Shropshire Star

Mark Andrews: Fawlty Towers remake is bound to flop

In 2018 John Cleese explained why there would be little point in him trying to make a sitcom again.

Fawlty Towers is set to be revived

"Everyone would say, ‘Well, it’s got its moments, but it’s not as good as Fawlty Towers’," he said. "You have to do different things."

Five years on Cleese appears to have forgotten those very words, announcing that he will be reviving his seminal comedy.

Expect it to go down like the stale prawns that Basil tried to force on his guests in the episode Waldorf Salad.

Fawlty Towers

There are all sorts of reasons why trying to revive Fawlty Towers, some 44 years after the last episode was screened, is fraught with problems. Not least is that the original series made heavy use of physical comedy, with Basil throwing himself about as events spiralled out of control. That worked well when Cleese was in his 30s, but he's 83 now. That is bound to place constraints on what he can do.

The other problem is one that has afflicted pretty much all comedy over the past decade or so – today's climate of overbearing political correctness. Cleese himself alluded to this when he said the original Fawlty Towers was unlikely to be commissioned today, and said 'there's no such thing as a woke joke'. So how will he overcome that?

Cleese, and his ex-wife Connie Booth, famously only made 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, something which many attributed to the place it held in the nation's hearts. Quit while you're ahead, leave them asking for more. He now risks undoing all of that.

Fawlty Towers is set to be revived

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant cited this philosophy when they limited The Office and Extras to just two series. And this decision was vindicated when Gervais, without the help of Merchant, decided to revive the character of David Brent in the 2016 film Life on the Road – the movie received very mixed reviews, and proved to be a stretch too far.

Only two series were made of The Office

Ben Elton and Victoria Wood also cited Fawlty Towers regarding their decision to limit the number of episodes of The Young Ones and Dinnerladies. More recently, the time-travel police series Life on Mars also followed the two-series rule, with its sequel Ashes to Ashes being extended to three. Happy Valley, which has scooped a hoard of plaudits since its launch in 2014, reached its conclusion this week after just three series.

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley

It is possible to successfully revive a much-loved series – many would argue that Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? was even better than the original series. But on the whole, these remakes, or 'reboots' as they seem to be called these days, have a patchy record at best.

Take, for example, Still Open All Hours, the recent reinterpretation of Open All Hours, the classic sitcom of the 1970s and 80s. The original, starring Ronnie Barker as a cynical, money-grabbing shopkeeper, provided a sharp observation of working-class life of the time. Barker, considerably shrewder and more streetwise than his uneducated customers, would provided a listening ear – and wry commentary – as they offloaded their prejudices and conspiracy theories. But when the series was revived in 2013, Barker was long dead, and the series survived on a diet of whimsy and nostalgia for the original. The fact that it has run for six series – two more than the original – probably says more about the dearth of quality programmes on TV today, than it does about the merits of the inferior spin-off.

Much worse, though, was Channel 5's charmless attempt to bring back Minder in 2009, with Shane Richie and Lex Shrapnel taking the place of George Cole and Dennis Waterman. In truth, Minder had already outstayed its welcome when it ended in 1994 after 15 years, but the 2009 revival was an unmitigated disaster. When it was launched in 1979, Minder successfully balanced gritty realism with witty social comment, and the nation cheered as its leading characters scored little victories over authority as they moved from strip club to gambling den. But the Channel 5 revival came in an altogether more uptight age, governed by the strictures of political correctness. With Richie and Shrapnel unable to get up to any nefarious activities, it just looked quaint and corny.

Dodgy effort – Shane Richie and Lex Shrapnel in the Channel 5 remake of Minder

The same year, the BBC attempted to revive Reggie Perrin, with Martin Clunes playing the role made famous by Leonard Rossiter in the 1970s. This fared a little better, landing a few satirical punches about modern life. The ineffectual company doctor of the Rossiter era had been replaced by an equally useless 'wellness consultant'. And instead of being engrossed in their newspapers, the modern-day commuters sat in bleak isolation listening to their headphones. Had this been a new, original series, it might have come off. But it always suffered from living in the shadow of its far superior original.

Martin Clunes as Reggie Perrin

Which brings us neatly back to Cleese's original argument. Given that the original Fawlty Towers has been voted the greatest sitcom of all time, is he really, at the age of 83, going to better it with a remake?

The disappointing thing is, that with his wealth of life experience and outspoken ideas, Cleese could probably write a very good sitcom poking fun at the absurdities of living in the 2020s. Rising inflation, strikes, mobile phone dependency, generation rent, kids walking around with bottled water, there is no shortage of material for a cantankerous older man to get his teeth into.

Just don't mention Fawlty Towers.