People already laughing at John Cleese Fawlty Towers remake for the wrong reasons writes TOM LEONARD
John Cleese used to relish describing the awfulness of the man who inspired Basil Fawlty.
‘He was just wonderfully bad-tempered,’ he recalled of Donald Sinclair, proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, Devon, when he and the rest of the Monty Python gang booked in to stay there in the early 1970s.
Mr Sinclair, who apparently believed guests got in the way of running an efficient hotel, was so awful — snarling at Cleese when he asked him to book him a taxi, throwing Eric Idle’s briefcase over a wall because it ‘could be a bomb’ and rebuking Terry Gilliam for his American table manners — that the rest of the comedy team checked out after just one night.
Cleese stayed on and the result was the magnificent Fawlty Towers, even if at the time of his stay Cleese didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Fans of the show faced the same conundrum this week at the news that Cleese plans to resurrect Fawlty Towers some 44 years after its second and final series ended on BBC2 in 1979.
Cleese stayed on and the result was the magnificent Fawlty Towers, even if at the time of his stay Cleese didn’t know whether to laugh or cry
He revealed how the remake will be set in a Caribbean hotel and have a diverse cast inspired by The White Lotus, a U.S. TV show following the exploits of various dysfunctional employees and guests at an exclusive resort.
So what is the right response to a comic who many believe hasn’t been funny for at least 30 years trying to resurrect the best-loved sitcom in British TV history?
Even Cleese himself admitted four years ago that there was ‘not much point’ re-making Fawlty Towers as everyone would say it wasn’t as good as the original.
Cleese, now 83, will write and act in the new show alongside his daughter, Camilla Cleese, a 39-year-old Los Angeles stand-up comic. The pair will play a recently reunited father and daughter running a boutique hotel while Basil attempts to ‘navigate the modern world’.
It will be produced not by the BBC — which Cleese has said he could never work with again — but by Hollywood’s Castle Rock Entertainment.
The mockery has been intense, a reflection of how many enemies he’s made in recent years with his curmudgeonly and mean-spirited attacks on critics, ex-wives, Britain and the world in general.
For some, he has become Basil Fawlty — pompous, egotistical and permanently cross — only not nearly so funny.
Cleese plans to resurrect Fawlty Towers some 44 years after its second and final series ended on BBC2 in 1979
For some, Cleese has become Basil Fawlty — pompous, egotistical and permanently cross — only not nearly so funny.
As Radio 4’s Today presenter Nick Robinson said this week: ‘He’ll have to discover some humour, because he’s been very cross… the last few times we’ve talked to him on this programme.’
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t sound convinced. Spitting Image writer John O’Farrell said it ‘could be akin to a fat Elvis forgetting his words in Vegas’.
Controversial comedian Jimmy Carr suggested the remake, given Cleese’s age, should be set in a retirement home, and he claimed the former Python was only in it for the money. ‘I think they’ve got to write him a cheque beforehand and he’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘God love him, don’t mess with the man’s money.’
To impute such cynically materialistic motives to a comedy icon who has vowed to take on ‘cancel culture’ in comedy and joke about the unjokeable will strike some of Cleese’s diehard disciples as terribly unfair.
Cleese, however, has form here. His previous attempts to ‘reboot’ his back catalogue came when he needed money, leading him to once notoriously launch his ‘Alimony Tour’ after he was left with a huge bill in settlement with an ex-wife.
There’s no sign of any problems in his current marriage to Bath-born former model and jewellery designer Jennifer Wade — 32 years his junior — that might have sparked this latest money-making endeavour.
The pair moved to the Caribbean island of Nevis in 2018 after Cleese complained how ‘disappointed’ he’d become with ‘corruption’ in the UK — which was beyond parody, given that Nevis, a solitary volcanic isle ringed by sandy beaches with a population of just 11,000, has been dubbed ‘the world’s most secretive tax haven’.
Even Cleese himself admitted four years ago that there was ‘not much point’ re-making Fawlty Towers as everyone would say it wasn’t as good as the original
It’s a place that does its best not to draw attention to itself and Cleese seems to fit right in. The Nevis media have mentioned him only once, to report in 2021 that he was starring in a low-budget film, which sank without trace. Cleese’s recent film career has hardly seen him repeat the screen success of 1980s outings in A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise. He relies heavily on voiceovers in children’s films, although he has a part in Hollywood pariah Roman Polanski’s next film, a black comedy starring Mickey Rourke called The Palace.
Cleese wed Jennifer Wade in a low-key ceremony on Mustique in 2012. His first marriage, to American Connie Booth in 1968, lasted ten years and produced one child, Cynthia. Cleese’s second wife, American actress Barbara Trentham, to whom he was married from 1981 to 1990 produced another daughter, Camilla, but also ended in divorce.
But it was his third marriage to U.S. psychotherapist Alyce Faye Eichelberger from 1992 to 2008 that hit his wallet the hardest.
He called the £12 million settlement he was ordered to pay her ‘completely ridiculous’ — unchivalrously telling an Australian chat show: ‘The last time I paid for sex, it cost me $20 million’ — and led to him embarking on his first live tour to raise funds.
Cleese, reportedly now worth £8 million, has no such worries with Wade, whom he calls his ‘kindred spirit’. So with no costly, fourth divorce to fund, could his motivation for resuscitating Fawlty Towers simply be a case of wanting to help out his daughter, Camilla, in her career?
Camilla’s Twitter feed suggests there’s little daylight between father and daughter when it comes to contempt for cancel culture and wokeness.
‘The only thing scarier than WWIII,’ she recently said, ‘is that the generation who’re of fighting age think using the wrong pronouns are acts of violence,’
There was a time, however, when she had her father tearing his (remaining) hair out.
Cleese, now 83, will write and act in the new show alongside his daughter, Camilla Cleese, a 39-year-old Los Angeles stand-up comic (Pictured together in 2009)
By the age 18, Camilla had been seven years into a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that started when she was 11.
Her drug abuse rocketed when she went to boarding school in the U.S. and started ‘hanging with the wrong crowd’.
She got two drink-driving convictions and was admitted to a psychiatric ward after a particularly violent episode in which she ended up in a police cell ‘coming down off coke, shaking and crying’.
She says Cleese later cut her off financially and emotionally after friends convinced him ‘tough love’ was the only way of keeping her alive. But he said he’d ‘never been prouder of anyone’ when she eventually managed to get clean.
His irascibility has not abated in recent years even if the main theme has moved from ex-wives to the deadening effect of ‘cancel culture’. He’s expected to pursue this issue when he presents a news show on GB News alongside the journalist Andrew Doyle.
So is there an appetite for the world of Basil Fawlty, 40 years on?
Even former Python Eric Idle appears not be sure. Interviewed last October and asked about his old mucker’s complaints about cancel culture, Idle said: ‘He’s who he is now. The thing I try to remember is the good times when we were young and funny.’
He went on: ‘We’re old f***s. We should be left to go quietly to bed and watch the telly.’
Basil, take note.