September 19, 1975 — a day that will live on in history as the day one of the most brilliant situation comedies of all-time debuted on the BBC. Born out of a seemingly uneventful trip to the Torquay Gleneagles Hotel by the original members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers is comedy greatness that has not seen its equal in over four decades. It was the Gleneagles and proprietor, Donald Sinclair, that became the basis for the 12 episodes co-written by John Cleese and then wife, Connie Booth.
Surprisingly, getting FT off the ground wasn’t all that easy. Cleese’s first pass at running this through the BBC Light Entertainment department would lead one to believe it would never see the light of day with Ian Main, BBC Comedy Script Editor a the time, labeling the pilot as being nothing but a collection of cliches and would only spell disaster if left in its original state.
Every year for the past 41 years, people have debated whether or not there are more than 12 episodes. Casual fans of the series will swear there are more than 12 while die-hard fans know there are only a dozen as they can probably quote each line spoken much like someone who has seen Rocky Horror Picture Show hundreds of times. Rumors have continued to circulate that a mysterious 13th episode exists somewhere in the bowels of BBC Television Centre. Swedish author, Lars Holger Holm, actually went as far as to write a book chronicling his ‘discovery’ of a long lost episode, “The Robbers”, having ‘seen it’ in back in 1999 in the London flat of a former BBC Editorial Department staff member.
The closest anyone ever really came to seeing anything beyond the 12th and final episode of Fawlty Towers was a sketch recorded for the classic John Lloyd comedy series, Not the Nine O’Clock News, back in 1979. Produced after the final episode of Cleese’s masterpiece, the sketch aired in 1979 kicking off the premiere episode of the satirical comedy series that launched the careers of the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones.
Whatever the case, Fawlty Towers is still 12 (or 13) of the best half hours on television. Happy 41st, FT. You don’t look at day over 40!