If you're one of those Anglophiles who scours the television schedules for the latest British import, you probably imagine that the eccentric shows you come across on your public TV channel must be handcrafted with the utmost care. You'd be right, and you'd be wrong.
Take "Fawlty Towers," the comedy series about the most grotesque hotel in all England.The program's creator, co-writer and star, John Cleese, is allowed every freedom. He has cast approval, director approval, producer approval. If a half-hour episode tapes out at 36 minutes, that's all right. No joke is verboten. The BBC even gives him three years to write six scripts.
The catch comes when the time arrives to tape the shows. Each episode, requiring several hundred more camera movements than a "Mork and Mindy," must be camera-rehearsed and taped all in one day.
"I act in the thing only to keep someone else from screwing up the script," Cleese says. "I'd be happiest if someone would invent a machine to plug my head into a videotape machine. Instead, we have to go through those ghastly taping marathons every Sunday."
Cleese is another former gag-writer from David Frost, who found, as Marty Feldman did, that the best way to protect his writing is to speak his own lines.
"When I was writing sketches for "The Frost Report" 15 years ago, I had to accept that the writing wouldn't be performed as I wanted it to be. If a writer is 25 years old and no one's heard of him and he asks for something called artistic control, they laugh and say, 'Sorry, sonny, you can't have it'".
When "Monty Python's Flying Circus" became a hit in 1970, using the very material that had been rejected a few years earlier, Cleese made a discovery. "I spotted how the business works. It's about sordid things like power. I found that the better known I became, the more artistic control I had."
So that's why Cleese, all 6-foot, 5-inches of him, is lying down now on the floor in the middle of the "Fawlty Towers" set, catching a five-minute break in the middle of another horrendous Sunday. The day starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. They way the BBC system works, all the "artistic control" in the world can't buy the time for a less frenetic taping procedure.
No wonder Cleese is saying goodbye to his creation Basil Fawlty, the nastiest hotelier since the innkeeper of Bethlehem. The current series of six episodes will bring the grand total of Fawlties to 12, and it will be the end, except perhaps for one Christmas special. "I react badly to the sausage machine aspect of it," Cleese says. "I was the first to leave 'Monty Python.' I'm not prepared to sacrifice my life to 'Fawlty Towers,' successful as it is. I've got all I want."
"Fawlty Towers," to the 99 percent of America that Cleese figures has never seen or heard of it, is a sitcom set in a seaside hotel. The owner, Basil Fawlty, doesn't know the meaning of the word "service." To a guest who complains, he says, "If you give us any more trouble, I shall visit you in the midnight hour and put a bat up your nightdress."
Basil has a wife who doesn't understand him and a Spanish waiter who can't understand him. Only the chambermaid tries to be nice to him, perhaps because she's played by Connie Booth, Cleese's former wife, who continues to collaborate on scripts with him.
The program is marked by what some British critics have called an almost sadistic brand of humor. Yet the most brutal jokes are the ones that bring the biggest laughs, Cleese insists. There's the one where he starts to give his Spanish waiter a dressing-down, realizes now ords will get through to him, and winds up poking the poor Spaniard in the eye with his finger.
"Quite a lot of humor is about nastiness," says Cleese. "People laugh hysterically when I poke poor Manuel in the eye. That's a terrible thing to do to anyone, absolutely atrocius. Yet everyone laughs, and you can't say the entire audience is composed of sadsts, can you?"
Cleese and Miss Booth took a month or more to write each episode, working out every sight-gag well in advance. As you'd expect from the creator of Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks," Cleese's "Fawlty Towers" programs abound in movement. This necessitates a set with seven rooms. Name an American sitcom with seven rooms. Most Fawlties screen for 32 to 33 minutes, compared to the average U.S. sitcom screen-time of 23 minutes.
All of this "artistic control" takes its toll on taping day. After a full week spent rehearsing ("two too few days to get it slick"), the actors have Sunday morning for the "camera line-up," Sunday afternoon for the "stagger-through" and the dress rehearsal "run-through," and then Sunday night for the actual taping in front of a live audience.
"One episode we had 440 camera shots. That's about twice normal for a BBC comedy program, and it would make American TV performers blanch. Do you realize that 440 shots in half an hour is a cut every four seconds?
"I was brought up on American comedy shows - the Bilko show was superb, absolutely superb, week after week. You may complain about lack of variation in American comedy from week to week, but their comedy never falls below a certain standard of professional excellence."
The basic difference between British comedy and American comedy is money. A comic as popular in America as Cleese is in Britain would be a multimillionaire by now. Yet the fawn-colored Rolls-Royce Corniche in the driveway of Cleese's large but unremarkable house in central London isn't even Cleese's. "The only way I could afford it is to lease it from the company I set up to employ myself. It's a tax loophole allowed by the British government to permit a few Englishmen to have Rolls-Royces."
Cleese received $32,000 from the BBC for making the current set of six Fawlties. That's about half the cost of a Corniche. "It's my observation," Cleese says, "that the things you really want to do are the things you get paid the least for." The BBC may give its resident geniuses artistic control, but they pay for it. Cleese does TV commercials, industrial training films and the odd Monty Python film to keep his bank manager happy.
Cleese has another interesting financial statistic. "For the first 'Fawlty' series of six programs in 1976, the BBC paid me $1,000 performance fee per program, plus writer's fee of about the same. In America, 'Fawlty' went out on the PBS station in each city. The writing fee is too complicated to explain, but for the performance, I got one quarter of one percent of my original performance fee. So, each time a PBS station broadcast a 'Fawlty' episode, for having appeared in it, I earned roughtly $2.04. I reckon I might pull in a few thousand dollars all-in when this batch of 'Fawlties' goes to the States."
Will it go? It now looks as though it will. A few hundred thousand PBS viewers will laugh themselves silly and Cleese will paper his walls with his laughable royalty checks. But it all might have been different if a few million more ABC viewers had watched "Snavely" last summer.
"I sold the format rights. I sold them three times in fact. A packager called Herman Rush had them first and let them lapse. Then NBC. Then Viacom bought them and financed a pilot for a series, starring Harvey Korman. Sadly, it was deemed not to have worked, and no series transpired. Viacom's rights lapsed in May.
"I have no objection to selling the format rights, even if it means the originals never being seen in America. Format rights bring in a lot of very, very easy money, which I appreciate because there's nothing I'd rather do than sit here and read books. Unfortunately, no one will pay me money for that."
The Harvey Korman impersonation of Basil Fawlty also was deemed not to have worked by Cleese. Cleese likes nasty humor, and Korman wasn't nearly nasty enough. "In America now, comedians want to be lovable. W.C. Fields was a total bastard, but rather him than 33 of the 'but seriously folks, it's just a joke' types.
"That was the trouble with the Korman version. There was a noticeable attempt to reassure the audience that the people in the show were all right, folks. Korman would give a slightly reassuring smile now and then. He'd allow little moments of warmth to creep in. Diastrous."