The 10 best Fawlty Towers moments

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Don’t mention the war: John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in the Fawlty Towers episode The Germans. Photograph: BBC

1 | The goose step

With Sybil hospitalised due to an ingrowing toenail (glamorous), episode six saw some German guests arrive and un-PC 1970s mayhem ensue. Despite warning, “Don’t mention the war,” a crazed Basil proceeds to mention it constantly (“Hors d’oeuvres… vich must be obeyed… vithout qvestion!”), then blames the guests for starting it (“Yes you did, you invaded Poland”). It culminates in his Ministry of Silly Walks-style goose step, leading one German to mutter: “How ever did they win?” John Cleese later said: “Everybody thinks it’s a joke about Germans but it’s about British attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish.”

2 | Sybil’s phone calls

“Ah, my little piranha fish… my little nest of vipers… the toxic midget… the sabre-toothed tart… rancorous, coiffured old sow.” Superbly played by Prunella Scales, Basil’s formidable wife sports tight skirt suits, flouncy blouses and a towering perm kept at its full height with overnight curlers. Despite being a far more effective hotelier than her “ageing, brilliantined stick insect” husband, she spends busy periods reading Harold Robbins novels or gossiping on the phone to her friend Audrey, punctuated by “Oooh, I knowww” and a braying laugh which Basil likens to “someone machine-gunning a seal”. She’s also the only character to use his first name, usually barked in admonishment, and prone to slapping him.

3 | The Waldorf salad

“I think we’re out of Waldorfs.” When a loud, wealthy American comes to stay (“Couldn’t find the freeway. Had to take a little backstreet called the M5”), he demands a late-night meal on arrival. Refusing to pay overtime, Basil had sent the chef home, convinced he can whip up a snack himself – but when they order screwdrivers to drink and an off-menu Waldorf salad, Basil has no idea what either is. After he catches Basil yelling at an imaginary chef, the brash American calls him “the British Tourist Board’s answer to Donald Duck”. It all neatly encapsulates the culture clash between outspoken Yanks and too-polite-to-complain Brits.

4 | The car-thrashing

Keen to attract a more upmarket clientele, Basil arranges a gourmet night – but his plans are scuppered by his alcoholic chef passing out drunk. The menu is suddenly restricted to three choices: duck with orange, duck with cherries or duck surprise (without oranges or cherries). However, tuxedo-clad Basil’s dash across Torquay to fetch the fowl hits the skids when his car breaks down. “Start, you vicious bastard!” he hisses at his red Austin 1300, before grabbing a tree branch. “Right, that does it. I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing.” A scene so iconic, Corgi made a die-cast model of it.

5 | The moose’s head

Major Gowen (played by Ballard Berkeley) is the bumbling, blazer-clad veteran soldier who’s a permanent hotel resident, forever on the lookout for the newspaper and the cricket scores. Sybil instructs Basil to hang a moose’s head in the lobby but he keeps getting waylaid in his efforts and leaves it on the reception desk. When the Major hears Manuel’s voice coming from under the counter as he practises his English, the confused old gent is convinced the moose is speaking to him. It later falls from the wall and lands on Manuel’s head, leading the poor Major to think it’s talking again. “I can speak English. I learned it from a book.” “Did you really? Remarkable animal you’ve got there, Fawlty.”

6 | The anniversary

“What day it is today, Basil?” “Anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt?” Forgotten wedding anniversaries are a retro comedy trope but it’s rarely been done better than here. The penultimate episode portrays Basil’s efforts to throw a surprise 15th anniversary bash for Sybil. He goes to such lengths to pretend he’s forgotten the significance of the date that she storms off in a huff. Never one to keep things simple, Basil pretends to the partygoers that she’s ill. As his lies spiral, chambermaid Polly (played by co-writer Connie Booth) ends up posing in bed as a sick Sybil and seems to get away with it – until the real Sybil returns to fetch her golf clubs.

7 | Basil the rat

There’s a rat in my kitchen, what am I gonna do? The final episode finds Basil in trouble when the health inspector delivers a long list of hygienic aberrations, including dead pigeons in the water tank. The last thing the lanky hotelier needs, then, is for Manuel’s pet “Siberian hamster” – OK, rat – to be let loose on the premises. Cue an increasingly indiscreet hunt, a poisoned veal cutlet and the Major taking potshots with his rifle. This rodent farce reaches fever pitch when a cuddly-looking rat pops his head out of a biscuit tin and looks the dumbfounded inspector right in the eye, causing his human namesake to faint.

8 | The corpse

“Oh, there’s another one snuffed it in the night. Another name in the Fawlty Towers Book of Remembrance.” A guest dies in his sleep but after accidentally serving him breakfast, Basil’s convinced it’s due to past-their-sell-by-date kippers. He tries to remove the corpse without spooking the other guests, hiding it in wardrobes, linen baskets and behind hatstands. Cleese based the storyline on a friend’s anecdote about working at the Savoy and being told to discreetly dispose of a dead body. He also got revenge on Spectator TV critic Richard Ingrams for a scathing review by naming the guest caught with a blow-up doll “Mr Ingrams”.

9 | The anagrammatic signs

Warty Towels. Watery Fowls. Flay Otters. Fatty Owls. Farty Towels. It’s one of the great visual in-jokes of British sitcom: a shot of the Torquay hotel’s sign appears at the start of all but one episode (The Germans opens at the hospital) with letters missing or formed into anagrams – pranks which turn out to be the work of the aggrieved paperboy. Bonus fact: Flowery Twats from penultimate episode The Anniversary is the only complete anagram, using all the letters. Perhaps there were only a dozen episodes because John Cleese and Connie Booth ran out of anagrams.

10 | He’s from Barcelona

“I know nothing. Qué?” Basil’s human punchbag is hapless Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), whose faltering English leads him to make mistakes and get abused by the bullying boss: beaten with a frying pan, clipped round the ear, poked in the eye or smacked on the forehead with a spoon. At other times, Basil, Sybil and even the normally pleasant Polly prefer the patronising approach, excusing Manuel’s behaviour with, “He’s from Barcelona.” For the Spanish syndication of the show, Manuel’s nationality was switched to Italian and his name to Paolo. In the Catalan re-dub, he’s Mexican. To make matters more confusing, Sachs originally wanted to play him as German.


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