Fawlty Towers without the Fawltys
February 24, 2014 9:32 PM   Subscribe

John Cleese: "I remember at a party I met these chaps from Viacom, who said they were working on a new Fawlty Towers. My ears pricked up at the sound of cash registers and said, 'That's wonderful, are you going to change anything?'. They said, 'Well we have changed one thing, we've written Basil out'. And that's absolutely true, they took Basil and Sybil's lines and gave them all to Bea Arthur." The resulting effort was a 1983 ABC series called Amanda’s By the Sea which could charitably be described as a fiasco.

Fawlty Towers is still one of the most popular television shows in British history. Adapting it to US audiences should have been a guaranteed win. Amanda's lifted entire scenes (and many lines) from the original. So what went wrong?
"Alas, there was neither zaniness nor fun to be found at "Amanda’s." In lieu of the harried, neurotic, unhappily married Basil Fawlty, the U.S. version offered the recently widowed hotel proprietor Amanda. She was sardonic, scheming and truculent, and her acidic comments were aimed at her wimpy adult son, his self-centered wife, a cheerful but inefficient cook and the accident-prone Italian bellboy Aldo (played by Tony Rosato, formerly part of the “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live” ensembles). Amanda frequently relied on physical violence to punish Aldo’s seemingly endless mistakes, but Arthur’s inability to handle slapstick and Rosato’s unusually realistic reactions to her blows made the assaults look vicious and pathetic rather than funny.
...
Even if one could forget that “Fawlty Towers” ever existed, “Amanda’s” could never stand on its own. The scripts inevitably collapsed under a skein of name-calling and painfully contrived scenarios, and the direction of the episodes was badly paced. Arthur appeared to be on autopilot most of the time, and she only sparkled when old-timers like Vivian Blaine and Robert Alda turned up in guest spots. Kevin McCarthy attempted to inject some energetic line-readings into his role as Zack, but his character was so poorly defined – intrusive at one moment, charismatic the next – that his presence only added to the confusion."

The show was Arthur's first return to television since Maude went off the air. (Many episodes of which are also available on YouTube. Seasons 1, 2, 3 and 4.)


Episodes
A mid-season replacement series, only 10 episodes aired out of the 13 that had been produced. Links to all on YouTube follow, including the three that were never aired. A DVD release seems highly unlikely.
1. All in a Day's Work
2. You Were Meant For Me
3. The Man Who Came on Wednesday
4. I Ain't Got Nobody
5. My Cheatin' Staff
6. Aunt Sonia (With Vivian Blaine)
7. Last of the Red Hot Brothers
8. I'm Dancing as Close as I Can
9. One Passionate Night (Part 1)
10. One Passionate Night, the Aftermath (Part 2)
11. Amanda's Number One Son (unaired)
12. I Was Wild About Harry (unaired)
13. Oh, Promise Me (unaired)
posted by zarq (68 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
You know I adore you, but I have to know: when do you sleep, zarq?
posted by lalex at 9:39 PM on February 24 [16 favorites]


"The first, Chateau Snavely starring Harvey Korman and Betty White, was produced by ABC for a pilot in 1978, but the transfer from coastal hotel to highway motel proved too much and the series was never produced."

OMG MUST SEE*

* while drunk
posted by murphy slaw at 9:52 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Zarq has twins. He can not sleep.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:53 PM on February 24 [10 favorites]


"you'll have to excuse him, he's from Toronto"
posted by philip-random at 10:05 PM on February 24 [14 favorites]


I never knew about this (and I've only watched the first minutes of the first episode so far) but by introducing the greedy competitor who wants her property they set up Amanda as a sympathetic character. The great thing about Fawlty Towers is how generally unlikable Basil can be. He's hilarious and Cleese is great at the physical comedy, but I never seem him as particularly sympathetic. He's more like a live action Daffy Duck.

As far as Aldo goes, I just think that being from Barcelona is inherently funnier than being from Toronto.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:07 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


By a specially-patented process I just invented, for the first time I can visually illustrate the intrinsic wrongness of the content of a text. I demonstrate it now, using the text in the FPP.

