Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel

Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel

When people talk about the Gleneagles Hotel it’s only natural to think they’re talking about the 5* hotel in Scotland which is set in 850 acres and offers distinguished guests everything from luxury accommodation and fine dining to three championship golf courses and country pursuits; but I’m not talking about that Gleneagles, I’m talking about the one in Torquay – you know the one – the one where you expect to see “the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and herds of Wildebeest” from the bedroom window.

There is a connection with the Scottish hotel however, because the first owner of the hotel in Asheldon Road named it after her favourite part of Scotland. Beatrice Sinclair bought it in 1964 when it was a private house and converted it into holiday apartments, and then, along with her husband Donald, gradually converted it into a 41-bedroom hotel.

From what I’ve read, Beatrice was a natural at running a hotel, but her husband wasn’t; in fact, he was quite the opposite and the guests were a complete inconvenience to him. According to former employee Rosemary Harrison she thought he was “bonkers” and he was quoted as saying “I could run this hotel just fine if it weren’t for the guests”.

In 1970, the Monty Python’s Flying Circus cast were filming clips for the show in Paignton and booked some rooms at the Gleneagles. Donald didn’t want them there as he was trying to run an upmarket hotel, but his wife had other ideas and the crew arrived for a planned two (some sources say three) week stay.

It was obvious right from the start that the manager/receptionist/porter wasn’t too keen on his new guests and it didn’t take them long to take the hint and leave for the more luxurious Imperial Hotel; all of them that is, apart from John Cleese who was later joined by his then wife Connie Booth.

There are several stories in Graham McCann’s book ‘Fawlty Towers’ about how the proprietor treated his illustrious guests, including one about disposing of Eric Idle’s bag because he thought it contained a bomb. He explained it away by saying that “We’ve had a lot of staff problems lately”. It wasn’t just the Monty Python crew that got on the wrong side of him, it sounded like most of the other guests did too. He recounts one story of how a newly arrived academic found no more than a couple of sheets of lavatory paper and had the audacity to ask for more; “What on earth are you doing with it?” was the reply.

John Cleese described him as “the rudest man I’ve ever met”, but he couldn’t resist following his every move so that he could use the material for his idea that was to come. It has to be said that Beatrice always defended her husband and was never happy about how Donald was portrayed, but there seemed to be plenty of guests and employees who saw it differently.

The Sinclairs sold the hotel in 1973 and Donald was still falling out with people after he retired: According to Graham McCann, after berating a couple of workmen the day before, “he woke up the following morning, peered out through his bedroom window and was horrified to find that his car, swimming pool, garden furniture, doors, walls, lawn, trees and bushes had all been painted the same shade of battleship grey during a long night of stealthy retaliation”.

Donald Sinclair died in Torquay in 1981 aged 72 and Beatrice also died in Torquay in 2010 aged 95.

Donald and Beatrice Sinclair (British Comedy Guide)

After the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1974, John Cleese was free to turn his attention to creating the Fawlty Tower sketches with Connie Booth. The first series started being broadcast on 19th Sept 1975 with A touch of class being the first episode. Although John Cleese as Basil Fawlty is the undoubted star of the show, it should be remembered that his wife had a tremendous input into the script and characters, even though she played a much lesser part as the waitress and chambermaid, Polly Sherman.

The socially superior Basil Fawlty (in his eyes) was often put in his place by his ‘golfing puff adder’ wife, Sybil, played by the perfectly cast Prunella Scales: His Spanish waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs), on the other hand took the brunt of Fawlty’s frustration with both verbal and physical abuse, partly because his ability in communicating in the English language often left his boss totally exasperated.

Polly, Basil, Sybil and Manuel (Daily Mail Online)
Polly, Basil, Sybil and Manuel (Daily Mail Online)

The programme only ran for two series with six episodes in each, which left fans wanting more. It didn’t set out to be like that, but the decision to cut it off after twelve episodes probably helped in making it such a success.

