compiled by Hans ten Cate
Sunday, 26 May 2002

In what is being called Fawlty Gate, the controversy rages on over whether the Gleneagles Hotel and its manager in the early 1970s, Mr. Donald Sinclair, were anything like Cleese's sitcom Fawlty Towers. Letters are now coming in from guests who experienced Mr. Sinclair (on whom Cleese allegedly based Basil Fawlty) first hand. Some readers have even defended Basil, saying he was the victim of unreasonable guests. And, suddenly, a Hungarian waiter named Alex uses Fawlty Gate to announce that he was the inspiration for Fawlty's Spanish waiter Manuel. Truth stranger than fiction? Certainly just as funny...


The Perils of Being Fawlty
"The perils of being Fawlty"
letter to the editor
published in The Telegraph on 20 May 2002

SIR - For the past 24 years, my wife and I have owned and operated a small but busy rural inn.

As I am known by staff and customers alike as Mr Grumpy, I feel compelled to reply in defence of Basil Fawlty (letter, May 18), and the many hotel owners who suffer from the appalling behaviour of a minority of their guests.

If one watches the Fawlty Towers series carefully, it is clear that poor Basil was often more sinned against than sinning.

As an owner, I have been privileged to respond in appropriate and like terms to customers when they have been exceptionally rude or unreasonable. Managers and more junior staff - the majority of those employed in the industry - have no such authority and must bite their tongues if their boss is not there to assist them.

It is an axiom that the people get the government they deserve. So it is in this country that customers get the service they deserve.

Too many customers, brainwashed to believe that the customer is always right, either ignore junior staff or treat them as though they are subhuman.

Gruff and short-tempered as I am, it has often fallen to me to find and comfort a missing waiter, housekeeper or bartender brought to tears by an ignorant, arrogant or show-off customer.

Some customers are a trial, but I would not change my role for an instant. Over the years, my wife and I have formed genuine friendships with kind and gentle people who first came to the inn as customers.

They forgive us our faults, recognise our efforts and cheer us when we achieve success. Anyway, it beats watching television.

From: David Allingham, The Bentley Brook Inn, Fenny Bentley, Derbyshire


The Current Mr. Fawlty
"At fault"
edited by Charlie Methven
published in The Telegraph (Peterborough section) on 21 May 2002

Fawlty-gate, the ongoing controversy over the inspiration for Basil Fawlty, rumbles on. On Saturday, a former waitress from the Gleneagles in Torquay told The Daily Telegraph that her old boss Donald Sinclair (allegedly Fawlty's prototype) was "inept". Sinclair's widow, Beatrice, insists, however, that her husband has been unfairly "turned into a laughing stock".

Ray Marks, the current owner of the Gleneagles, takes a rather more light-hearted attitude towards the Fawlty connection. "I'm tipped off when German tourists are due to pass by the hotel on coach tours, so I go out into the car park and entertain them with Basil's funny walk," he tells me.

"I also shout out all kinds of abuse, telling them to clear off and things like that. But our staff are, of course, under strict instructions not to serve guests in the Fawlty Towers way."


Basil Goes to Court
"Sorry for Mr. Fawlty"
letter to the editor
published in The Telegraph on 21 May 2002

Sir - In the 1970s, my late wife booked a holiday for four of us at the Gleneagles Hotel. We arrived on the evening of the Thursday before Easter and went for a pre-dinner drink.

Donald Sinclair (the original for Basil Fawlty) poured the drinks, remarking: "You had better drink up - my wife doesn't spend her life in the kitchen preparing good food to have it spoilt because you can't get here on time."

It wasn't the welcome we expected. On the Saturday morning, he explained that there would be two sittings for dinner because they had a dinner-dance. If we wouldn't mind having the second, we could pre-order to ensure that we received our choice.

When we arrived at the bar that evening, the band was in a heated discussion with Mr Sinclair, after which two of them packed their instruments and left.

In the dining room, we found that some of the items we had ordered had run out, and we had to take alternatives.

On complaining to Mr Sinclair, I was told that the kitchen was not his responsibility and I should speak to his wife. It was clear from her that our order had not been passed on. It then took three attempts before we found a wine on their list that was in stock.

By this time, we had decided our holiday was turning into a mini-war and we might as well call it a day. On the Sunday morning, we calculated how much we owed and packed our bags. Mr Sinclair said that, unless we paid for the full period, he would sue.

