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Pining for the Fjords: Real Life Hotel that Inspired ‘Fawlty Towers’ Falls to the Wrecking Ball
March 21, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

Even legends die eventually. Or, as hapless waiter Manuel of Fawlty Towers would have said, “hee-vent-whally.”

This past week, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported that the rustic, seaside hotel that inspired John Cleese’s classic comedy Fawlty Towers, has been demolished.

During his tenure as the hapless hotelier running a sleepy hotel in Torquay, Devon, on the “English Riviera” — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — Basil Fawlty contended with hotel inspectors; a rogue rat; German tourists; an exploding fire extinguisher; an obnoxious American couple; fire in the hotel; pigeons on the roof; a visiting psychiatrist; a forgotten wedding anniversary; a con man passing himself off as a British lord; a red Austin 1100 that never started when it needed to; a Greek chef with a weakness for the bottle and a thing for the Spanish waiter; a forgotten wedding anniversary — and so on, and so on.

Even Basil, though, couldn’t have foreseen that the real-life hotel that inspired Fawlty Towers would one day succumb to the wrecking ball, for something as mundane and prosaic as redevelopment.

It’s as if renovators O’Reilly Building Contractors, from the series’ second episode “The Builders,” took one look at their new job and decided it was beyond repair; the only thing left to do was demolish it and start from scratch.

Legend has it that Cleese stayed at the Gleneagles hotel in 1971 while filming a segment of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The Pythons, appalled by the unfriendly, bordering-on-hostile service they received, promptly moved out.

Cleese stayed on, though, and took notes. The hotel’s owners, Don Sinclair and his wife Beatrice, would become the models for Basil and Sybil Fawlty. The Guardian noted that Cleese once described Sinclair as “the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met.”

Fawlty Towers debuted on BBC2 on Sept. 19, 1975, four years almost to the day after that fateful stay.

Cleese co-created and co-wrote Fawlty Towers’ 12 episodes with his then-wife Connie Booth, who played overworked, under-appreciated chambermaid Polly Sherman.

Booth, a native of Indianapolis, Indiana — there’s the American connection — retired from acting in 1995 and studied to become a registered psychotherapist, which sounds as if it could have been a Fawlty Towers episode, but wasn’t.

(For the record, Booth and Cleese divorced in 1978 but remained friends, according to published reports; their daughter Cynthia appeared alongside her dad in the films A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures. Now you know.)

The Guardian reported that the development company is pitching the Torquay location as being “near a busy harbor and international marina that could fool you into thinking you were on the Mediterranean” — which sounds like something Basil might have said in an overpriced ad to drum up hotel business.

In the famously funny second-season premiere, “Communication Problems,” (right) a difficult, demanding — and deaf — guest, Mrs. Richards, complains that her room-with-a-view doesn’t have a view.

“I want to see the manager,” she shouts at him, adjusting her hearing aid so that she can hear.

“I’m the owner.”


“I’m am the owner.”

“You said you were the manager.”

“I’m the owner and manager.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so, you silly little man.”

What constitutes a “room with a view,” anyway?

“Yes, Madame,” Basil shouts, throwing open the second-floor window: “This is your view.”

“You call that a view?”

“May I ask exactly what were you were expecting to see out the window of a Torquay hotel room?,” Basil says, starting to lose his temper. “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, perhaps? Great herds of wildebeest sweeping across the plain?”

“I expect to see the sea.”

“You can see the sea. It’s there between the land and the sky.”

“You call that the sea? It’s not big enough to drown a mouse in.”

“I wish you were a mouse.”

It’s “The Builders,” though, with its cascade of construction calamities that’s hard to forget, 30 years later, now that the actual hotel has come tumbling down.

There was the moment when Basil and his wife return from a weekend getaway, leaving Polly and Manuel in charge of seemingly straightforward renovations.

On returning, he finds a new wall blocking the entrance to the dining room, and wooden beams instead of metal rods to prop up a supporting wall. 

“Polly!” he shouts, grabbing her by the ear and pressing her nose against the retaining wall. “What have you done to my hotel? What have you done to my dining-room door?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t you know?! I left you in charge!“

”I fell asleep.”

“You fell asleep?!”

“It’s not my fault.”

“You fell asleep, and it’s not your fault?!“

“He forgot to wake me.”

“Who forgot to wake you?”

“It is my fault.”

And it suddenly dawns on him.

“Manuel!,” he shrieks. “I knew it! Manuel! Manuel!

“Well, you hired O’Reilly, didn’t you? I mean, lo

ok at these walls. Who else would do something like this?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You hired O’Reilly.”

“Oh, I see, it’s my fault, is it? Oh, of course. There I was thinking it was your fault because I left you in charge, or Manuel’s fault for not waking you, when all the time it was my fault. Oh, it’s so obvious now. I’m seeing the light. Well, I must be punished then, mustn’t I?”

And he punches himself in the head. Twice. And then collapses in a panic attack.

“I’ll call O’Reilly,” he says, recovering temporarily. “You go see if the roof is still on.”

It isn’t on anymore.

The real-life Gleneagles was home to 41 bedrooms, according to The Guardian — more than Polly could keep up with, clearly. Then again, the inn was rarely full, or even half full, during Basil’s tenure.

The old hotel has been demolished to make way for new retirement homes. Perhaps they’ll film an episode of Derek there.

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