WAITRESS SAYS FAWLTY TOWERS WAS FUNNY... AND TRUE
Monday, 20 May 2002

The debate over whether Gleneagles Hotel manager Mr. Donald Sinclair was anything like Basil Fawlty rages on... A letter and a series of articles were published this past weekend concerning Rosemary Harrison's experiences as a waitress at the Torquay-based hotel in 1973. Although her stay was several years after Cleese's infamous stay, her story sheds further light on Mr. Sinclair, who (if you read the following three articles) could be just as hysterically shocking as Mr. Fawlty...

For further news and a great overall Fawlty Towers site, visit The Unofficial Guide to Fawlty Towers maintained by Christopher Tomlinson and John Gasson.

 

To the Editors, From Polly
"Features - Letter to the Editor - Service with a snarl in real Fawlty Towers"
published in The Daily Telegraph on 18 May 2002 (p. 21)

SIR - I read with interest Beatrice Sinclair's denial that her husband, Donald, was anything like Basil Fawlty (report, May 11).

In 1973, as a keen hotel management student from Glasgow, I worked for a summer season - four months - at the Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay. Mr Sinclair picked my friend and me up from the station. He had a gruff manner, but seemed quite a nice man. I did not realise what I would witness over the next few months.

We started early and finished late, with a few hours off in the afternoon. We made and served early morning teas, cleaned the lounge and dining room, served breakfasts, cleaned the bedrooms and, in the early evening, prepared salads and so on and served dinners, after which we washed and dried cutlery, finishing around 10.30pm.

There was no porter, night porter, lunch-time bar person or still room assistant. All these roles were performed, in a fashion, by Mr Sinclair. When Mr Sinclair covered the still room duties at breakfast, making teas and coffees for the restaurant, guests would have finished eating their breakfast before their tea was made. If you tried to rush him, you would be shouted at.

On one occasion, he halted the service of breakfast because one brave waiter gave up waiting and pinched the teapots designated for another table. After interrogating all the waiting staff, Mr Sinclair went into the restaurant and questioned the guests.

They employed a barman only in the evenings, the bar being covered by Mr Sinclair at lunch time, though he was regularly late opening it. Mostly guests would wait patiently, but on one occasion some went to find Mr Sinclair. He eventually appeared and was heard to mutter how ridiculous it was people drinking at this time of the day - "bunch of cowboys". The guests were not amused.

One evening, around 10.45, a young mother was pressing the night porter service button at reception. After about 15 minutes, Mr Sinclair appeared in his dressing gown. When the guest asked if she could have a flask of hot water to heat her baby's bottle, he proceeded to berate her for getting him out of bed for such a trivial request.

Mrs Sinclair says that she persuaded her husband to leave a senior position in the Royal Navy to help her run the hotel, which may help explain the fact that he didn't seem to enjoy his role. Basil Fawlty is different from Mr Sinclair in that Basil is funny, and the interaction between him and his staff made for comedy. Mr Sinclair was just rude to the guests, and where possible staff kept out of his way.

I often wondered if he had any idea how rude he was. I suspect he didn't. Years afterwards, I heard John Cleese give an interview and describe the owner of Fawlty Towers exactly as I remembered him. I am sure Mr Sinclair was a war hero and a family man, but a hotelier with a "customer service" approach he was not.

Rosemary Harrison
Banchory, Aberdeenshire.


Two Scottish Sisters Settle Controversy
"My bonkers hotel boss really was Basil Fawlty"
by Claire Gardner
published in Scotland on Sunday on 19 May 2002 (Final, p. 3)

TWO Scottish sisters have settled the controversy raging over the hotelier said to have inspired the classic comedy Fawlty Towers.

A former waitress who worked at the seaside hotel on which John Cleese based the hit series has confirmed that the real-life owner did indeed behave like Basil Fawlty.