In due course, my wife received a summons. All four of us attended a court hearing that lasted more than two hours. At the end, the judge stated that we had not received the service that we had a right to expect and that we had already fully met our liabilities.

He awarded us costs, including one night's stay in Torquay (at a different hotel) and kennels for our dogs while we were away.

Looking back, I feel very sorry for Mrs Sinclair, who was always friendly and helpful while fighting a losing battle.

From: R. W. Browning, Payhembury, Devon


Apprentice of Basil Fawlty
"Aprrentice of Basil Fawlty"
letter to the editor
published in The Telegraph on 21 May 2002

Sir - As a devoted apprentice of Basil Fawlty, I must agree with David Allingham (letters, May 20) that hoteliers can indeed get guests from hell. At my wife's hotel, Tresanton, we do not have many complaints and some of the guests have become firm friends.

We try to move heaven and earth when complaints are justified. But there are occasions when only Basil-like behaviour will do. We once had two gentlemen staying over New Year.

They complained about the noise of the celebrations, about the sheets, about the marmalade, the wine, the view and I think they complained about the blessed county of Cornwall itself.

After listening patiently, I said, "Gentlemen, I am afraid I must allow you to leave and find a hotel more to your liking." I recommended a place I thought particularly ghastly.

On another occasion, a young man, his fiancee and her mother came to a barbecue lunch. They consumed everything - steak, lobster, oysters, a decent wine - with gusto and then complained.

We gave them another round of everything. The man complained again rather rudely and asked my wife her name, which she was happy to give him. I tore up the bill and asked them to leave at once.

I then thought this was a bit unprofessional, so I jumped on my bike, found the man down by the harbour and apologised.

He apologised too. "My fiancee's mother made me do it," he said. "Break off the engagement," I advised him.

From: William Shawcross, St Mawes, Cornwall


The Band Played On
excerpts from "The Real Life Basil Fawlty?"
by Sarah Chalmers
published in The Daily Mail on 22 May 2002 (p. 20)

For 12 side-splitting episodes in the Seventies, Basil's antics at Fawlty Towers were assumed so absurd they could not possibly be based in reality.

In fact, the idea for the most popular television programme ever produced in Britain came to Cleese when he and the rest of the Monty Python team stayed at Torquay's Hotel Gleneagles in 1970, while filming nearby.

The group were stunned by the rudeness of the hotel proprietor.

On his first night at the hotel, Michael Palin recorded the following ominous entry in his diary: 'Got in at 12.30am after night filming... owner stood and looked at us... Graham asked if he could have a brandy... idea dismissed out of hand.'

And Cleese himself said of his comic masterpiece: 'The characters and relationships were the same. He was just wonderfully rude. The guests were just a nuisance, foisted upon him by fate.'

They really prevented him from running the hotel properly.' Local musician Ken Wheeler made his one and only appearance at the Hotel Gleneagles ballroom, during the Python crew's sojourn. He recalls: 'We were playing at the bar quite happily when suddenly Mr Sinclair started shouting "out, out".

'We all dutifully evacuated the ballroom, assuming it was a fire alarm. It was only when we were outside on the pavement chatting to one another that we discovered the real reason for the mass exodus.

APPARENTLY, one of the Python crew had come back late from filming. He had missed dinner and asked Mr Sinclair for a plate of sandwiches. He took offence at the question - assuming it was a reflection on the hotel food and that the guest had either not liked his dinner or not found it filling enough - and the next thing we knew he had lost the plot and was throwing everyone out.

'At the time we didn't know what was going on, but looking back it was pure Fawlty.' Ken Wheeler and his band never returned to the hotel, despite a subsequent offer of a residency, saying: 'You had no idea what mood he might be in.'


Another who has indelible memories of Mr Sinclair is Colin Bratcher, bass player in a local band who played at Gleneagles.

'One evening there was no chair for the organist on the bandstand, so I opened the dining room door and took one from there. It was already well past dinnertime and I didn't think it would be a problem.

'Shortly after, a note was passed to me from Mr Sinclair asking me to switch the chair because it didn't go with the others on stage. I don't know how he could even see it because someone was sitting on it, but he was fastidious.

'He used to serve at the bar while we played and he would often pass us notes with orders on them. We would be playing away quite merrily when an instruction would come: "The guests look half- asleep, play a samba."

