I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.
For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.
Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.
Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.
Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.
Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.
I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.
(originally published June 5, 2015)