Weird as it sounds, one of the world’s greatest TV comedy series, Fawlty Towers, almost never made it to air, after BBC executives who read the script for the first episode gave it an emphatic thumbs down.
John Cleese and Connie Booth (married in real-life and co-scriptwriters) had taken nearly four months to write and perfect that first script. But when they submitted it to the BBC, it was dismissed by the comedy script editor as “a collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.”
And the head of TV Comedy told John Cleese “You’re going to have to get it out of the hotel, John. You can’t do the whole thing in a hotel…”
But thankfully the head of BBC TV Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton, stepped in and suggested that while he too “could see nothing funny in the scripts,” he trusted John Cleese to know what he was doing, and gave it the go-ahead.
Cleese told later how got the idea for Fawlty Towers in the early 1970s while staying at a hotel in Torquay. The hotel’s manager, he said, “was the rudest man I’ve come across in my life,” after the fellow threw a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus was due into town, and took another guest’s briefcase off him and put it behind an outside garden wall, “because it might have a bomb in it.”
And he abused an American guest in front of others at the breakfast table “for not having British table manners” in the way he used his knife and fork.
Other incidents and guests that John Cleese witnessed at the Torquay hotel were also the catalyst for Basil Fawlty’s wife Sybil, including a lady guest’s repetitive “Ooohhh I knoooooooow” while talking on the public telephone, and her braying laugh that was later assigned to Sybil, to be described by Basil as “like someone machine-gunning a seal.”
Fawlty Towers went on to rank No 1 on the list of The 100 Greatest British Television Programs in 2000, yet despite that, just 12 episodes were ever made, six in 1975 and another six in 1979.