If you’re a fan of the manic hotelier, you’ll be well aware of his inclination to suck up to people like Lord Melbury or the hotel inspectors, and if his lack of patience with the “riff-raff” that occupied his hotel wasn’t bad enough, then, as the clip below shows, he also had the car to contend with.

None of the scenes were filmed in Torquay and the building that was shown as the hotel was actually Wooburn Grange Country Club in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. It’s not there anymore because it was gutted by fire in 1991 and subsequently demolished. Below is a scene there with Basil, Manuel and Sybil in a farce with wedding guests.

Another regular throughout both series was the rather dotty Major Gowen played by Ballard Berkeley. He was probably the least politically correct character of all, but really more interested in his newspapers and the cricket scores than what was going on around him, and quite oblivious most of the time. The clip below shows what happened when Manuel and the Major got together.

It was inevitable I suppose that the success of Fawlty Towers and the connection with Donald Sinclair would bring a notoriety to the Gleneagles Hotel that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Under the management of the independently owned Best Western hotel chain, it started to offer special Fawlty Towers Weekends about four times a year.

Included in the reasonably priced package was an interactive dining experience with Laughlines, a British Fawlty Towers Touring Company. A couple of friends of mine from Belgium, Kirsty and Adam Sheridan, thought it would make a good weekend away, and so on an autumnal night in late November 2014 I joined them for an evening of mayhem and laughter with ‘Basil, Sybil and Manuel’.

As you can imagine, it was a cracking evening. Extremely well organised, where good food and entertainment happily mixed together. The professional actors reproduced some of the classic moments from the shows and made up some of their own as well. Can you imagine, for example, diners being offered a tin of biscuits to accompany their cheese only to find Basil the Rat making an appearance. Manuel was constantly getting a slap across the head from Basil (and so he should have done because he kept taking my soup away), but Sybil was always around to make sure things didn’t get completely out of control.

In the carousel below the pictures show Basil, Manuel, Manuel getting a slap around the head from Basil, and Adam & Sybil.

All good things come to an end as they say, and it wasn’t just the fabulous evening that we had I’m talking about now, because although we didn’t know it at the time, it was to be the end of an era for the Gleneagles Hotel. Within three months the hotel was closed up for good. Plans were submitted – and passed – for the hotel to be demolished and replaced by a block of 33 retirement apartments. These apartments have been named Sachs Lodge after Andrew Sachs who played Manuel. He died in November 2016.

Time never stands still, and looking back to when the series was made, it does seem a different era in many ways, but I’ll leave you with a clip that shows why Fawlty Towers was one of the funniest and most successful British sitcoms of all time.

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29 thoughts on “Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel

  1. toonsarah

    I remember you talking about having a VT Fawlty Towers meet – was this it? I know I wanted to join but couldn’t make the dates work or something.

    I recently saw a group of actors staging Fawlty Towers scenes on a Tube train of all places 😉

    Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    Cracking post Malc, it’s always funny to see those clips – I love Fawlty Towers as well. I’d heard that story about Eric Idles case before – it makes you wonder what kind of staffing problems would result in a bombing!
    The Fawlty Towers evening sounds like a great laugh, what a same the hotel is no longer there!

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Stuart. It is a shame it’s not there anymore, and it wouldn’t surprise me if even more hotels are about to go the wall.

      It must be a good time to have another look at an episode or two. You can never have too much laughter can you? although it nearly killed me the first time I saw it :-).

      Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    Fantastic post, Malc, which I read with a great smile on my face. We’ve got both series on DVD, and even Maddie loves it. I believe many comedians, even today, refer to Fawlty Towers as the perfect comedy. It’s really fascinating to learn all about how it came about and the real people behind the inspiration, especially as it was based (quite strongly, by the looks of it) on a real person. And I had no idea that the building they used for the hotel was actually right here in the county I live in. What a shame it isn’t there any more, I’d have had to go and find it. Still, the programme itself has left its indelible, hilarious mark on all our memories, and on the history of television itself. It really was a gem of a comedy, and what a shame they don’t make ’em like that any more!

