Fawlty Towers - Review in East Anglian paper

Young giant-killers’ sell-out show is a towering effort!
Thursday, December 1, 2011

I’ve just been to see two episodes of Fawlty Towers performed live. That’s right, the classic TV sitcom Fawlty Towers, performed live. It was last Sunday afternoon, only three minutes up the road from me, and in Wivenhoe’s William Loveless Hall. The performance which I saw was the second of three last weekend. All shows were sold out. I would estimate that the production had managed to put between 450 to 500 rears on tiers over the whole weekend. Although, I couldn’t recall ever having heard of anyone performing Fawlty Towers before, surely, someone must have staged it in London – maybe up west somewhere? If that had been the case, though, you’d think there’d have been an attendant PR splurge and several big names involved.
I asked around and was told: “This is not a common production. We understand one was performed somewhere around 10 years ago, and another at Maldon Town Hall two years ago.”

Now, I considered it, though; Fawlty Towers. Who would dare to take it on?

The sitcom, which began in 1975, got off to a slow start but went on to immortality. There were only ever 12 episodes made. Each episode took six weeks to devise and script. In an era when the word ‘legend’ is bandied about far too freely, here was a comedy actually worthy of the title. John Cleese and Constance Booth, its writers, obeyed four essential rules most likely to endow a thing with legendary status: 1) Turn up. 2) Be brilliant. 3) Go away. 4) Refuse to repeat.

Fawlty Towers, though, has over the decades become so precious that we’re rarely allowed these days to see it on free-to-air TV.

I don’t want to waste your time here analysing why it was so good. I’ll leave that job to those media cheapskates who specialise in making TV programmes which are really only shopping lists – Your 100 Best Comedy Moments type-of-thing. I suppose this is because it’s cheaper not to make new programmes, but instead, to prattle on endlessly about why the old ones were so good.

Fawlty Towers, though. Would you trust a small town am-dram group to walk in the seven league boots of such a comedy giant? Did you trust Paul Merton to recreate Tony Hancock?

There’s a recession to be taken account of here too. Theatres aren’t having a good time of things at present.

According to some sources, this is all the Government’s fault. Well, naturally. Nothing to do with the fact that if you only stage dull or incomprehensible stuff and then charge too much for it, people might not want to come.

Listen; if you put Fawlty Towers on and charge only £6 for two episodes, you could probably stage it in a leaky tent in a supermarket car park, lit by two bicycle lamps, and the punters would still flock in. You could try other tactics, of course. You could stage the ghastly Marat Sade for its shock value and hope that the resultant protests will shoehorn a few more punters in. Or you could try to stage Fawlty Towers.

This was the course taken by Shane Diggens and his co-director Aaron Reilly. Shane is a 21-year-old Wivenhoe entertainer. He sings, he plays drums and plays in amateur musical productions. He’s more showbiz, therefore, than arts bunker.

Aaron, is still studying for his A-levels at Colne Community School in Brightlingsea and (probably because I’m quite old) he looks about 14.

These lads don’t have any Arts Council money or anything like that. They probably wouldn’t even think of applying for it.

So what do they do? They get a very lanky actor called Greg Smith, known locally for his great comic timing, to play Basil Fawlty.

Then they get another highly-regarded local stalwart, Jane Rayner to play Sybil, Fawlty’s wife. Shane then asks his sister, the singer Angie Diggens, to play Polly the maid.

Gradually, over the course of the autumn the two young giant-killers build themselves a strong cast. Then, one weekend in mid-November, with very little fanfare, they stage two Fawlty Towers episodes –The Hotel Inspectors and Communication Problems. They do this with home-built sets, and all within the plain confines of the William Loveless Hall. And they sell out.

This was a family affair. Shane and Angie’s mum, Julia, did the box office and publicity. Their nan, Mary Diggens helped with the costumes. Their dad, Neil handled transport and did the sound. There was something noble – almost Victorian – about this procedure. It was definitively in a tradition which Charles Dickens would have recognised – a noted local theatrical family and their friends putting on a well-loved comedy production.

And it was brilliant. When it had finished, as the audience exploded into applause, I felt I could have watched it all over again. Apart from Fawlty Towers being quite as funny as it ever was, it was oddly moving to realise how much work and attention to detail had gone into it. Quite frankly, I don’t think even John Cleese or Connie Booth could have quibbled with it.

Fawlty Towers, when staged as a live play is quite as impressive as anything by Wilde, Shaw or Sheridan. Shane Diggens says that he would like to take the show out on tour, next.

And I would like to march the entire British Arts Council and every theatre director in London out to north Essex and make them watch Shane’s and Aaron’s production. And then I would like to say to them all: “Beat that, you no-marks.”


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