   -     -     -     

John Cleese: "I remember at a party I met these chaps from Viacom, who said they were working on a new Fawlty Towers. My ears pricked up at the sound of cash registers and said, 'That's wonderful, are you going to change anything?'. They said, 'Well we have changed one thing, we've written Basil ^N^N^N!!!NOOOO YOU HATEFUL EXECUTIVE GET YOUR NOSE OUT OF THAT CRACK PIPE AND LISTEN TO YOUR OWN IDIOCY DID YOUR MOTHER RAISE YOU TO BE THIS STUPID

   -     -     -     

Huh! Funny thing is, I neglected to turn it on! I guess anything you noticed different in the text must have been your own brain rebelling against the very idea.
posted by JHarris at 10:11 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


Lalex, on alternate Wednesdays. :)

ActingtheGoat, did you recognize the actor playing the greedy guy?
posted by zarq at 10:30 PM on February 24


Egads, I would have thought Bea Arthur would have had better judgement.

I like that the opening music has one of those wacky whistle sounds so we know the show will be funny.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:38 PM on February 24


This is more enjoyable knowing that Bea Arthur picked herself up, dusted herself off, and did Golden Girls a year later.
posted by gingerest at 10:43 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Egads, I would have thought Bea Arthur would have had better judgement.

Star Wars Christmas Special.
posted by JHarris at 10:56 PM on February 24 [33 favorites]


(I love being on a site where I can say, in reference to Bea Arthur, "Star Wars Christmas Special," and people will know what I mean.)
posted by JHarris at 10:56 PM on February 24 [12 favorites]


This is more enjoyable knowing that Bea Arthur picked herself up, dusted herself off, and did Golden Girls a year later.

She did a little more than just dust herself off.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:15 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


ActingtheGoat, did you recognize the actor playing the greedy guy?

He was in that two part episode of Benson where the guy gets killed on the yacht.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:23 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


the bizarre part of Bea Arthur's casting is that you can see the creative geniuses behind this thing giving it deep thought and concluding ... she's tall like Fawlty and no-bullshit like Sybil. We'll just give her both their lines. What could go wrong?
posted by philip-random at 11:32 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Fawlty Towers is still one of the most popular television shows in British history. Adapting it to US audiences should have been a guaranteed win.

I am lost for words.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:39 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


Joey, in those days there were only three networks. Options were pretty limited.

I completely agree that they blew it by making Amanda sympathetic rather than the architect of her own hilarious doom, which is basically the One True Plot™ of Fawlty Towers. Still, I'm trying to think who might even have replaced her, as there weren't many comediennes of that era who were capable of the necessary acerbic delivery. It may have been network-stemming worry that the central character needed to be a sympathetic audience stand-in.
posted by dhartung at 11:42 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Oh believe me, I recall those days all too well. I grew up watching one season shows like Whose Watching the Kids and Quark. I just thought Bea was somehow immune to our choices.

Of course, I blacked out the Star Wars special or I would not have been surprised.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:03 AM on February 25


Tony Rosato is actually pretty good here.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:14 AM on February 25


The 'he's from Barcelona' stuff, and the fact that the Manuel character is hand-wringingly grateful for his job despite being abused constantly, does not play well in the UK any more. In fact it's painful to watch, especially as the canned laughter reaches deafening levels after Sybil repeats the line to yet another aged Brit.

Great show, but it got a bad bit of overlap from the 70s sitcom scene, in which we had entire series that were devoted to the laziest race stereotypes that now look outrageously offensive.
posted by colie at 12:33 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


I like the concept of merging characters. I'm seeing a remake of Laurel and Hardy called "Another Fine Old Mess I've Gotten Myself Into" which is all about one man whose depression leads him to constant guilty self-reproach and elaborate self-harming rituals.

More of a Beckett thing than a comedy, really.
posted by Segundus at 1:12 AM on February 25 [15 favorites]


Beckett's favourite actor was Buster Keaton — it's not really a reach.

You can watch it here.
posted by Wolof at 1:49 AM on February 25


Proofreading bollix. You can watch their collaboration at that link.
posted by Wolof at 2:03 AM on February 25


Seeing Tony Rosato's name here reminded me that, for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I rather liked him during his brief stints on SNL and SCTV back in the day. Wondering WEHT him, I searched and found that he's been through some pretty harrowing stuff - serious mental illness, incarceration, estrangement from his family - over the past decade. I hope he's doing OK now.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 2:07 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


ActingtheGoat, did you recognize the actor playing the greedy guy?