Her sister, who visited the Hotel Gleneagles in Torquay, has told Scotland on Sunday that Donald Sinclair's antics were Basil Fawlty "to a tee".

The sisters spoke out after Sinclair's widow - dubbed the real-life Sybil - broke her 30-year silence on the subject to defend her late husband and insist he had been made a mockery.

But Rosemary Harrison, who worked the 1973 summer season at the Gleneagles, remembered Sinclair as a grumpy old man who seemed wholly unsuitable for a hotel proprietor.

Her sister, Christine Aitken, who stayed at the hotel for 10 days in 1973, said Sinclair turned her holiday into a "nightmare" with his astonishingly antisocial antics.

She also recalled several incidents when Sinclair astounded guests including a time when he cancelled a dinner dance he had advertised.

When the guests complained, he dumped a record player in the middle of the dance floor and stomped off to bed.

Harrison, who now lives in Aberdeen, said she started working at the Gleneagles in June 1973 as part of a hotel management course, but didn't realise what she had let herself in for.

"It almost had the mentality of a prison camp in that guests and staff alike pulled together and talked and laughed about Mr Sinclair as a way of surviving," she said.

Glasgow-born Harrison said her experiences were similar to those of the long-suffering hotel maid in Fawlty Towers, Polly, played by Cleese's then wife Connie Booth, who co-wrote the series. "She became exasperated with Basil Fawlty just as I did with Mr Sinclair."

Polly was not, however, based on Harrison, who did not start work at the Gleneagles until after the visit by the Monty Python team that provided the inspiration for the television series.

Last week, Beatrice Sinclair, 87, defended her late husband, protesting he had been "turned into a laughing stock". She complained that Cleese had "held my family up to ridicule" and that although her husband was a disciplinarian who could not tolerate fools, he was not a "neurotic eccentric".

Despite her insistence that there was no connection between Sinclair and Basil, Harrison's sister, Christine Aitken, stayed at the hotel in June 1973 with her husband Ron, her two-year-old daughter Amanda and a golden retriever puppy. She said Sinclair was "Fawlty to a tee".

She explained she was booked into the hotel because of its four star status. "It was advertised as being a luxurious one with a swimming pool, dancing three nights a week and baby sitting facilities," she said. However, her high hopes had soon come crashing down.

"On the second night we were having a drink after dinner in the bar with all the other guests. Then, out of the blue at 9pm Mr Sinclair pulled down the bar shutters and told everyone to get out because he was going to bed. Most people complained but he told them it was 'tough'."

The following day they were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the band to start the evening's dancing, as advertised in the hotel brochure.

When, an hour after it was supposed to start, there was still no sign of any music, the guests, who had put on their evening attire, complained.

"So Sinclair simply marched into the room, dumped a record player, with no records, in the middle of the floor, then he stormed off," said Aitken, who now lives in Sussex.

She also recalled their attempts to order fresh strawberries and cream from the hotel menu for four nights in a row. "The first night we were told they were off, the second we were told they were finished, the third night we were told they were off and on the fourth night we were told they were finished.

"On the fifth night we gave up on the whole idea. My husband had a row with him over it but he didn't really care."

Harrison recalled another occasion when Sinclair halted breakfast because a waiter had pinched teapots designated for another table.

"He went up and down the tables like a policeman, questioning the guests. He came across a set of teapots at a table for two. He realised because of their size they were meant for a table for four, and he asked the guests for a description of the waiter.

"He was bonkers. You see where John Cleese was coming from. He thought it ridiculous that people wanted to drink at lunchtime," she said.

"These were paying guests. They would be out by the pool looking for a drink and he hadn't opened the bar."

Ray Marks, the current owner of the Hotel Gleneagles, said tourists still flocked to the hotel because of the Fawlty Towers connection.

He admitted that he often put on a "funny walk" for their benefit. "I have been known to walk across the grass kicking my legs high in the air like Basil Fawlty used to do. I also shout: 'Go on, go on, clear off!'

