Basil Fawlty would be bewildered by England today – and so am I

When I was growing up in the 1950s in Weston-super-Mare, England was largely a middle-class society. The values of the middle class were dictated from above and would work their way down the social ladder. My family may have been on one of that ladder’s lower rungs but we had middle-class values: although my father left school at 16, I never heard him mispronounce a word or make a spelling mistake. People tried to do their job well; they weren’t overly concerned with becoming rich, they just wanted enough money to get by, and live a good life.

Basil Fawlty – the bad-tempered Torquay hotelier in Fawlty Towers, the sitcom I created with Connie Booth in 1975 – is very much a product of that lost middle class. As so many people in this country were, he is a small-c conservative who dislikes change. He grew up during the Second World War and is obsessed with the fact that we beat Hitler. Yet, by the time we meet Basil in the 1970s, England had diminished as a country and, amid economic stagnation, lost its place in the world. Everywhere you looked, revolution was afoot, from multiculturalism to feminism, and the England Basil lives in is no longer the country it was.

I sometimes feel this about England, too. When I look at our country today I yearn for a return to what seemed to be a happier, friendlier, calmer, more ironic culture. I remember an England where everyone was extremely polite, when people were doing their best, and when life seemed relatively simple.

But in truth, when I created Basil Fawlty I was just trying to be funny, to come up with an awful person who is completely unsuited to running a hotel. People think he is a snob but really he’s just desperately trying to keep up with the Joneses. Reputation is hugely important to him. Most of the time he behaves the way he does because of the immense pressure he’s under. He is also fantastically repressed: he comes from that generation, of which my father was also part, in which you mustn’t show any weakness. You have to bottle it up. 

He has this need to control everything, but he is also aware that he can control very little – and he is constantly frustrated by that. What makes him such a deeply loved character is that people have sympathy for him, they can see that he is trapped. And they understand that almost everything he does is motivated by his terror of Sybil (played on screen by Prunella Scales), with whom he is stuck in a terrible marriage. The tragedy is that you feel he was quite an attractive man at one point.

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