I remember him as the Principal in the early 1970's TV series Room 222, which was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a racially integrated high school.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 2:31 AM on February 25


Just remember, the US was going to be the place to do a de-drugged, mildified, insanely pointless local version of Absolutely Fabulous involving Roseanne, so our history of tone deafness is profound. As it stands, only one of the attempts got made...by Chuck Lorre, the king of heh.

And then, of course, we did make a version of One Foot In The Grave...with the cast of Cosby.
posted by sonascope at 3:28 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The U.S. version of One Foot in the Grave is Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not that anyone involved with either series would accept it, but.
posted by Grangousier at 4:03 AM on February 25


I used to love Fawlty Towers as a kid but just can stomach it now. I tried to watch an episode a few years ago and the misogyny, racism and just general ugliness made me turn it off before it was over.
posted by octothorpe at 4:14 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I'd disagree on Curb Your Enthusiasm, largely in tone, because CYE captured the cranky histrionic parts of OFITG, but never managed the transcendent poignancy of, say, Richard Wilson buried up to his neck talking to his wife about the death of her mother.

The bizarre Cosby was at its most surreal when they'd use scripts straight from the UK series, because Cosby may be Cosby, but he just didn't have the raggedy edge needed to do a passable take on Richard Wilson.
posted by sonascope at 4:15 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


It may have been network-stemming worry that the central character needed to be a sympathetic audience stand-in.

Huh. By the time made it to air, Newhart had already been on a year and had just been majorly re-tooled into the show about a wacky hotel run by a sympathetic innkeeper constantly doomed by his environment that would run another seven seasons. I wonder if the network was looking for a Newhart clone and saw Fawlty Towers as something that could be quickly imported. I also wonder if Newhart started off as an American Fawlty Towers and the producers were just better at adapting it.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:27 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Speaking of Newhart...is that the same interior set? If it's not, its very similar!
posted by HuronBob at 4:42 AM on February 25


This was not the last time an American remake of Fawlty Towers was attempted. In 1999, CBS aired "Payne", starring John Larroquette as Royal Payne and JoBeth Williams as his wife Connie (a nod to original co-creator and co-star Connie Booth, one would imagine). 9 episodes were made, only 8 aired.
posted by inturnaround at 5:22 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Still, I'm trying to think who might even have replaced her, as there weren't many comediennes of that era who were capable of the necessary acerbic delivery.

Eve Arden.
posted by JanetLand at 5:25 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


"The American comic hero is a wisecracker who is above his material... and the idiots around him....the British comedian....would want to play the failures" another chance to link to Stephen Fry talking about the major structural differences between American and British comic characters.
posted by rongorongo at 5:35 AM on February 25 [7 favorites]


They got the set right.
posted by pracowity at 5:43 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I tried to watch an episode a few years ago and the misogyny, racism and just general ugliness made me turn it off before it was over.

Manuel there is too much butter ON. THESE. TRAYS.

No, no, no Senor Fawlty, Uno, dos, tres.

It was indeed a bit shocking even for the 1970s to see minority employees mocking a tall, lanky white guy. Making Basil out to be the self-centered, idiot that he was was the entire point of Fawlty Towers - how could they write out the main character and expect to have anything remaining?
posted by three blind mice at 6:06 AM on February 25


and JoBeth Williams as his wife Connie (a nod to original co-creator and co-star Connie Booth, one would imagine)

It's actually another play on "Payne" as in "Constance Payne", get it?
posted by briank at 6:06 AM on February 25


Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's adapt Sherlock Holmes but without Holmes. Let's adapt Dr. Who but we'll drop the Doctor. Let's do Fawlty Towers but drop Basil Fawlty.

This executive basically forecast the kind of nonsense regularly spewed each day by those on FOX news and politicians with a straight face today.

It also stinks of MGM's decision to buy out Buster Keaton and then not allow him to do Buster Keaton movies.
posted by juiceCake at 6:08 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Let's adapt Pratchett's Mort but lose the Death angle.
posted by Pendragon at 6:36 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


ActingTheGoat: "He was in that two part episode of Benson where the guy gets killed on the yacht."

Seymour Zamboni: "I remember him as the Principal in the early 1970's TV series Room 222, which was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a racially integrated high school."

