How his­tory helped Bri­tain’s come­dies

The many links of Fawlty Tow­ers and Black­ad­der

National Post (Latest Edition) - - POST TORONTO -

To hear Rowan Atkin­son tell it, the im­pe­tus be­hind Bri­tain’s

tele­vi­sion se­ries in the 1980s was to be “as un­like

as we could.” And yet, by the time the se­ries reached its third-sea­son comic apex, it ac­tu­ally re­sem­bled noth­ing so much as a his­tor­i­cally repo­si­tioned ver­sion of the ear­lier clas­sic.

Both 1975’s and the four sea­sons (and var­i­ous re­unions) of ar­rive on DVD this week in re­mas­tered re-is­sues, com­plete with new in­ter­views with casts and crew. was the brain­child of for­mer Monty Python troupe mem­ber John Cleese, who had once stayed at a ho­tel called the Gle­nea­gle, run by an odi­ous pro­pri­etor named Don­ald Sin­clair.

Sin­clair’s an­tics have be­come the stuff of leg­end since the Pythons were abused by him. One story is that when Eric Idle left his brief­case by the front desk, Sin­clair moved it out­side and claimed he thought it was a bomb. In an­other ver­sion, the brief­case winds up in a potting shed; in yet an­other, it’s tossed over a cliff. Every­one agrees, how­ever, that Sin­clair once rep­ri­manded Terry Gil­liam for im­proper place­ment of cut­lery at din­ner.

Af­ter the Python years ended, Cleese was given the chance to do a new com­edy se­ries and mused seven magic words: “What about that ho­tel we stayed in?” The re­sult is 12 episodes of in­spired lu­nacy in which Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, a man who thinks his ho­tel would be a place of per­fec­tion if it weren’t for all the an­noy­ing guests. Adding to his grief: the mis­sus, played by Prunella Scales; the maid, Polly (Cleese’s then-wife, Con­nie Booth); and a daft Span­ish waiter named Manuel, the char­ac­ter made im­mor­tal by An­drew Sachs. (He was later hired by cor­po­rate speak­ers to dis­rupt their meet­ings, in char­ac­ter, for comic ef­fect.)

Sachs re­calls in a new in­ter­view that he had orig­i­nally balked at do­ing a Span­ish ac­cent, and asked if Manuel might be rewrit­ten as a Ger­man. (The ac­tor was born in Berlin in 1930 and es­caped as a boy.) He laughs at the idea now: “Can you imag­ine Manuel as a Ger­man waiter? The ho­tel would be a per­fect suc­cess, wouldn’t it?”

Cleese notes in his in­ter­view that part of the suc­cess of the show (if not the ho­tel) was that comic charm, tim­ing. He urged the ac­tors to rush through their per­for­mances, even if the stu­dio au­di­ence was laugh­ing too hard to hear the lines, be­cause he knew that those watch­ing the show on TV would laugh less and need a faster pace. This strat­egy worked well dur­ing one par­tic­u­larly leaden tap­ing, which Cleese later learned was the re­sult of a stu­dio au­di­ence full of Ice­landic TV ex­ec­u­tives who had wanted to see a Bri­tish com­edy be­ing made but didn’t

Black­ad­der

Tow­ers

Fawlty Tow­ers

Black­ad­der

Fawlty Tow­ers

Fawlty un­der­stand the jokes. “I re­mem­ber there was a faint smell of cod,” Cleese says with a smirk.

Atkin­son, who starred in and helped write Black­ad­der (or The Black Adder as it was first known), says he’d been ap­proached by a TV ex­ec­u­tive who “asked me to write an es­say on what kind of com­edy pro­gram I would like to be in­volved in.” This led to a com­edy set in the late 15th cen­tury — a fact that lends irony to Atkin­son’s avowal that one should “try to learn from the past rather than re­ject it out­right.”

The first six episodes, which aired in 1983, suf­fered from a bloated cast and a lack of comic fo­cus. Stephen Fry, who ap­pears in all but the first sea­son, ex­plains the early prob­lems with what he calls his ten­nis the­ory of com­edy, “which sounds very pompous and in­deed is I prom­ise you.” He says that watch­ing the first se­ries is like tak­ing in a ten­nis match where the play­ers are ex­cel­lent but you can’t see the ball.

By the time the se­ries had been can­celled and then res­ur­rected for a sec­ond go in 1987, Atkin­son and com­pany were play­ing with a vis­i­ble ball. They also had (like Fawlty Tow­ers be­fore them) a sim­ple se­ries of sets and a pared-down cast with a fo­cus on Black­ad­der (Atkin­son) and Baldrick (Tony Robin­son), who in many ways re­sem­bled Cleese’s smarmy innkeeper and his in­ept manser­vant, Manuel.

The new Black­ad­der box set in­cludes all four sea­sons of the show, set dur­ing Eng­land’s Tu­dor, El­iz­a­bethan, Re­gency and First World War pe­ri­ods. It also con­tains The Cav­a­lier Years, a sketch com­edy spe­cial from 1988; Black­ad­der’s Christ­mas Carol from the same year; a time-travel re­union episode from 1999 called “Black Adder Back and Forth”; and Black­ad­der Rides Again, a 2008 doc­u­men­tary made on the 25th an­niver­sary of the first se­ries.

Through the years of Black­ad­der, good writ­ing was al­ways key. Robin­son, who notes that “it took me a long time to get [Baldrick] as stupid as was re­quired,” re­marks that a sim­ple line writ­ten by Ben El­ton and Richard Cur­tis would be added to by the cast of the se­ries (most of them pro­fes­sional writ­ers in their own right) un­til some­thing emerged along the lines of: “I have a hor­rid sus­pi­cion that Baldrick’s plan will be the stu­pid­est thing we’ve heard since Lord Nel­son’s fa­mous sig­nal at the Bat­tle of the Nile: ‘Eng­land knows Lady Hamil­ton’s a vir­gin. Poke my eye out and cut off my arm if I’m wrong.’ ” That’s not his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate, by the way. Like the trans­gres­sions of hot-blooded hote­liers, his­tory of­ten gets fun­nier in the retelling.

Na­tional Post ck­night@na­tion­al­post.com

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