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I’m glad this one’s put a smile on your face Alli 🙂 To me it was a benchmark that was always going to be hard for other sitcoms to follow. As you say that building which most people thought was the real Fawlty Towers was not far from where you live. it’s a small housing development in a private road now from what I can gather. You’ll have to get those DVDs out again if you need cheering up a bit. They never fail to make us all laugh do they? and you know what they say about laughter 🙂

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        That’s right, no matter how many times you see them, they still make you laugh. What a shame the actual building fell victim to the developers’ purse. Still, I can feel an episode or two needing to be watched, and it’s nice to talk about something classic and fun. Just don’t mention the war… 😉

        Reply
        1. Easymalc Post author

          LOL. It’s a good thing that developers don’t have their way all the time otherwise so many places of historic interest would have been lost. Even so, they can’t erase the memories, although the BBC had a good try recently. Did I mention the war then? 🙂

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            No, you’re ok. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it…

            True, there’s no way they can erase the memories, as we’ve just proved. ☺

            Reply
            1. Easymalc Post author

              It’s one of the reasons that I thought I’d better write some of this stuff down before I completely lose my marbles 🙂

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                Very wise, Malc. I should do that too, but I fear it may be too late for me… 😉

                Reply
                1. Easymalc Post author

                  LOL. I don’t believe a word of it. With all that talent you could easily write a book, perhaps even be a medieval Bettany Hughes 🙂 Anyway, have a good day. I’m off to put up a moose’s head.

                  Reply
                  1. Alli Templeton

                    You’re too kind, Malc, but you’ve made my day for it, so thank you. Good luck with the moose’s head, and I hope no one snags any cardigans on it. 😊 Have a great day too.

                    Reply
                    1. Easymalc Post author

                      Thanks Alli. Just having a coffee break from painting the fence (we don’t have many mooses round here – although we got a mouse that keeps turning up on the doorstep looking for crumbs). Hope you have a good week and let me know if you get your results won’t you? Fingers crossed

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      Thanks Malc, will do. Somehow I don’t think a mouse’s head on the wall would look quite the part. I’d keep giving it some crumbs. 😊 Have a great week too.

  4. Karen

    I’d forgotten how hilariously bonkers Faulty Towers was. Thanks ever so much for writing this post and sharing clips. Sad that the hotel will be demolished. I never went inside it! x

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      It was belly-aching laughter right the way through all 12 episodes for me. The hotel has already been demolished and replaced with apartments which really is a shame, but to be expected I suppose. Thanks for taking a look Karen 🙂

      Reply
      1. veganoffice

        Curious to know what the retirement apartments look like today if you have a photo? I imagine, boxy and bland. Hopefully, they also have balconies. I love the retro style of the hotel they’ve just demolished! I plan to watch all episodes again :))

        Reply
  5. bitaboutbritain

    Excellent, Malc. I’d vaguely heard that Fawlty was modelled on a reach place/person, but had no idea of the details. Really interesting and entertaining. Always amazes me they only made 12 episodes. And that must have been quite an evening! I won’t mention the war.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it Mike. John Cleese and Connie Booth were married when they made the first series but divorced by the time they made the second, so it’s not surprising in a way that there wasn’t a third.

      I think everybody remembers a catch-phrase or two. ‘The Germans’ episode was removed last month by UKTV (BBC owned channel) for its racist slurs, but after complaints by John Cleese and Fawlty Towers fans it has been reinstated.

      Reply
      1. bitaboutbritain

        Yes, people seem to be getting immensely precious about what we’re allowed to watch these days; I gather it carries a health warning or something now. Some folk aren’t bright enough to understand satire; I suspect it’s those we need to protect ourselves from.

        Reply
  6. starship VT

    Great story about Gleneagles Hotel and its owners and what a shame that it no longer exists in some form! It would have been brilliant to be at the hotel for a “Fawlty Towers Weekend.” Fawlty Towers — one of the funniest shows ever! Love the clips!

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      It was a shame that it closed down, but If you liked Fawlty Towers I’m sure that you would have liked the show, Just like the comedy, it was great fun 🙂

      Reply

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