Stephen Hall goose-steps into John Cleese’s shoes for the world premiere of John Cleese’s long awaited adaptation of Fawlty Towers Live.
John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers has more than its share of mega-fans, who can recite every episode word-for-word, know about the real-life inspiration for Basil Fawlty and his hotel, as well as the TV show’s initial struggle to get a look-in at the BBC.
But the shadow of the series looms so large across the sitcom landscape many casual fans don’t realise there were only ever 12 episodes made, with almost every scene now etched into our collective memories.
That makes actor/comedian Stephen Hall’s task in Fawlty Towers Live a particularly daunting one.
The 47-year-old actor, best known for his roles in Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell, was selected by John Cleese and the producers to play the snooty, ill-tempered hotel manager Basil in the show’s world premiere in Sydney this month.
“When we arrived at the final audition,” Hall says, “Cleese said ‘we’ve deliberately chosen people who haven’t done John Cleese impersonations’.”
So does that mean fans won’t see a carbon copy of Cleese’s famous silly walk as he deludedly goose-steps around a group of German guests?
“I’m just a different person, and I have different mannerisms and ticks. I don’t look particularly like John Cleese. [Although both are about 193cm tall and Hall has grown a Basil-esque moustache for the role.] Having said that, there are moments that people are coming to see — they want to be reminded what they loved in the first place.”
There have been several live versions of Fawlty Towers over the years, but this is the first with Cleese’s involvement. There’s no word yet on where else the production might play in the world, but it seems clear that the creatives have other international markets in their sights after the Australian and New Zealand tour.
The play incorporates the plots from three classic episodes (The Hotel Inspectors, The Germans, and Communication Problems) alongside new material, scripted by Cleese.
So there are plenty of beloved moments which Hall has to take on, including the entire “don’t mention the war” sequence and the guest from hell, Mrs Richards, whose hearing aid provides the opportunity for some excellent slapstick.
“I came to Fawlty Towers as a Monty Python fanboy,” Hall says. “I watched Fawlty Towers religiously on the ABC when it first aired in Australia. I do remember falling off the couch with laughter the first time I heard Basil say ‘is this a piece of your brain?‘ to Mrs Richards. In those moments, we’ve been very true to the original.”
It was a huge thrill for Hall to receive the script for the stage version and have, in his hands, the first new Fawlty Towers material written by John Cleese in more than 40 years.
“Everybody inside the rehearsal room is just counting their blessings,” Hall says. “Who would’ve thought that Australia would be the first place in the world to do this show, and who would’ve thought we’d be the chosen ones?”
Hall is no stranger to following in Cleese’s footsteps, having played several roles made famous by the British comedian in the Monty Python musical Spamalot in 2007.
Anybody who knows his work can see the clear influences of Cleese and the whole Python team. He’s appeared extensively on TV, but most of his career has been behind the scenes, working as a writer on shows such as Full Frontal, Spicks and Specks, and Talkin’ bout Your Generation, hosted by Shaun Micallef.
He followed the host across to the ABC for the award-winning Mad As Hell, and became well-known for his character Darius Horsham, the Python-esque, Arnold Schwarzenegger-inspired Finance Minister spokesman.
“I love Monty Python so much,” Hall says. “And it certainly creeps through in my work — the absurdity, the silliness, and sometimes just huge exaggeration and huge cruelty for no apparent reason, which is very, very funny.”
But Fawlty Towers Live is quite a different pace to Mad As Hell, and will require him to have the stamina to perform the same, very physical, meticulously-timed, two-hour show eight times a week.
“The turnaround on Mad As Hell is so fast — we get scripts on Friday, sometimes at late as Sunday, for a Tuesday record,” he says. “And they’re not simple scripts — they’re quite densely packed, and the rhythm and wordplay is tough. Sometimes there’s a speech that just goes on for a page, so it really stretches you.”
Working in theatre is a very different discipline, and even though the material was originally written for TV, Hall says Fawlty Towers slides seamlessly into theatres.
“It’s a very natural transition, and there’s a brilliant set design that makes use of various areas of the hotel. It all comes from the tradition of French farce and Commedia dell’arte, and it has a clear theatrical background which John Cleese and Connie Booth updated to Britain’s 1970s sitcom world.”
Cleese has updated the work again, and although he hasn’t changed the character of Manuel — the hapless Spanish waiter who ends up as Basil’s punching bag — he has taken out some lines and attitudes that were, according to Hall, “more at home in the ’70s.”
But much of the comedy within Fawlty Towers comes from Basil’s own intolerance, which perhaps reflects a darker and unacknowledged side of its audience.
So does Hall have any of that Basil Fawlty short-temper lurking within?
“Sadly, yes,” he says. “Sometimes I get impatient and intolerant — we all do — but I hope I don’t think the world has been put in front of me to inconvenience me in the way he does.
“He tries to solve problems by making things more and more complicated, and telling lies to more people — and there’s a lesson for all of us there. The deeper the hole he digs, the worse it gets, and he just can’t put that shovel down.”
Photos by James D. Morgan