termed ‘blackface’. Catch up service UKTV subsequently removed the well-known Fawlty Towers episode The Germans, featuring Basil’s infamous line “Don’t mention the war!”, due to the overt racism displayed by the character, and the use of racial slurs by an ageing colonial character. This has been questioned by some who feel the reactionary cultural politics of the moment has gone too far.
I’m wondering the same. I understand some of these examples. The Germans, however, is an example in which context is missing, and with comedy, context is king.
Fawlty Towers is, chiefly, about good old fashioned British repression, and indeed a neo-colonial repression during a 1970’s clinging onto the last vestiges of already-dead Empire.
Basil encompasses the ‘little Englander’ to a tee; a stiff-backed, elitist coward from, likely, a middle-class background who has the whiff of retired military man about his bearing, even though he almost certainly never served (there is a consistent joke where he uses a Korean War wound to get out of things he doesn’t want to do, allowing for the brilliant quip from his wife Sybil “he was in the catering corps, he used to poison them”). He instantly despises anyone working-class, including his wife who likely married him in the early 60’s believing he would make her ‘upwardly mobile’, and lionises anyone upper class, such as the doddering old Major who lives eternally at his quaint Torquay hotel.
If Only Fools and Horses is about the working man proving himself to the elitists in the midst of Thatcherism, Fawlty Towers is about a false, deluded elitist who wants to live in a bygone age in the wake of us entering the European community.
Basil doesn’t just hate people from different countries (such as his Spanish stooge Manuel, who he routinely physically and mentally abuses), but he hates anyone who represents social and sexual counterculture that runs against his repressive, British colonial views. The Wedding Party is the chief example, with Basil running around trying to prove his Canadian waitress Polly is sleeping with the father of a family she is friends with; his farcical misunderstanding serves only to expose his own sexual repression, as Sybil keeps catching him accidentally molesting at one point a beautiful Australian tourist. “Do you *really* think a girl like that could possibly be interested in an ageing, bryliantine stick insect like you?” she asks him in a put down which shows her equal antipathy. Theirs is the coldest marriage probably ever conveyed in comedy.
The Psychiatrist is the same, in which Basil attempts to both fete a pair of educated, middle-class psychiatrists while trying to prove Nicky Henson’s swaggering, openly masculine (and from modern eyes, quite ridiculous-looking) hunk Mr Johnson is sneaking women into his room. This only serves to prove to the psychiatrists how mad he is. “There’s enough material there for an entire conference” one quips. Consistently, Fawlty Towers places the humour on Basil. You are always, in every episode, laughing at his complete inability to read social situations, to react in any way appropriately to any guest or member of his staff, and the extreme methods he goes to in order to prove he’s right about any number of sexual or psychological or indeed racial problems he has with his guests. Basil’s ignorance and prejudice fuels the entire series. Manuel is sympathetic, Polly (herself an immigrant) put upon, and while Sybil may be viperish, she would undoubtedly be happier away from her awful husband.
Granted, the show does at times reflect the 70’s quite laissez-faire approach to racial stereotypes. The Builders certainly buys into the negative idea of the ‘lazy Mick’ with Mr O’Reilly, the befuddled Irish cowboy builder who Basil gets in to essentially wreck the hotel, while the African doctor in The Germans does have a whiff of the ‘perfect black man’ about him, a touch of the Sidney Poitier-style ‘intelligent black saviour’ which was as patronising and, in its own way, homogenised and racist as a negative stereotype at the time. Did it also need to have the Major use racial slurs such as the ‘n’ or ‘w’ word in relation to ‘West Indians’? Probably not. It’s the most outdated, unnecessary scene in the show, even if it’s designed to display an even deeper prejudice from the Major–a genuine colonial throwback–than Basil himself. Beyond that, however, The Germans—the episode now banned, at least temporarily—is the chief example of Basil’s neo-colonial prejudice, of his inability to detach from a racist class system.
While Cleese perhaps lets him off slightly by having Basil suffering from a medical delirium for the final act, Basil obsesses about not mentioning World War 2 to their German guests, then constantly does, before goose-stepping around the hotel in probably the most famous clip from the entire series.
This episode is many things—funny, chiefly, being one of them—but it is not racist.
The Germans encapsulates why Fawlty Towers is actually very self-aware in terms of the social and psychological politics of the post-war period, particularly in relation to many of the other comedies on British TV at the time. We are not laughing at Basil making his German guests cry and when claiming they started it, his retort after they refuse this: “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”, we are laughing at the horror of how politically incorrect Basil is. Our laughter is reactionary in sympathy with his guests, who are portrayed as perfectly nice, normal people who are being not just abused by Basil’s horrendous, English colonial racist attitudes, but traumatised by invoking memories of war and loss they would have experienced as younger people. The Germans paints Basil as the abuser, and this is the key context banning this episode has missed.
