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January 12, 2010 • Reviews

DVD Box Set Review: Complete Fawlty Towers Collection

… or was that WA RTY TOWELS … or perhaps WATERY FOWLS … or maybe even FLAY OTTERS? Whatever the sign outside said, you knew that once inside the lobby you were in for some hilarious and cringe-worthy shenanigans with Basil Fawlty and the rest of the gang! Now you can enjoy all twelve episodes in a three-disk collection that also includes gobs of extras!

The Hype:

Coming to Special Edition DVD for the first time, it’s the complete Fawlty Towers collection with all-new commentary from John Cleese! Hot off the runaway success of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese embarked on his now-legendary sitcom, Fawlty Towers, creating one of the most memorable and best loved characters in all of British comedy, Basil Fawlty. Basil Fawlty is a much put-upon, hard-working hotel manager whose life is plagued by dead guests, hotel inspectors, and riff-raff. Of course his biggest headache is his “little nest of vipers,” his nagging wife Sibyl. Together they run their hotel, Fawlty Towers, with a little help from the unflappable Polly and the trainee waiter from Barcelona with marginally more intelligence than a monkey, Manuel.

-Exclusive commentary by John Cleese
-2009 extended interviews, including exclusive interview with Connie Booth
-Accompanying booklet
-Interviews with John Cleese, Prunella Scales, and Andrew Sachs
-Series 1 director’s commentary by John Howard Davies
-Series 2 director’s commentary by Bob Spiers
-Artist profiles
-Outtakes
-Torquay Tourist Guide (short documentary film)
-Cheap Tatty Review

The Reality:
Way back in the 1970’s, John Cleese was coming off of a hugely successful run with the legendary Monty Python’s Flying Circus and launched a new series on BBC called Fawlty Towers. While it has come to be regarded as one of classic comedies, it only ran two short seasons before stopping production.

In fact, those two seasons spanned four years from 1975 to 1979, at which point Connie Booth (John Cleese’s wife at the time) wanted to be done and Cleese supported her and the show ended. The first six episodes ran in the fall of 1975, and the last six began in the spring og 1979 but were interrupted by a BBC strike, delaying the final episode until October of that year.

Notice I didn’t say ‘canceled’, as the show had actually become a critical darling after getting some fairly negative press with the first episode. But it was a huge hit with British fans, and was tremendously successful on public television when it came to the US. By the second episode many newspapers were clamoring about how funny the show was.

The show was highly innovative when it aired but the concept no longer feels fresh due to how many other shows have copied it in one way or another. One of the major novelties was having such a dysfunctional family at the heart of a comedy. Writers for shows such as Third Rock from the Sun cite Fawlty Towers as a strong influence. The hotel setting was translated and re-imagined by Bob Newhart as the classic 80’s show Newhart.

Cleese plays as inn-owner Basil Fawlty, who desperately wants to position himself above his station in life and stumbles all over himself in attempts to do so. His wife is stable and steadfast, forcing Basil to constantly try to scheme around her – generally with predictably messy and uncomfortable results.

While I have watched Fawlty Towers occasionally since first seeing the whole run when it came to public television in the late 70’s, this DVD collection marked the first time my wife and kids had watched it. Their opinions were highly mixed – my kids are both huge John Cleese fans from Monty Python, so his humor and style were something they enjoyed, as was the bulk of the writing and the small subtleties (such as the ever-changing front sign).

But the entire series depends on taking a ride through uncomfortable situation after situation. We watched the first episode and everyone enjoyed it, but by the middle of the second episode everyone was a bit frazzled already from the constant tension. It didn’t help that years of influence and emulation of the many scenarios in different shows often made it clear what to expect – and it was never going to go well for Basil! We ended up watching single episodes scattered across weeks and enjoyed it much more that way. This is in direct contrast with a show like Police Squad, which is easy to sit through all six episodes in succession – and we have.

Technically the DVD remasters are flawless, looking great on our large HDTV and sounding excellent on our home theater system. As is the case with most television shows of the era, it is clearly dated and has some minor lighting issues, but on whole it was originally well produced and has been nicely maintained and works extremely well in a ‘high definition’ setting.

In terms of the added content, the third DVD is loaded up with extras to satisfy any fan of the series – and as always, that is the only reason to grab these collections anyway! Listening to the original stars reminisce and comment and laugh at memories and details of what happened is a load of fun, and seeing the actual area that was represented in the show are items was a great bonus.

I had really looked forward to sharing this series with my family, but while the collection was technically excellent, the experience didn’t live up to my expectations. It isn’t just that the comedic style made it difficult for the family to watch all at once, but rather that the overall quality of the shows didn’t live up to my memories of watching them in the past. It has been perhaps twenty years since I have seen all of them from start to finish, and during that time Fawlty Towers hasn’t aged all that well. While the same is true with many other shows (Newhart and Barney Miller come to mind), it was disappointing in light of the love my kids have for Monty Python and John Cleese.

So my recommendation is to approach this collection with some caution – it is an excellent collection of an excellent show, but if you are a viewer who saw these originally in the 70’s, don’t expect the same cutting edge feel. If you are a new viewer, you should appreciate getting treated to a real milestone in comedic television.

Where to Buy:Amazon.com

Price: $31.99

What I Like:
– One of the all-time classics of comedy nicely remastered
– Great visuals and sound for HDTV & home theaters
– Loads of extras

What Needs Improvement:
– Newcomers might miss the novelty due to widespread influence / copying
– If you don’t like the comedy of uncomfortable situations you’ll hate this show.

3 Responses to " DVD Box Set Review: Complete Fawlty Towers Collection "

  1. breley says:

    “Must…not…mention…the…war!” “Manuel!!” “Que?”
    I used to watch this series with my parents when I was a youngster, and it kept us in stitches. My father and I still toss Fawlty one-liners at each other on occasion, and I know they’d love to have a copy of the complete series.

    Just the other day at a multinational store called Jungle Jims here in Cincinnati I came across some salad cream (like our mayonnaise a bit), and was reminded of the show where Basil is trying to upscale his restaurant and is accosted by a spoiled brat named Ronald not liking the chips (Smarty shape? Amphibious landing craft shape?) and wanting salad cream. It’s scary how much I remember from nearly 30 years ago!

  2. Allistair Lee says:

    GD: DVD Box Set Review: Complete Fawlty Towers Collection http://bit.ly/4OMqyA

  3. RT: @GearDiarySite: DVD Box Set Review: Complete Fawlty Towers Collection http://goo.gl/fb/UcAu

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