Fawlty Towers: “Don’t Mention the War!”

The most treasured comedy was John Cleese's Fawlty Towers (1975—9), its 'The Germans' episode forever associated with Basil Fawlty's self-ignored injunction, 'Don't mention the war! I did once, but I think I got away with it.' In 1997 this was chosen in a poll as the twelfth-greatest comedy sequence ever; the tenth-anniversary repeat drew twelve million viewers, though almost everyone must by then have seen it. Within two years of its appearance, the first series (including 'The Germans') had been sold all over the world, and went on to radio, LP, cassette, video and DVD editions. The series-book claims that 'all the audiences, not excluding the Germans, relished the six programmes', which may not be quite true: when the series was remade by German television in 2001, 'The Germans' was quietly dropped (though German viewers apparently loved the violence Basil visits on Manuel). 'The Germans' was an oddly structured episode, the first half covering a different subject altogether; then Basil gets concussed, which 'explains' his appalling behaviour when later serving German tourists in his hotel dining room. Other residents are unhappy to have Germans even under their roof, the clubbable Major Gowan thinking them 'bad eggs', to which Basil replies, 'Still, forgive and forget, eh, Major? Though God knows how, the bastards!' He responds when the new guests try to make themselves understood with: 'Oh, Germans! I thought there was something wrong with you.' Despite his 'Don't mention the war!' Basil insults and degrades his guests with offensive remarks, and John Cleese reprises his 'funny walk' from Monty Python as a goose-step while pretending a Hitler moustache. The Germans are reduced to tears, but when they argue and one shouts, 'Well, we did not start it!' Basil replies, 'Yes you did. You invaded Poland.' His parting shots are 'You stupid Kraut!' and 'Who won the war, anyway?' As the doctor finally leads him away, the Germans murmur, 'However did they win?' Whenever interviewed, Cleese has been keen to explain that the aim was to educate his audience by showing bigotry's ugly face, claiming that Germans well understood this; in Hamburg, a voice apparently shouted across a hotel foyer, 'Hey, Mr Cleese, don't mention zee war,' which Cleese thought 'terrific. It's taken a little time. But I felt really good about that. That chap had got the whole point of the episode.' It is less clear that British viewers over three decades got that same point.31

31) Berman, Best of Britcoms, 14-16; Fawlty Towers, Fully Booked (BBC, London, 2001), 42-3, 46-7, 80, 83-4, 99, 158-61, 192; Robert Gore Langton, John Cleese (Essential Books, London, 1999), 76-7.

John Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War. The British and the Germans since 1890. London 2007, 387- 388


more cartoon, see: Un-Krauts 

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