On Monday 23 December 1974, the very first episode of Fawlty Towers went before the cameras at BBC Television Centre.
Imagine a world that had never heard of the highly strung hotelier Basil Fawlty, his spiky wife Sybil or their hapless employees, Polly and Manuel. Imagine the live studio audience lucky enough to witness the birth of a sitcom classic, one destined to be regarded as the best ever made.
Radio Times’s stalwart photographer, Don Smith, was there that day too: “I remember thinking right from the start that it was an extremely good and unique show.”
During his long career, Don photographed hundreds, probably thousands, of individual episodes of BBC sitcoms – classics such as Hancock’s Half-Hour and Dad’s Army as well as many long-forgotten failures. Occasionally, he’d stumble upon a nascent hit as he wandered around the studios at the BBC’s former HQ in White City.
“Sometimes these shows were done a year in advance and none of the Radio Times people would know anything about them. Often I’d think, ‘God, this is a good show. It’s going to catch on.’ So I would make a point of shooting it whenever I could.”
Don was on set for five of the six episodes in Fawlty Towers’ first series, and three of the six made in 1979, so rare images exist in the Radio Times Archive of many memorable moments from eight of the dozen episodes that were made.
Later called “A Touch of Class”, the pilot very nearly wasn’t made at all. A notorious BBC memo, dated 29 May 1974, from a script editor to the head of comedy, stated: “I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title… a collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.”
Luckily, writer/star John Cleese and co were soon given the green light to make a Fawlty Towers pilot. It was deemed a success but eight months passed before the rest of series one was recorded. Episode two “The Builders” (with a redesign of the hotel foyer written into the script) went before the cameras on 3 August 1975.
The first series debuted on BBC2 shortly afterwards in September 1975. Fawlty Towers was by no means an instant hit, but over time and given many repeats, it gained its well-deserved “best ever” status.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the recording of “A Touch of Class” in December 1974, we’re now publishing a selection of Don Smith’s pictures, many of which have never been seen before…