Monday, 12 May 2008

Fawlty Feedback

A copy of the first ‘Fawlty Towers’ script fell through a time warp to the BBC Comedy Department in 2008. This is the response.

Dear Mr Cleese and Ms Booth

Many thanks for your script.

I’m afraid we do not feel it is the right project for the BBC. Although your script had many positive elements, we felt it lacked certain qualities which are required by BBC comedy at this time.

First of all, the situation. We are not sure our audience would be familiar with bed & breakfast hotels, particularly those in Torquay. Many of our audience would not be aware that Torquay was a seaside resort, or, indeed, that such a place as Torquay exists. Or that there is such a thing as a seaside resort. You have to remember – BBC audiences aren’t as clever as you or me!

Ideally what we are looking for are shows that have a strong sense of place and local identity without being too region-specific. The setting of Torquay, we feel, is not aspirational or contemporary enough for a BBC 1 audience and does not have the necessary ‘wow-factor’ for a BBC 3 audience.

Even then, the whole idea of a ‘hotel’ seems tired and over-familiar; indeed, it is so tired and over-familiar we recently piloted a show with the same premise by Jennifer Saunders. As it stands, your show would have a much better chance if it were set in a drop-in centre for former celebrity drug addicts.

We appreciate the fact that your show is a studio-bound laugh-out-loud audience show, as we have said many times we are looking for more studio-bound laugh-out-loud audience shows. However, I have to tell you we are not looking for more studio-bound laugh-out-loud audience shows at this time, and we suggest in future you try submitting a studio-bound laugh-out-loud audience show.

Secondly, the characters. What we are looking for are attractive, aspirational characters the audience can identify with. I’m afraid your main characters seemed unsympathetic; how is an audience supposed to care about what happens to Basil when he is so unpleasant to his wife and staff? Indeed, his whole journey through this episode seems to one which brings out his worst qualities; our Creative Futures audience research comedy Venn diagram shows that audiences want to watch characters with a ‘positive’ attitude achieving success in their goals.

Similarly, the character of Sybil is, if anything, more unlikeable than Basil. We feel this is a backwards-looking stereotype. We are looking for female leads that are bold, smart, sexy, funny, career-focussed and who don’t suffer fools gladly. Sybil feels more like an old-school caricature; you have to ask yourself ‘Is this a Dawn Frenchy type of role?’ or ‘Is this is a role Caroline Quentin would be willing to play?’ or even ‘Is this character sufficiently Liza Tarbuckish?’

Manuel, we like. He’s clearly the funniest character in the show; maybe he should be the lead? If you’ll remember your ‘Story’ by Robert McKee, you’ll know that you should always build your show around your most sympathetic character. Manuel’s strong work ethic, his ethnic minority status and his brand of cheerful optimism would we feel be a ‘hit’ with viewers; however, the scenes where Basil punishes him made us feel uncomfortable. We would much prefer a show where Manuel – as our audience identification figure – achieved success in his chosen goals.

The fourth character, Polly, we found to be painfully underwritten. Does she even need to be in the show at all? Please remember that female characters should be bold, smart, sexy, funny, career-focussed and not suffer fools gladly. Ask yourself, would Dawn French or Caroline Quentin or Ruth Jones be willing to take on such a passive character?

Taken as a whole, we didn’t quite understand the ‘world’ of these characters and felt it lacked internal logic. Basil, for instance, is clearly not suited to running a hotel. How did he end up in such a position – and why does he keep doing it? Similarly, his relationship with his wife makes no sense. We can’t understand how they could have got together, or why they wouldn’t have split up years ago. Our audience is also going to wonder why they haven’t had children. And the fact that Basil has hired Manuel – someone clearly not qualified to work as a waiter – to work as waiter is also illogical. Why doesn’t he fire Manuel and get someone more qualified? We get the impression you haven’t thought the reality of the situation through.

Thirdly, the tone. You seem to be aiming both too ‘high brow’ and too ‘low brow’. If you will remember from our Creative Futures audience research comedy tone Venn diagram, shows are either ‘high brow’ or ‘low brow’ but cannot be both at once. You can not, after all, be both ‘Yes, Minister!’ and ‘Tittybangbang!’ Our audience research tells us that audiences will only want to watch shows which are exactly like shows they are already watching, and we feel ‘Fawlty Towers!’ would not therefore be an easy ‘fit’ in our schedule.