Heh. I was gonna say, "He played family patriarch Gus Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding." :)
posted by zarq at 6:47 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I completely agree that they blew it by making Amanda sympathetic rather than the architect of her own hilarious doom, which is basically the One True Plot™ of Fawlty Towers.

Also of the original The Office, for which the American remake did indeed manage to change Michael Scott into a more sympathetic character and go on to greatness, after a disastrous false start in which they tried to be faithful to the original British model.

So you just never know with stuff like this. It's all lightning in a bottle anyway, and anyone who says they can tell you what will work and what won't is trying to get money from you.
posted by Naberius at 7:00 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I used to love Fawlty Towers as a kid but just can stomach it now. I tried to watch an episode a few years ago and the misogyny, racism and just general ugliness made me turn it off before it was over.

octothorpe

You've never stayed at a holiday hotel in Cornwall, then:)

(I have no nostalgia for blimpish British comedy - but it's not as though the awful Fawlty Towers stereotypes have entirely vanished from the genteel seaside hotel trade in real modern Britain! I've never met a Basil or a Sybil - or a Manuel -not specifically, but they are still absolutely recognizable types today.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:13 AM on February 25


... and during sweeps we'll have a Very Special Episode where Godot shows up.
posted by DanSachs at 7:26 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Why was Bea Arthur cast in the role? She was never funny, was she?
posted by pracowity at 7:50 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's adapt Sherlock Holmes but without Holmes. Let's adapt Dr. Who but we'll drop the Doctor. Let's do Fawlty Towers but drop Basil Fawlty.

And thus, Sherlock came to be.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:50 AM on February 25


pracowity: "Why was Bea Arthur cast in the role? She was never funny, was she?"

She was, but with a sarcastic/sardonic wit. I'm guessing that with her just coming off the success of Maude (ostensibly a comedy, but with lots of drama) the producers probably thought her personality was strong enough to play a Basil-type.
posted by zarq at 8:14 AM on February 25


Why was Bea Arthur cast in the role? She was never funny, was she?

how dare you
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:19 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


I searched and found that [Tony Rosata's] been through some pretty harrowing stuff - serious mental illness, incarceration, estrangement from his family - over the past decade. I hope he's doing OK now.

Holy crap, I wrote about him years ago, and his suffering from Capgras delusion. I'd been under the impression that that's irreversible; it looks like he's coming back from that. Good on him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:34 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


More of a Beckett thing than a comedy, really.

What, you mean Beckett isn't supposed to be funny?
posted by Flexagon at 8:35 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Hey, I've got a great idea! .... Let's do Fawlty Towers but drop Basil Fawlty.

So this is kind of about being the architect of one's own hilarious doom, in a meta kind of way.
posted by mazola at 8:39 AM on February 25


This post is weirding me out. I watched a lot of TV back then. And I read TV Guide pretty religiously. I wasn't a huge fan of FT (not sure why I never took to it - I memorized all of Monty Python and loved quirky humor), but I would have noticed if someone announced a remake of it. Meanwhile, I would have bet money (and I never bet money) that there was never an SNL cast member named Tony Rosato. Even if you told me he was on with the disastrous cast that included Christine Ebersole. So I just went down this whole SNL/Tony Rosato rabbit hole (and now I recognize him from his headshot, but still looking at it without wikipedia would say no, he was not an SNL cast member and I watched all of them, not possible).

So I'm sitting here, looking at all this video evidence, and it's not April 1st, and all I can say is I'm sorry to everyone who saw this thread and didn't realize it was a joke, and that those of us who figured out the joke kept it up and never admitted it. Because having your head messed with on this level is way weird. I feel like I'm on some alternate-reality butterfly-effect timeline. So so strange.

So really, this was actually a show? Or did all of you (including the late but somehow resurrected and rejuvenated Bea Arthur) go to this much effort just to mess with me?

Was it at least on Friday nights? We weren't allowed to watch TV on Friday nights. Maybe it fell down that wormhole?
posted by Mchelly at 8:41 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Mchelly, it aired on Thursday nights. First episode aired February 10, 1983 which was a Thursday.

That Buzzfeed fpp is hilarious. :D
posted by zarq at 8:56 AM on February 25


Now can somebody find me video of We'll Get By?
posted by JanetLand at 10:18 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Why was Bea Arthur cast in the role? She was never funny, was she?

Somebody hold me back. Seriously, somebody hold me back!

