For many male actors, playing Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear is the pinnacle, an aspiration that many realise and accept won’t happen. Basil Fawlty was the creation of a comic genius with dialogue written by skilled comedians. So why is it that actors believe they can play an icon of television comedy by laughing at their own jokes and clipping the ear of a short bloke with a big mustache? It’s like carrying around a skull and claiming to be Hamlet.
When you’re invited to a venue where the staff have provided the comedy for years, it was always going to be interesting to see how a production of ‘The Best of British Comedy’ was going to be staged.
Let me set the scene. The audience is dining at Fawlty Towers (and don’t we know it), apparently Sybil is away for the weekend playing golf and Basil is being assisted in the dining room by Barbara Windsor and Manuel.
The production company state that the performance is ‘half scripted and half improvised’ and I can honestly say that the joins were seamless.
Throughout the evening there were cameo appearances from such loved comic characters as Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous, Frank Spencer, Del Boy, Tommy Cooper and the policeman from ‘Allo, ‘Allo.
How, you may wonder, did they weave such characters into the narrative? Well, it helps if the narrative is……., shall we call it, fluid?
Patsy was a disgruntled punter looking for a table in an apparently full restaurant. Frank Spencer was the newly employed handy-man. Del Boy was trying to sell stuff. Tommy Cooper had been raised from the dead and hired by Basil Fawlty as the evening’s entertainment. And the appearance of the policeman from ‘Allo ‘Allo was an inspiration that only the scriptwriter is aware of.
To be fair it might have been a good script but unfortunately the actors weren’t wearing microphones, the room was too big to control and the performers were up-staged by the hotel staff.
In some venues having a plate of food thrown down on the table by Basil Fawlty would be a comic moment but in other places it’s part of the charm and not that unusual.
When you’ve got over a hundred people in a room divided in half by a dance floor you need to have stage presence, big performances and a degree of control. If you don’t, you get all the chaos of Fawlty Towers but without the comedy.
It was billed as an evening of theatre with dinner. Instead it was dinner with the occasional burst of a TV theme tune to cue the appearance of hastily dressed actor who did their best to deliver lines over the hubbub of persistent conversation and clattering cutlery. I’d blame it on the alcohol but when Patsy staggered around an empty dance floor on her lonesome, trying to deliver some slurred lines, I hadn’t yet finished my first glass. By the time she found a semi-dignified way to leave the room I realised that ordering by the glass would be futile. “Manuel, bring me the wine list.”
Of course part of the entertainment should happen when the characters come to the table. Manuel had us in stitches as he filled the water glasses to the brim! Basil asked us several times how the evening was going and reveled in the opportunity to share his ‘fork off’ puns after Franck Spencer removed one from the table. And then when the fish being was served………oh no, that was the hotel waitress.
I would imagine that as performers you quickly judge how an audience is going to respond and when the audience are busy doing their own impressions and discussing the drama in their own lives, I expect that dessert can’t come soon enough.
It wasn’t that it was a bad performance, it was simply a bad idea.