May 24, 2007


Life after Polly: Connie Booth (a case of Fawlty memory syndrome): Most people would be happy to trade on the success of 'Fawlty Towers'. But the American actress who co-wrote the sitcom with John Cleese has declined to appear in a programme reuniting the stars. (Cahal Milmo, 25 May 2007, Independent)
Mblockquote>Connie Booth has a simple explanation for why she lost her enthusiasm for sitcoms. The actress and co-writer of Fawlty Towers once said: "I used to watch a lot of comedy until I got divorced. Then I went off it."

The American-born actress - whose status as a creator of the show voted the greatest in British television history has often been overlooked - endeared herself to millions as Polly, the sensible but harried waitress who was the comic foil to the insanity of Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, her husband at the time.

But when their marriage began to unravel just as the couple were writing the second series of Fawlty Towers in 1978, Booth began to go off other things as well.

Not least among those was acting itself and the media spotlight that followed her every move, resulting in one of the more perplexing changes of heart in recent showbusiness history. [...]

The couple, who had a young daughter, Cynthia, at the time they were writing Fawlty Towers between 1975 and 1978, were separated when they began writing the second series and yet still managed to work together under Cleese's exacting requirements.

Speaking soon after the marriage ended in divorce in the autumn 1978, Booth said: "There had been difficulties for some time in the marriage, which is why we went for counselling. If it hadn't been for group therapy, I don't think we could have worked on the second series."

Although neither Cleese nor Booth has offered any insight to the reasons for the break-up beyond the fact that no one else was involved, the crucible-like atmosphere in which Fawlty Towers was created was a significant contributory factor.

In a recent interview, Cleese said: "Each episode took me and Connie six weeks to write and a week to rehearse and record. Before every recording, which was on a Sunday, I'd work all day Saturday to make sure the timing and the words were as good as possible.

"I had a perfectionist streak and I got terribly wound up over things. Writing Fawlty Towers meant going over everything again and again until we got it right. That attitude contributed to our break-up."

Cleese met Booth in the late 1960s while he was working the comedy circuit in New York. He was a Cambridge graduate in the early stages of a promising but as yet low-level performing career.

She was the daughter of a Wall Street magnate and a actress who had moved to New York state after Connie was born in rural Indiana. With her mother's encouragement, Booth began an acting career and was balancing jobs as a Broadway understudy and a waitress when she met her future husband.

Cleese said: "I went into a restaurant where all the waitresses were great-looking out-of-work actresses. Connie was one of them.

"With Connie, I had at last met someone who could express themselves as I would like to have done. It was instant attraction. But the tensions that took over during the making of Fawlty Towers struck a killer blow."

The couple, who married in 1968, got the idea for Fawlty Towers while working in Britain with the Monty Python team.

They stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay where the owner, a former naval officer, made it clear he cared little for the foibles of his guests, throwing out those who complained until he was locked in his private apartment by his domineering wife.

Cleese hinted that both he and Booth, the first of his three wives, recognised a fiery side to their own temperaments. It is one of the ironies of the couple's subsequent and separate lives that Cleese is now married to a American psychotherapist, Alyce Faye Eichelberger. He is still friends with Booth and the couple both attended the marriage of Cynthia in 1995.

Cleese said: "Connie and I have always had a thing about people who can't suppress their rage, which neither of us can. There was a certain part of me in Basil... and, I suppose, a certain part of Connie too."

For her part, Booth has spoken only of the demonstrative nature of her upbringing. The rows between her parents were so loud that at times police were called by concerned neighbours.

She said: "My family was given to affection and anger and it was expressed with less restraint than in England. You could easily get smacked or spanked."

When the first six episodes of Fawlty Towers were broadcast on BBC2 in 1975, it was slated by critics and largely ignored. But when it was repeated on BBC1 the next year, it was a huge hit, attracting 12 million viewers and became a comedy classic.

Cleese's career continued on its upward trajectory thereafter but Booth's stuttered as she fell out of love with the glamour and clamour of showbusiness.
He didn't actually go upward from the pinnacle of tv comedy, though he's done much other good work.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 24, 2007 8:10 PM

Great article. Great, great, great show.

My (now) wife and I were leaving a room in the National Portrait Gallery in London, I think it was the Tudor room, summer 2000, when she hissed, "looked behind you":

There was Cleese -- big dude.

I suppressed the urge to play the ugly American and yell Baaaaa- siiiilllll!!!

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 24, 2007 9:17 PM

Keep your distance if he's carrying a banana.

Posted by: ghostcat at May 24, 2007 11:48 PM

He did do, "A Fish Called Wanda" which was superb.

Posted by: Ray Clutts at May 25, 2007 8:35 PM

horizontal, at best.

Posted by: oj at May 25, 2007 11:37 PM