Basil Fawlty

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Basil Fawlty
Basil Fawlty.jpg
John Cleese as Basil Fawlty.
Fawlty Towers character
Portrayed by John Cleese
Duration 1975–79
First appearance "A Touch of Class"
Last appearance "Basil the Rat"
Created by John Cleese
Introduced by Connie Booth
Occupation Hotelier

Basil Fawlty is the main character of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, played by John Cleese. Basil has become an iconic British comedy character, despite only twelve half-hour episodes ever being made.


Basil (/ˈbæzəl/), who runs the titular hotel in Torquay, is a misanthropic, pessimistic and somewhat snobbish man whose main aspiration is to become a member of more "respectable" (richer) social circles. He sees the successful running of the hotel as a means of achieving this dream, yet his job frequently requires him to be pleasant to people he despises - something he severely struggles with. His much more customer-friendly wife Sybil often has to deal with the fallout of Basil's bad treatment of the guests, to varying success.

Basil has staunch right-wing and traditionalist views about most things, for example in "The Wedding Party", when he shows open disgust towards a young unmarried couple having an active sex life. In The Germans he appears to blame the failure of the hotel's fire extinguisher on "bloody Wilson", referencing the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson.

He is desperate to avoid of his wife's sharp tongue, and his plans often conflict with hers, but he mostly fails to stand up to her. She is often verbally abusive towards him (describing him as "an ageing, brilliantined stick insect") and though he is much taller than Sybil, he often finds himself on the receiving end of her temper, expressed verbally and physically. Basil does, though, occasionally manage to gain the upper hand. During "The Kipper and the Corpse", Sybil refuses to help Basil dispose of the body of recently deceased guest Mr. Leeman. Basil gets his revenge towards the end of the episode, when he asks a number of disgruntled guests to direct their complaints towards Sybil. In "The Psychiatrist", he has a row with Sybil during which he calls his wife a 'rancorous, coiffured old sow'.

Basil takes many of his frustrations out on the hapless waiter Manuel, physically abusing and bullying him in a variety of ways. On occasions he also assaults others, such as strangling a guest in "The Hotel Inspectors", kneeing Major Gowen in "Basil the Rat", 'accidentally' elbowing a young boy in the head in "Gourmet Night" and, in the same episode, famously beating his "vicious bastard" of a car with a tree branch when it fails to start.

Another eccentricity affecting Basil is that of occasionally swapping words around in a sentence while propounding a falsehood, for instance in "The Anniversary" when he announces to the party guests that it's "perfectly Sybil! Simple's not well. She's lost her throat and her voice hurts", and – less obviously – reassuring himself as much as his wife in "The Wedding Party" that the sound of knocking on his bedroom door was "probably some key who forgot the guest for their door". He also has difficulty disconnecting his thought-process from unrelated events, as in "The Wedding Party", when he is looking through Polly's sketchbook of life-drawing pictures and answers the telephone with, "Hello, Fawlty Titties?" or in "The Psychiatrist", where, after inadvertently staining a female guest with paint, he realises that Sybil has noticed, and in panic puts his hands on the guest's breasts as a means of stopping her from seeing it.

Basil is known to have served in the British Army during the Korean War, possibly as part of his National Service. He claims: "I fought in the Korean War, you know, I killed four men" to which his wife jokingly replies, "He was in the Catering Corps; he used to poison them". He is often seen wearing a military tie, and a military-type moustache. He also claims to have sustained a shrapnel injury to his leg in the Korean War, which has a tendency to flare up at convenient moments – usually when Sybil asks him an awkward question. (In fact John Cleese was only 13 years old when the Korean War ended.)

John Cleese himself described Basil as being a man who could run a top-notch hotel if he didn't have all the guests getting in the way. He has also made the point that on account of Basil's inner need to conflict with his wife's wishes, "Basil couldn't be Basil if he didn't have Sybil".

His desire to elevate his class status is exemplified in the unusual care and respect he affords upper-class guests, such as Lord Melbury (who turned out to be an impostor), Mrs Peignoir (a wealthy French antique dealer) and Major Gowen, an aged ex-soldier and recurring character - although Basil is sometimes scathing towards him, frequently alluding to his senility and his frequenting of the hotel bar ("drunken old sod"). He has particular respect for doctors, having once aspired to be one himself, and shows a reverential attitude to Dr. Abbott in "The Psychiatrist" (until he learns that Dr. Abbott is a psychiatrist), and Dr. Price in "The Kipper and the Corpse" (until Dr. Price begins to ask awkward questions about the death of Mr. Leeman, and inconveniently requests sausages for breakfast).

Basil is constantly disdainful and insulting to guests, and liable to pick up a tail-end of a situation (often panicking when things go wrong) and turn it into a farcical misunderstanding. Basil is known for his tight-fisted attitude to the hotel's expenses, employing completely incompetent builder O'Reilly in "The Builders" simply because he was cheap. Notoriously, he also becomes indignant whenever a guest makes a request, even if the request is quite reasonable. In "The Kipper and the Corpse", he is offended when a sickly guest politely asked for breakfast in bed, and Basil responds by sarcastically asking him which type of wood he would like his breakfast tray made out of.

Basil has been married to Sybil since the 1960s. He very rarely shows any signs of real love for his long-suffering wife ("my little piranha-fish" is one of the kindest epithets he bestows on her), and vice versa (In "The Wedding Party", they are shown to sleep in separate beds). Sybil's friend Audrey (an unseen character, with the exception of "The Anniversary") is often the only support she gets. Ironically, "The Anniversary" is one of the few episodes in which Basil tries to be nice to Sybil, who misreads the situation and believes he has forgotten their anniversary.

John Cleese reprised the role of Basil in the song "Don't Mention the War", based on the situation in the episode "The Germans", for the 2006 Germany FIFA World Cup. This same phrase, "Don't Mention the War", was used as the title of the first episode of a 5-part BBC documentary series When Rover Met BMW.


Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Monty Python team's stay in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming for the Python show had finished. The owner, Mr. Donald Sinclair,[1] was very rude, throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive and placing Eric Idle's suitcase behind a wall in the garden in case it contained a bomb (actually it contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for being too American (he had the fork in the "wrong" hand while eating). Cleese used the name "Donald Sinclair" for his character in the 2001 film Rat Race. In the episode "The Builders", Fawlty refers to a local hotel or restaurant called "Gleneagles" while talking to Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs. The name 'Basil' comes from Basil Street, where Cleese lived for some time.[2]

Libel case[edit]

In 1989, Cleese successfully sued the Daily Mirror for libel when it described him becoming like his character Basil Fawlty.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

In the British fantasy series Redwall, an extremely sarcastic and imprudent anthropomorphic hare, "Basil Stag Hare", makes an appearance. He is somewhat aristocratic, and an ex-serviceman, who sometimes makes reference to his "honourable war wound". A running gag is his 'Officer and a Gentleman' way and his "tally ho!" slang. Author Brian Jacques claims to have based his name and character on Basil Fawlty. Cleese reprised the role of Fawlty in 2006 for the song "Don't Mention the World Cup".


  1. ^ Donaldson, William (2002). Brewer's Rogues Villains and Eccentrics. Cassell. p. 574. ISBN 0-304-35728-6. 
  2. ^ YouTube
  3. ^ Penguin Pocket On This Day. Penguin Reference Library. 2006. ISBN 0-14-102715-0.