The Battle of the Basils

Alison Pollard-Mansergh as Sybil in The Faulty Dining Experience show

Alison Pollard-Mansergh as Sybil in The Faulty Dining Experience show

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WiTH missing cutlery, ‘soup’ flavoured soup, and shrill cries of “Basil..!” the founder of the long-running Fringe hit The Faulty Towers Dining Experience insists it will be “business as usual” this August, despite a recent Battle of the Basils with the original Mr Fawlty, John Cleese, who threatened to take them to court.

“I think there has been a big misunderstanding,” says Alison Pollard-Mansergh, artistic director of Interactive Theatre International (ITI), producers of the show.

“Legally, you cannot copyright a name, you can only trademark it, and we have always said we are in no way connected to John Cleese, Connie Booth or the BBC. We are a tribute show, an homage.”

The Faulty Towers Dining Experience, which finds diners being served a meal by Basil, Sybil and Manuel, debuted on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 and returns for a ninth Fringe season at B’est, Drummond Street, this August.

Pollard-Mansergh is keen any misunderstandings be put to rest ahead of the run.

The spat began on March 21 when, while launching his new play Fawlty Towers Live, Cleese told press action would be taken against shows using the Fawlty Towers name ahead of his new production opening,

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Cleese, while referencing ‘unauthorised theatre-restaurant incarnations of Fawlty Towers,’ as saying, “There’s one in the UK that makes about a million pounds a year, and pays nothing in royalties.

“We are going to take legal action against them...”

A huge fan of the Monty Python star and his creations, Pollard-Mansergh admits she was shocked by the comments, especially as her Dining Experience has been touring, without interference, since 1997.

A young struggling Kiwi actress in Australia at the time, Pollard-Mansergh dreamed up the show as a way of paying the bills.

“I met a couple of really good improvisors and started doing improvised Faulty Towers theme nights at The Ridge Hotel, Brisbane. The first was on 24 April, 1997 and it developed from there - I thought it might keep me going for six months,” she laughs.

“Fawlty Towers was the obvious choice,” she says. “I loved the comedy of it, and the fact it was based in a hotel meant we could immerse people in the experience; they could interact with the characters.”

In that same year, she first contacted Cleese’s then management.

“That was the only time we managed to speak to them, prior to speaking to his new management, Phil McIntyre Limited, last year.

“In 1997 they said no rights were required as what we were doing was primarily improvised, with little bits of script that we had created.”

Two days after his first press comments, Cleese took to Twitter:

‘I’ve just found out from an Aussie journalist the astonishing financial success of the Faulty Towers Rip-Off Dining Experience. Had no idea.’

When stand-up David Baddiel tweeted back, ‘Sorry, are they doing it without your permission? How is that possible?’ Cleese replied, ‘Dear David, seems they thought that by not asking, and by changing the ‘w’ to a ‘u’, they’d be in the clear! Hilarious.’

It soon became obvious, however, Cleese did not find the situation at all amusing.

Replying to one Twitter user who offered, ‘I feel bad for going now. But it was an excellent time. They represented the show proudly, I thought,’ Cleese didn’t hold back...

‘I never heard anything was wrong with the show. After all, they start with a lot of advantages: the basic concept...

‘...40 years of unpaid publicity, the characters’ personalities, the characters’ names, the characters’ dress, the characters’s dialogue...

‘...twelve funny episodes to which they make reference, plus all the catch-phrases, without the need to pay Connie Booth and me a single cent.

‘I’m always learning. I had never realised that ‘tribute’ is a synonym for ‘rip-off.’’

“It’s upsetting because people are not getting the full story,” says Pollard-Mansergh. “John Cleese, because of who he is, has a massive following and there are a number of people out there who believe that because John Cleese has said something, it is 100 per cent the gospel truth.

“In fact, it’s not necessarily so, and we do have a story to tell. When people realise what we actually do, we are not the bad guys. People believe we are doing the wrong thing and we are not.”

Pollard-Mansergh, herself one of the show’s most popular Sybils back in the day, insists ITI have made numerous approaches to Cleese’s management to negotiate official recognition of the show with “cordial discussions” as recently as late 2015.

Indeed, ITI say Cleese himself was approached by their European promoter and invited to the show during the 2008 Fringe, when he was in Edinburgh. He declined politely.

And in an ironic legal twist, intellectual property lawyers have even mused that as ITI trademarked their ‘Faulty Towers’ name in Australia, they may have grounds to object to Cleese using the Fawlty Towers Live title - Fawlty Towers is not a registered trademark in Australia, and in the UK is owned by the BBC - it’s enough to make a grown man take a birch branch to a mini.

“The BBC have watched the show and supported us greatly,” says Pollard-Mansergh. “I have trademarked The Faulty Towers Dining Experience name, not the concept, to protect it from other tribute shows, we would never do that to John Cleese. Absolutely not.

“I’m still hopeful for official recognition. I’m even prepared to pay a percentage of ticket sales worldwide in recognition of the input that John and co-creator Connie Booth had into the whole thing - we can’t pay a royalty as we are not using their scripts.

“From the word go I’ve wanted to be recognised as an official tribute to this fantastic TV series. I’m disappointed that there is a fight because to me, John Cleese is an amazing writer and I have massive respect for the man.

“The door is always open to him or his management to come to the show, then they might see how much of an homage it actually is.”

The Faulty Towers Dining Experience runs at B’est Restaurant 4-29 August, www.edfringe.com