For any creative sins (and, yes, she had many [I'm looking right at you, musical version of Mame w/Lucille Ball]), all is forgiven for her work as Dorthy Petrillo Zbornack Hollingsworth.
posted by MoxieProxy at 10:31 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


(I love being on a site where I can say, in reference to Bea Arthur, "Star Wars Christmas Special," and people will know what I mean.)

I'm struggling to think of a site where people wouldn't. I mean, I know they must be out there, but still...
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:56 AM on February 25


to think that I had lived this many years in blessed ignorance of this abomination. thanks!?
posted by Busithoth at 11:20 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


So you just never know with stuff like this. It's all lightning in a bottle anyway, and anyone who says they can tell you what will work and what won't is trying to get money from you.

This is true generally. Except Fawlty Towers was already lightning in a bottle. It's quite possibly the funniest sitcom of all. If you try to improve upon that you're basically tempting the gods to strike you down.

I dunno, is Fawlty Towers really all that racist? Most of the show is quite sympathetic to Manuel, most of what appears to be the show apparently making fun of him comes actually from the language barrier, which would be a problem no matter who you are. Most of the cast works well with Manuel anyway, it's Basil, who it's well-established is a colossal arse, who had problems with him.

On the opposite side -- I would agree that Manuel is played a bit broadly, and having him keep a pet rat might have been a bit too far, I think, although it provides the setup for what's probably the best episode in terms of comedy.
posted by JHarris at 1:51 PM on February 25


I've watched more than my share of TV, especially in this era, and I have zero memory of this at all.
posted by jonmc at 2:27 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


"He's from Barcelona" and Basil's mangled Spanish is also a reflection of Spain's Mediterranean coast becoming a popular holiday destination for British tourists.

I'd note also that Terry, the Towers' chef, has an antagonistic "bloody foreigners" relationship with Manuel, especially in The Anniversary when Manuel cooks paella in his kitchen.

Also looking dated now: O'Reilly the cowboy builder is an awful Irish stereotype.

Hard to imagine Fawlty Towers ever making a successful transition to America because at root it's all about class in a fundamentally English way: Basil's a perpetually frustrated social climber who's unable to pass in the circles he aspires to.

[Although arguably Steptoe and Son is also a class-based comedy (Harold's ambitions versus Albert's constant reminders of his origins) that did make the transition to an American remake...]
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:33 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Redd Foxx can make up for a lot though.
posted by JHarris at 3:11 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


A script editor responds to Fawlty Towers scripts in 1974.
posted by crossoverman at 5:51 PM on February 25


Why was Bea Arthur cast in the role? She was never funny, was she?

God'll get you for that, Walter.
posted by ChrisTN at 6:34 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


(I love being on a site where I can say, in reference to Bea Arthur, "Star Wars Christmas Special," and people will know what I mean.)

I'm struggling to think of a site where people wouldn't. I mean, I know they must be out there, but still...


I hate to be boring & all, but WTF are you talking about?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:20 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I also can't believe I'd never heard of this, although back in the day it's not like you could just get a proxy server on your TV and watch British comedy. I didn't know about Fawtly Towers until I lived in the UK in the late 1970s and I might have recognized this if I had seen it. The set is a dead ringer.

Agreed about the strange American translations of British comedies, but at least with dramas they sometimes get it right. House of Cards (US) made my skin crawl as much as House of Cards (UK) did. Imagine Underwood and Urquart meeting at a G8 summit. In Transylvania.
posted by salishsea at 7:35 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I didn't know about Fawtly Towers until I lived in the UK in the late 1970s...

It ran from '75 until '79 (although, twelve episodes overall. They *are* British,) so that's to be expected.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:09 PM on February 25


And thus, Sherlock came to be.

It's so awful for so many reasons. Unfortunately, it's also going to keep on going it seems.
posted by juiceCake at 8:28 PM on February 25


It's so awful for so many reasons. Unfortunately, it's also going to keep on going it seems.

For every creative endeavor you undertake, at least one person will love it and at least one person will hate it.
posted by davejay at 11:51 PM on February 25


For every creative endeavor you undertake, at least one person will love it and at least one person will hate it.

Nickelback.
posted by juiceCake at 8:21 PM on February 26


Wash your mouth out, young man! We'll have none of that language around here!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:46 PM on February 26


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