'The guests seemed happy with our peaceful tunes, but he liked to be in control. He was totally eccentric.' Listening to stories like these it is easy to imagine Fawlty Towers might have run for six, seven or eight series.


A Trip to The Towers
"A trip to 'the Towers'"
letter to the editor
published in The Telegraph on 22 May 2002

Sir - My husband and I, with our five children aged six to 16, booked a holiday at the Gleneagles Hotel for July 1970. On arrival, we found the rooms reserved for our first week had been double-booked. We found other accommodation and Donald Sinclair (the original for Basil Fawlty) assured us that he would make good any discrepancy. Unfortunately, we could find only full-board, at a hotel in Babbacombe.

We arrived for the second week, eager to enjoy Gleneagles. The children were on the first floor while our bedroom was on ground-floor level. To our amazement, all the lights were turned out at 11pm. Our six-year-old couldn't find the bathroom in the dark.

We were very much looking forward to dancing on their small dance floor. It was not to be.

Apparently, the previous week's guests had complained about it being sticky. Nothing was done, so one day the guests cleaned the floor themselves, while Mr Sinclair was out. They were caught, and the band was cancelled.

There were many other problems, which culminated with the presentation of the bill on Friday evening. My husband pointed out that there was no allowance for the extra expense of staying elsewhere for a week. Mr Sinclair threw the account on the floor and stormed out. We deducted the extra, but the cheque was refused. I left it on the counter.

My husband was in the car in the car park with the engine running, with the children waiting to leave. Mr Sinclair came running out, shouting he would sue us, upon which all the other guests around (and there were quite a few) formed a barricade while I got in the car and we drove off to cheers.

From: Isabel Bagley, Storth, Cumbria


Manuel Speaks
"I was inspiration for Fawlty's Manuel, says Hungarian refugee"
by David Millward and Oliver Poole
published in The Telegraph on 25 May 2002

The character who was the inspiration behind Manuel, the hapless Spanish waiter who brought chaos to Fawlty Towers, was not from Barcelona but a political refugee from Hungary.

Alex Novak was working as a restaurant manager in Torquay when he encountered John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python team when they were filming in the town.

Mr Novak, who fled Hungary during the uprising of 1956, was working at the Links Hotel, down the road from the Gleneagles Hotel, on which Fawlty Towers was based.

Still struggling with the English language, his verbal infelicities were picked up by Cleese and incorporated into the character of Manuel, who is also understood to have included elements of other people Cleese encountered on the road.

Rather than being the butt of humour, however, Mr Novak recalls that difficulties in communicating did not stop him cracking jokes to customers or just clowning.

One trick entailed pretending to fall over while carrying a tray of desserts, before appearing to pick the pudding off the floor and hand it to a startled diner.

Mr Novak, 65, also remembers telling off a boisterous Cleese for being rude to other members of staff. "Mr Cleese was a real character, but many times I had to tell him to stop fooling around," Mr Novak said.

The Python team including Cleese were "p**s artists" prone to high spirits which did not necessarily go down well in sedate Torquay, he said. Indignant at suggestions that he was as stupid as Manuel, Mr Novak did display in real life the temperament of a Basil Fawlty rather than that of a brow-beaten waiter. "There was one occasion when I sacked the chef at lunchtime because he was drinking," he recalled. "We had 200 for dinner that night and I had to do the cooking."

There were, apparently, no complaints from the clients about the culinary abilities of a former toolmaker whose other claim to fame was to have turned down the chance to play for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Other incidents could have come straight from the episodes of Fawlty Towers. "One waiter put a bowl of soup down by the door, another stepped into it."

The soup was still served, again raising no objection from the diners. One client complained that his steak was too tough. It was taken back to the kitchen and tenderised by the chef - who stamped on it.

"The customer said it was lovely," recalled Mr Novak, who has just retired from running his own catering business.

The comparisons with Manuel never bothered Mr Novak. "It just made me laugh," he said. "He was great, but he did a lot more foolish things than me."

Ava, his wife, was even more indignant. "It is rather far-fetched. There can't have been anybody like that in real life."

The identity of the real Manuel came as a surprise to Andrew Sachs, who played the role in the television series. "He could have been from Budapest and I could have played a Hungarian waiter, but Spanish did seem to work," he said yesterday.

A spokesman for John Cleese, who lives in California, said there was no one role model for Manuel, nor for Polly, the chambermaid played by Connie Booth. Basil Fawlty was based on somebody Cleese met.