The problem arises with the first ‘gag’ – Basil telling Manuel he has put too much butter ‘on those trays’ which Manuel mistakes for the Spanish phrase ‘uno, dos, tres’. We feel this joke to be far too ‘high brow’ – most of our audience would not speak fluent Spanish, after all! You have to be aware that if an audience is presented with a joke they cannot fully understand and/or predict wholesale in advance, they will be alienated and will switch off. Possibly if you seeded the information that ‘uno, dos, tres’ is a phrase in Spanish earlier in the episode you could get away with it, but even then, we’d probably ask you to take it out. You have to remember - BBC audiences aren’t as clever as you or me!

On the other hand, the physical humour makes this show seem ‘low brow’ – the slapstick fights, the business with ‘shaking the brick’ and so forth. We feel this plays very well, but we don’t feel you are going far enough. Our Creative Futures comedy tone Venn diagram says that our 18-25 demographic is keen on ‘gross out’ humour, so why not have a b-plot with the ‘Major’ soiling his sheets (think ‘Trainspotting’!) or the two old ladies pissing on the floor (think ‘Little Britain’!).

The tone is far too ambiguous. For instance, you have Basil listening to Brahms to relax. Would our audience know who Brahms was? Would they get the joke if they didn’t? Would they be alienated by Brahms if they did? It’s all far too ‘high brow’; you don’t bother explaining that Brahms composed classical music which someone might listen to as a form of relaxation. You can’t assume that your audience has even the most basic level of awareness of the world about them – we can’t stress this too strongly, BBC audiences aren’t as clever as you or me!

I discussed this scene with Susan Nickson and she suggested a much funnier alternative. How about Basil is having a wank in his office? That way, when Sybil discovers him, he would have his trousers around his ankles and maybe some toilet tissues stuck to his hand (remember ‘gross out’ plays well with the 18-25 demographic!). Then, when he is serving drinks in the dining room, his trousers could fall down again to reveal that he still has an erection, which could get stuck in a pineapple - and there could be an embarrassed silence! Or maybe he mixes up his pornography with the dinner menus. As you can see, it’s an idea rich in comic possibilities, with a much broader audience appeal - without relying on specialist knowledge of 19th century composers! This is why we have commissioned three more series from Susan Nickson.

Fourthly, the episode structure. It’s almost as if you haven’t read ‘Story’ by Robert McKee at all! Your sample episode starts slowly and takes far too long to get going. And as far as I can tell, the inciting incident – the arrival of Lord Melbury – doesn’t happen until 12 pages into the episode, when Robert McKee states that the inciting incident should always occur precisely half-way down page 3.

Throughout the episode, I also felt that there wasn’t enough at stake. I don’t quite know what I mean by this, but nevertheless I feel it be a valid comment to make because I haven’t read your script properly.

This is also why I’m going to tell you that I didn’t feel that the characters had sufficiently distinctive ‘voices’, because when I read your script I imagined them all as though they were played by Dawn French.

And finally, future episodes. Thank you for including a list of future episodes, though we still don’t see how this show can work as a series, because we have no imagination and have only read one episode. Are all the episodes going to be set in the hotel? Are they all going to be about Basil messing things up? Isn’t that going to be a bit repetitive?

As it is, our Creative Futures audience research has told us that audiences don’t like ‘farce’ and much prefer ‘character’ comedy, or ‘embarrassment’ comedy or ‘gross out’ comedy. We don’t feel that ‘intricately constructed plots’ would play well. There isn’t even a category for them on our Creative Futures comedy tone Venn diagram!

That said, we did feel your episode ‘The Germans’ showed promise, but we weren’t keen on the idea of there being Germans in it; we felt it could be misconstrued as racist. Our suggestion is that you make the episode instead about a visiting group of wheelchair-users and call it ‘The Cripples’; maybe with Basil doing a spastic impersonation rather than doing the Hitler walk. We feel that would be ‘refreshingly un-PC’ and if you don’t do it, then Ricky Gervais almost certainly will.

I hope you have found these comments helpful and you will continue to submit comedy scripts to the BBC for our consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Micheal Lumsden-Lumsden