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Fawlty Towers – rare photos from the Radio Times Archive

In the 1970s, Radio Times photographer Don Smith went on set to record the making of the classic sitcom.

Imagine a world that had never heard of highly strung hotelier Basil Fawlty, his spiky wife Sybil or their overworked employees Polly and Manuel... Imagine the studio audience lucky enough to witness the birth of a classic, a sitcom destined to be regarded as the best ever made… On Monday 23 December 1974, the very first episode of Fawlty Towers went before the cameras at BBC Television Centre, and 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.”

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During his long career, Don photographed hundreds 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. “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’d make a point of shooting it whenever I could.”

A contact sheet of Radio Times photos from the pilot episode. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)

The pilot episode of Fawlty Towers 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.”

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Nevertheless, co-writers (and stars) John Cleese and Connie Booth, then a married couple, were soon given the green light to make their pilot, later given the title 'A Touch of Class'. It was deemed a success, although 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 on Friday 19th September 1975. Fawlty Towers was by no means an instant hit but, over time and given many repeats, it secured its well-deserved “best ever” status.

To mark the latest reshowing of Fawlty Towers on BBC One, Radio Times has dug deep into the archive and unearthed a selection of Don Smith’s rare photographs. He was on set for five of the six episodes of series one.

Episode 1: A Touch of Class

Production photographed: 23rd December 1974

First aired: 19th September 1975

The original RT billing: “The first of six programmes starring John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs and Connie Booth. Basil Fawlty tries to improve the class of the hotel’s clientele, with remarkable results.” Michael Gwynn played the fraudster, Lord Melbury.

Basil (John Cleese) and Sybil (Prunella Scales). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)
Sybil (Prunella Scales) and Basil (John Cleese) welcome Lord Melbury (Michael Gwynn). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)
The cameras close in on Basil (John Cleese), Lord Melbury (Michael Gwynn) and Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)
Basil Fawlty (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)
Basil Fawlty (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)
Sybil (Prunella Scales), Basil (John Cleese) and Polly (Connie Booth) check Melbury's suitcase. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 1, A Touch of Class. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1974)

Episode 2: The Builders

Production photographed: 3rd August 1975

First aired: 26th September 1975

The original RT billing: “Basil and Sybil decide to have some structural alterations done to the hotel whilst they are away for the weekend.” David Kelly played the hopeless builder, O’Reilly.

In rehearsals: Manuel (Andrew Sachs), Sybil (Prunella Scales), Basil (John Cleese) and Polly (Connie Booth). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth) sketches her boss. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Manuel (Andrew Sachs) on reception. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Dodgy builder Mr O'Reilly (David Kelly) fails to impress Sybil (Prunella Scales) and Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) and Polly (Connie Booth). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth) tries to knock some sense into Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) loses patience with Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) with regulars Miss Gatsby (Renee Roberts) and Miss Tibbs (Gilly Flower). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 2, The Builders. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)

Episode 3: The Wedding Party

Production photographed: 10th August 1975

First aired: 3rd October 1975

The original RT billing: “Basil Fawlty decides to defend the hotel’s standard of morality.” Diana King played hotel guest Mrs Lloyd. Playing blonde guest Jean was April Walker. In 1973, she had been cast as Doctor Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, but was subsequently dropped in favour of Elisabeth Sladen.

Manuel (Andrew Sachs) struggles to serve Jean (April Walker). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth) and Basil (John Cleese) talk to Polly's boyfriend, Richard Turner (Mark Allington). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) with residents Alan (Trevor Adams), Mrs Peignoir (Yvonne Gilan) and Jean (April Walker). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) and resident guest Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) is charmed by hotel guest Mrs Peignoir (Yvonne Gilan). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Hotel guest Mrs Lloyd (Diana King) annoys Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Hotel guest Mrs Lloyd (Diana King) is concerned about a discovery in the kitchen. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) attacks Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) attacks Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 3, The Wedding Party. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)

Episode 4: Hotel Inspectors

First aired: 10th October 1975

Sadly, this is the one episode of the first series that Don Smith did not photograph.

The original RT billing: “Basil is in terror when he hears some hotel inspectors are in town.” Bernard Cribbins guest-starred as Mr Hutchinson.

Episode 5:  Gourmet Night

Production photographed: 6th September 1975

First aired: 17th October 1975

The original RT billing: “Basil and a new chef try to make the Towers a gourmet’s paradise.” Steve Plytas played the drunken chef, Kurt.

The studio lights shine overhead as Basil (John Cleese) and Sybil (Prunella Scales) try to improve their menu. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A heated discussion between Polly (Connie Booth) and Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Sybil (Prunella Scales). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) hopes to impress Colonel and Mrs Hall (Allan Cuthbertson and Ann Way) and Mr and Mrs Twitchen (Richard Caldicot and Betty Huntley-Wright). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth) and Manuel (Andrew Sachs) struggle to entertain Colonel and Mrs Hall (Allan Cuthbertson and Ann Way). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese), Polly (Connie Booth), Manuel (Andrew Sachs) and new chef Kurt (Steve Plytas) with their gourmet menu. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth), chef Kurt (Steve Plytas) and Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Chaos in the kitchen. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 5, Gourmet Night. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)

Episode 6: The Germans

Production photographed: 31st August 1975

First aired: 24th October 1975

The original RT billing: “In the last programme of the series, Basil Fawlty decides to hold a fire drill. The result is confusion – and a party of Germans who are staying at Fawlty Towers add to the muddle...”

Basil (John Cleese) tries to instruct Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A hospital Sister (Brenda Cowling) tends to Sybil (Prunella Scales), despite the rudeness of Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A candid shot of Prunella Scales, all smiles in rehearsals. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
"I'm doing it now!" Basil (John Cleese) tries to hang a moose's head. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A BBC technician crouches nearby as the moose's head falls on Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A concussed Basil (John Cleese) ends up in hospital. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
The hospital Sister (Brenda Cowling) deals with Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) vents his frustration on Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
A hotel fire drill goes awry for Basil (John Cleese). Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Andrew Sachs (as Manuel) braves a fire in the kitchen. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Polly (Connie Booth) distracts Basil (John Cleese) from offending his German guests. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
Basil (John Cleese) goose-steps out of the dining room. Fawlty Towers Series 1, Episode 6, The Germans. (Photographer Don Smith. Radio Times Archive 1975)
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