Fawlty Towers was a show constructed on defeating the kind of stereotypes many ‘comedies’ at the time would reinforce. While Johnny Speight might have intended Alf Garnett in Til’ Death Us Do Part (and later in the 80’s in In Sickness and in Health) to be a bigot we should reject, his openly racist vitriol was lionised by less progressive parts of society who rejected multiculturalism which arrived in the UK during the 1950’s, and bought into the myth of the ‘foreigner coming over and taking our jobs & women’ etc… Love Thy Neighbour mines too much humour out of Jack Smethurst’s horror at living next to Rudolph Walker’s Caribbean family, again reinforcing the stereotype of not wanting to live next door to a black family. Are You Being Served?, while not dealing as much in racial politics, is from modern eyes terrifyingly homophobic and even transphobic in how it portrays John Inman’s Mr Humphries. Most heinous is perhaps Curry & Chips, a short-lived show (again written by Speight), that outraged viewers even in 1969, in which Spike Milligan, in full blackface, plays a character who is literally nicknamed ‘Paki Paddy’.
All of these examples should be, largely, consigned to the comedic dustbin of history. Only halcyon members from a largely deceased generation keep shows like Til’ Death or Are You Being Served? alive now, shows which have long been venerated. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s with them being widely shown on UK Gold in repeats, as was Fawlty Towers or Only Fools, both shows which have at various points displayed racism, sexism and homophobia (Only Fools is particularly one for the latter).
But where do we draw the line? At what point does problematic become ‘cancelled’, as the term goes? HBO Max, the new American streaming service, has removed Gone With the Wind until it can be placed within a new historical context where the overt racism is clarified for viewers, and this does make some sense. The film, a recognised American classic which even saw its black co-star Hattie McDaniel be the first African-American to win an Academy Award, has a key place in film history and should not be forgotten.
The same needs to be said for Fawlty Towers.
It is, unquestionably, one of the greatest sitcoms ever made, not just in Britain but the entire world. Some of the humour may have dated, but what it speaks to, frankly, has not. The ‘little Englander’ sub-culture and a veneration of Empire has only grown thanks to right-wing caricatures such as Nigel Farage and the subsequent Brexit fiasco. We even have a Prime Minister who wants to be Churchill, a previously inviolate historical figure now being talked about amongst those who are seeing their statues be torn down for representing racist or colonial historical attitudes that we look past in order to venerate their place in building modern Britain. Modern Britain, however, is not perfect. It is riven with societal issues, class warfare, cultural divides and rampant inequality, and these symbols simply underscore how the Western world is now amidst a Cultural Cold War: largely youthful, liberal metropolitan attitudes on one side and post-colonial, conservative beliefs on the other.
You can understand why Little Britain might be removed, or at least perhaps re-edited to remove the instances of ‘blackface’ or characters such as ‘Ting-Tong’ (which wasn’t funny back then). As much as I admit, I did used to laugh at Little Britain, there is no doubt the comedy is punching down at minorities, reinforcing stereotypes and cruelly utilising others’ misfortunes for comedy purposes. Even co-star David Walliams has disavowed some aspects of it these days. You can understand why the litany of 60’s or 70’s series which have become culturally unpalatable to a more progressive, empathetic and multicultural society have been now filed away as historical artefacts best left untouched. But we must be careful at how we approach shows such as The Mighty Boosh or The League of Gentlemen, in which the instances that could be classed as racist have to be placed in context and if done so, do not fall into any kind of prejudice bracket. Audiences have the ability to discern genuine racism from contextual use, and should be trusted to do so.
We veer too close to outright censorship if we push this too far. It would be in line with the intended Conservative party pornography restrictions, which were downright Draconian and we may not have seen the back of. Comedy is entirely subjective and contextual but we cannot reach a point where we become so afraid of offence that we shut down anything where nuance is key. If The Germans might have, to some, racially offensive content, add a warning before the episode starts and allow the public to make up their own minds as to whether they engage or not. I suspect most people have the intelligence to understand the racism or bigotry espoused by characters such as Basil, or Alan Partridge, or The Office’s David Brent, is designed to reflect their ‘little Englander’ prejudice and is written so the joke is very much on them, and they as characters are designed to look stupid for reinforcing such outdated racial views.
This is probably a long winded way of me saying, let’s not cancel comedy from decades past just yet for the purposes of firing a shot in our culture war. Fawlty Towers is too good, and too important to our cultural history, to live next to Curry & Chips.