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Prunella Scales as Sybil
|Fawlty Towers character|
|Portrayed by||Prunella Scales|
|First appearance||"A Touch of Class" (1975)|
|Last appearance||Children in Need telethon (2007)|
|Created by||John Cleese|
|Introduced by||Connie Booth|
Sybil Fawlty is a fictional character from the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers. She is played by Prunella Scales. Her age is listed as 34 years old as seen on her medical chart in the 1975 episode "The Germans", thus presumably indicating that she was born in 1941. Scales was 43 years old when Fawlty Towers began.
She is Basil Fawlty's wife, and the only recurring character in the series who regularly refers to him by his first name (the Major addresses Basil by his first name in "Communication Problems"). Sybil is a far more effective worker and manager than Basil; she handles crises calmly, picks up the pieces after a nasty confrontation and stays polite to guests. Despite her effectiveness as a worker, however, she is known to be extremely lazy; during busy check-in sessions or meal-times, while everyone else is busy working around her, she's frequently seen talking on the phone to one of her friends (usually 'Audrey', who makes an appearance in "The Anniversary"), smoking, chatting with customers, or reading Harold Robbins' novels. In "The Kipper and the Corpse", she does little to help Basil, Manuel and Polly with the disposal of Mr. Leeman's body, prompting Basil to direct all the complaints to her. He does the same trick in "Waldorf Salad". Basil is utterly terrified of Sybil, describing her to Irish builder O'Reilly in "The Builders" as having the ability to "kill a man at ten paces with one blow of her tongue."
Despite this, Basil has attempted to defy Sybil face to face, yet she manages to silence him with one sharp bark of "BASIL!", except for one moment in "The Psychiatrist", when Basil is driven to breaking point and angrily lashes out at her, calling her a "Rancorous, coiffured old sow" to her face. A few times, Basil has infuriated Sybil to the point of physical violence; in "The Builders", she flies into a rage and throws a cash box across the room toward her husband, who only just manages to avoid it. In "Waldorf Salad", meanwhile, she strikes Basil across the face after he refuses to surrender the titular dish to a guest. She also slapped him in "The Anniversary", after she believed he had again forgotten their anniversary. She also implies that the last time he forgot, she gave him a severe beating.
She is characterised by a shrill conversational tone and laugh, which her husband compares to 'someone machine-gunning a seal'. Basil also refers to her by a number of epithets, occasionally to her face: these include "the dragon", "toxic midget", "my little nest of vipers", "sabre-toothed tart", "my little piranha fish", "my little workhorse" and "my little commandant." She either does not hear (as he often states them as soon as she is out of earshot) or doesn't care. Indeed, in "The Psychiatrist", she calls him "an ageing, brilliantined stick insect".
Sybil and Basil never directly express love for one another (in The Wedding Party, they are shown to sleep in separate beds; in A Touch of Class Basil kisses her and she tells him not to), and Basil especially never seems to be capable of courtesy towards his wife – in the episode "Gourmet Night", while drunk, Sybil shows Basil affection, only for him to tell her to drink "another vat of wine." In "The Hotel Inspectors", after Basil is beaten up and knocked to the floor by an angry guest, Sybil casually walks by Basil and cheerfully asks, "You've handled that then, have you Basil?" On another occasion, in "The Anniversary", one of Basil's escapades – making her think that he had forgotten their wedding anniversary – brings Sybil to tears – though, ironically, this was one of the few episodes in which Basil was thinking of someone besides himself and preparing to show some love to his wife. "Communication Problems" reveals that Sybil does not approve of gambling and has forbidden Basil to do so; the main plot in this episode is that Basil is secretly gambling, and Sybil eventually finds out.
Sybil is the archetypal nagging wife, getting in the way of Basil 'enjoying himself' when he squabbles with the guests by forcing him to do unnecessary chores. Notable examples of this appear in the episodes "A Touch of Class" and "The Germans". She sometimes flirts with guests, notably Mr. Johnson (Nicky Henson) in "The Psychiatrist", but gets angry whenever Basil flirts with someone.
Prunella Scales has said that the reason Sybil married Basil was because his origins were of a higher social class than hers; in "Gourmet Night", she recounts an anecdote about 'Uncle Ted and his crate of brown ale' while drunk, which implies a working-class background.
Basil and Sybil married on 17 April 1962 (although Sybil once joked they were married in 1485) and opened their hotel in 1964.
In November 2007, Scales returned to the role of Sybil Fawlty in a series of sketches for the BBC's annual Children in Need charity telethon. The character was seen taking over the management of the eponymous hotel from the BBC drama series Hotel Babylon, interacting with characters from that programme as well as other sitcom characters. The character of Sybil was used by special permission of John Cleese.
- "The Inside Story". Radio Times. Vol. 335 no. 4361. 10–13 November 2007. p. 126.