"However, our staff are under strict instructions that they are not to serve guests in the Fawlty Towers way."

 

Polly Weighs In On Her 'Bonkers' Hotel Boss
"Fawlty hotelier was bonkers, says waitress"
by Richard Savill
published in The Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk) on 18 May 2002

A former waitress at the seaside hotel that inspired Fawlty Towers has challenged claims by the woman who was the model for Sybil Fawlty that her late husband was nothing like Basil.

Rosemary Harrison, who worked the 1973 summer season at the Hotel Gleneagles in Torquay, remembered Donald Sinclair, on whom John Cleese based Basil Fawlty, as having a gruff manner that seemed wholly unsuitable for a hotel proprietor.

"Initially my time there left a bad taste," said Mrs Harrison, a mother of three, now a personnel manager in Aberdeen. "But looking back as the years have gone by, it was really very funny.

"In the 30 years since I have never come across anyone quite like Mr Sinclair. He was a square peg in a round hole."

Mrs Harrison was a 21-year-old hotel management student from Glasgow when she worked at the Gleneagles. She said her experiences were similar to those of Polly - an American student working at the hotel - as portrayed by Connie Booth, Cleese's former wife and co-writer.

"She became exasperated with Basil Fawlty just as I did with Mr Sinclair."

Polly was not, however, based on Mrs Harrison, who did not start work at the Gleneagles until after the visit by the Monty Python team that provided the inspiration for the television series.

Last week Beatrice Sinclair, 87, allegedly the real-life Sybil Fawlty, broke her silence after more than 30 years to defend her late husband, protesting he had been "turned into a laughing stock".

She complained that Cleese had "held my family up to ridicule" and that although her husband was a disciplinarian who could not tolerate fools, he was not a "neurotic eccentric".

Mrs Harrison said yesterday it was a pity that Mrs Sinclair had apparently not seen the funny side of the programme. She added: "Donald Sinclair was inept when it came to doing things around the hotel. Like Basil Fawlty he was not polite to the guests and he shouted at staff. Looking back, it was an extraordinary experience.

"Fawlty Towers was terribly funny. John Cleese exaggerated the character but the basic things are there. He probably wasn't neurotic but he was just so bad-tempered. It was as if he didn't want the guests to be there."

Cleese has also dismissed Mrs Sinclair's criticism, insisting that his depiction of her husband accurately captured the Mr Sinclair he remembered. "My recollection is somewhat different from Mrs Sinclair's," he told Torquay's Herald Express.

"I do remember all the other Pythons left but Connie Booth and I were lazy. We stayed on and didn't realise we were accumulating material. I take the point that he was a war hero but as a hotelier he was astonishingly rude."

Mrs Harrison recalled an occasion when Mr Sinclair halted breakfast because a waiter had given up waiting for him to make tea and had pinched teapots designated for another table.

"He went up and down the tables like a policeman, questioning the guests. He came across a set of teapots at a table for two. He realised because of their size they were meant for a table for four, and he asked the guests for a description of the waiter.

"He was bonkers. You see where John Cleese was coming from.

"He thought it ridiculous that people wanted to drink at lunchtime. These were paying guests. They would be out by the pool looking for a drink and he hadn't opened the bar. He just wasn't cut out for the hotel business.

"He was terribly slow making tea and coffee. You wanted to make them yourself. But he would get very angry if you suggested that."

She said Mrs Sinclair had been the driving force. "Looking back, the staff had a lot of laughs. The guests were awfully nice. I think they felt sorry for us. We got lots of tips."

She described the Hotel Gleneagles as being "upmarket" in the 1970s. "Every room had a private bathroom. I didn't make the connection when Fawlty Towers was first shown because the guy I worked for wasn't funny.

"A few years later John Cleese gave an interview and said the hotel was in Torquay. The penny dropped. He described the owner as I had remembered Mr Sinclair, and I saw myself as being like Polly."