Safe Punk: The Rise and Rise of Fawlty Towers

(A sample documentary proposal, written c.2005 as a teaching resource for Media Studies.)

In 1975, the British comedy scene was thriving, but a sense of complacency was beginning to take hold. TV comedy successes spawned this, that and the other sequels and spin-offs, comedy stars were household names, and it seemed you couldn’t go to a cinema without seeing at least five posters for the latest movie adaptations of TV comedy hits.

But then something came along that shook it all up. Gone was the line of thought that you had to have endless sexual innuendo or surreal slapstick in your work in order to make it a success. Creeping into the BBC schedule, a new series running to a mere six episodes and seemingly representing a style of comedy long since deemed out of date, came a sitcom that would be remembered above and beyond its fellows.

That series was Fawlty Towers, and it is this documentary’s intention to explore the various cultural influences that made it a success.

This David-against-the-Goliath story will be told primarily through the people who were there. John Cleese, ex-Python, a household name in anarchic comedy. Connie Booth, Cleese’s wife, co-writer and co-star. Their relationship was a rocky one, and in fact their marriage ended before the second series was produced. That the second series is hailed by many as an even greater success than the first is an intriguing juxtaposition that will be explored through their testimony. The programme’s producers and directors – two with long histories in groundbreaking and “dangerous” comedy of the ‘60s, one a relatively junior comedy-maker with little more than a few seasons of the madcap The Goodies under his belt – will also tell their stories.

Complementing these compelling testimonies are the expert views of various academics whose expertise lies in the field of cultural studies. Their words will set the anecdotes of the participants into a startlingly unexpected context.

This project should reach a large and eager audience. Fans of British comedy in general, as well as the legion of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python fans, will be drawn to its exploration of a comedy milestone. Archive TV scholars will find appeal in its exploration of a turning stone in broadcast television. The specific focus of the project will also establish it as an authoritative and definitive supplement to be included in a DVD reissue of the series itself.

Given the immensity of the impact Fawlty Towers has had on the shape of comedy, this documentary could not serve its purpose in anything under an hour’s duration. At this length, its broadcast appeal will likely be enlarged, and returns should be very healthy indeed. Further, as a predominantly clips-and-interviews project, costs will be comparatively low, particularly in the case of a BBC co-production, allowing the cost of extract clearances to be significantly lowered.

A detailed breakdown of the project’s proposed structure follows. This breakdown, based in part on pre-interviews with the participants, will serve to provide an excellent overview of the contexts, audiences and representations this project intends to explore.


Extract: from the first episode of series two, in which Basil Fawlty is showing the deaf woman her room. On the line “Is this a piece of your brain?”, drop sound.

V.O. Bob Spiers [Director, Series 2] discussing the surprising edge that Cleese and Booth brought to their scripts.

Interview: Spiers. [Continuous from V.O.] Spiers discusses his recent background working on The Goodies, emphasising in his description of the programme its zany, madcap nature and general disregard for social niceties. Spiers then hypothesis on a link between that and his employment as director of series two of Fawlty Towers.

Interview: Douglas Argent [Producer, Series 2]. Argent relates a brief explanation of Spiers’ casting, then continues by discussing its suitability to the written material. He waxes lyrical about Cleese and Booth as writers, focussing particularly on Cleese’s background on Monty Python.

Extract: Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Parrot Sketch.

Interview: John Howard-Davies [Producer/Director, Series 1]. Howard-Davies discusses Cleese’s ability to create and portray callous but sympathetic characters whose aggressiveness comes out of the frustrating people and situations they must constantly deal with.

Interview: Dr Geoffrey Pills [Cultural Studies Professor]. Dr Pills expands on Howard-Davies’ theory, detailing its place in the history of such characters in British comedy. His expansion begins with Charlie Chaplin’s famous Tramp, ever the underdog but always willing to stand up aggressively to his opponents. Pills then details the evolution of these unambiguous displays of aggression (e.g. kicking authority figures up the backside, chasing members of the upper class until the fall over) into the era of dialogue-based comedy, which predominated in radio and television. Pills argues that this evolution found its greatest success after a brief post-war slump, in which such characters did not appear for some years, when the combination of old-fashioned comic retribution tactics collided with the surrealism of BBC Radio’s The Goon Show to create such frustrated yet twisted variations on the traditional “straight man” in the likes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.

The above interview segment is illustrated with stills from a number of early Chaplin films, and relevant clips from the aforementioned BBC television programmes.

And so on!

The main functions of this breakdown are:

  • to illustrate the use, in order of appearance, of the various documentary techniques you intend to use
  • to expand on your thesis and provide a summary of the evidence you intend to use to support that thesis

There are a few things to note, as well. In the proposal, “pre-interviews” were mentioned. This is a standard process in documentary-making. Filmmakers will often approach some of their intended subjects beforehand, and conduct informal interviews with them. From these, they can develop some idea of what information they are likely to get out of them. (Often, some solid research will do just as well.)

The development of the thesis is clear particularly in the interview segments. Usually, it will come out of interviews and/or narration, with other documentary elements being used to support or illustrate these.

The thesis itself can be stated directly at the beginning of the documentary, but it is usually better to feature a less direct introduction (i.e. one that doesn’t just say “Here is my thesis, hang on a second while I read it out”), and let the details of the thesis come out of the shape of the whole documentary. (This is especially useful if running time is short.) In this example, there is no obvious introduction at all, except for some of what Bob Spiers says. This is not usual, but it can work if you’re daring enough.

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