I had to cut racial slurs from Fawlty Towers: The Play, says John Cleese

John Cleese has said “literal-minded” viewers cause a problem when creating comedy as he feels they “don’t understand metaphor, irony, and comic exaggeration”.

The 84-year-old spoke at the media launch of his stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers, the classic 1970s sitcom he co-wrote and starred in as highly-strung hotelier Basil Fawlty.

Cleese explained some of the original dialogue used within the two-hour play, which merges three popular episodes into an overarching storyline, has been edited to remove “racial slurs” due to changing perceptions within society.

“I think there was a scene where Major (Gowen) used a couple of words you can’t use now, racial slurs they would come under, so we took that out”, he told journalists on Thursday.

Fawlty Towers The Play
John Cleese and Adam Jackson-Smith at the media launch for the stage adaptation of Fawlty Towers (Ian West/PA)

The play is based on episodes across the sitcom’s two series titled The Hotel Inspector, Communication Problems and The Germans, which originally features a scene in which the Major Gowen character uses offensive language about the West Indies cricket team.

In 2020, the episode was briefly removed from UKTV’s streaming service, which is owned by BBC Studios, due to the “racial slurs” before it was later reinstated with added guidance and warnings highlighting “potentially offensive content and language” featured.

Speaking on the challenges of writing comedy, Cleese said: “Whenever you’re doing comedy, you’re up against the literal-minded, and the literal-minded don’t understand irony.

“And that means if you take them seriously, you get rid of a lot of comedy because the literal-minded people don’t understand metaphor, they don’t understand irony, and they don’t understand comic exaggeration.

“The result is, if you listen to them, these are people who are not, as far as understanding what other human beings are saying and doing, they’re not playing with a full deck.”

Fawlty Towers The Play
Victoria Fox as Polly and Adam Jackson-Smith as Basil Fawlty will star in the show (Ian West/PA)

Cast members of the new Fawlty Towers play, which sees Adam Jackson-Smith take on the classic role of Basil, performed two scenes during the launch of the show, which will begin previews at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue on Saturday.

The play will also see Anna-Jane Casey portray Basil’s wife Sybil, Hemi Yeroham play Spanish waiter Manuel, Victoria Fox as waitress Polly and Paul Nicholas as the Major.

The original TV programme, written by Cleese and his former wife, Connie Booth, ran on BBC Two for two series in 1975 and 1979.

Fawlty Towers The Play
John Cleese with the cast of the Fawlty Towers The Play (Ian West/PA)

Reflecting on the state of comedy in UK theatre, Cleese said he felt there had been “too much change” in British society in recent years.

He added: “I think everything’s changing so fast now. I think everyone is getting very anxious and when people get anxious they behave in a more ratty way and they are more likely to become more and more literal-minded.

“I don’t know what you do about it. Uninvent the internet I suppose.”

The Monty Python star added that he believes British culture has been “infected” with the American view that “if you’re not rich or famous, you’re a bit of a failure”, while recalling how the “lower middle class” people he grew up with in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, in the 1950s felt they all had “perfectly decent lives”.

Fawlty Towers The Play begins previews at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue on Saturday May 4.

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