John Cleese recalls "terrible" American remakes of Fawlty Towers as classic sitcom hits the West End

3 May 2024, 08:00

John Cleese talks to Gold
John Cleese talks to Gold. Picture: Gold/Global

By Tom Eames

John Cleese is a comedy titan, and perhaps his crowning achievement was the iconic sitcom Fawlty Towers.

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Co-written by John Cleese and ex-wife Connie Booth, Fawlty Towers only ran for two series and 12 episodes in the 1970s, but it has remained arguably the greatest sitcom of all time.

Now, the beloved comedy is hitting London's West End as a brand new stage play.

Fawlty Towers: The Play has been adapted for the stage by Cleese, featuring three classic episodes: 'The Hotel Inspectors', 'The Germans' and 'Communication Problems', with Cleese writing a new finale that combines all three.

Gold's James Bassam caught up with John about the new play, while also looking back at what made the original so successful.

On why Fawlty Towers has been such a success, he said: "Because we spent six weeks in every episode. It's as simple as that. You see, the executives in television have very little idea of what they're doing. Most of them have no idea.

"I mean, the funniest I ever had was some Americans who bought the rights for Fawlty Towers. I said, 'well, can I help?' They said, 'no, we're absolutely fine'. I said, 'are Americans going to understand a family hotel when they were all used to staying in these big chains?' And he said, 'no'.

John Cleese at the Apollo Theatre Box Office 🛎️

"They said, we've only changed one thing. And I said, 'what's that?' They said, 'we've written Basil out'.

"I was absolutely gobsmacked. It was terrible. They took all his lines and gave them to Bea Arthur who was playing Sybil. I mean, that's what you have to deal with the whole time."

On the casting process, he said: "I was in America, so we were doing it all over Zoom. But the extraordinary thing is how many good actors there are. Not many good writers, but an awful lot of good actors.

"And we had three Basils, and any one of them would have done it well enough. But Adam, we just thought, just edged the others. And the same with Sybil, AJ. She It's just terrific. I was just watching her yesterday. It's just effortless now. It's a slightly different take on Basil, but it works just as well."

John also spoke about the new sequel to Fawlty Towers he's currently working on with daughter Camilla.

John Cleese recalls "terrible" American remakes of Fawlty Towers

He said: "We've got a very good first episode and a very good first half of the second episode. But you see, when you're writing a series from scratch, you got to be so careful about the characters you're creating because you have to live with them then.

"So, making sure you got the right ones and there's a right balance and then try to figure out the different personalities. It takes a long time. We've got a very funny plot for the first one, which runs into the beginning of the second one. But it'll be some time before we do that."

Fawlty Towers: The Play is at London's Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Previews start on Saturday, May 4th, and tickets can be found here.