23 March 2016
by Karl Quinn

John Cleese may sue Australian company behind 'utterly shameless' Fawlty Towers 'rip-off'

The cast of the original Fawlty Towers: (l to r) Andrew Sachs as Manuel; John CLeese as Basil, Prunella Scales as Sybil, and Connie Booth as Polly.

John Cleese is threatening to take legal action against an Australian theatre company over claims it has ripped off some of the former Monty Python man's most famous work.

The Faulty Towers Dining Experience is slated to run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from April 12 at the Aegean restaurant in Fitzroy, as it has in previous seasons of the festival. This version will be just one of nine iterations of the show that are being staged around the world by Interactive Theatre International, a company founded by New Zealander Alison Pollard-Mansergh in Brisbane in 1999.

Tickets to a recent season at the Sydney Opera House cost up to $195 for dinner and show. The London season runs until September, with tickets costing up to £59. But John Cleese and his co-writer on the two seasons of the Fawlty Towers TV series, ex-wife Connie Booth, receive not a penny.

"I had absolutely no idea this was going on until about a year ago," Cleese said on Wednesday from New Zealand. "I think people will find that very hard to believe, but if people don't tell you, how do you know?"
Cleese said ITI and associated entities had never sought permission to use the characters, situations and name – albeit with marginally different spelling.

"If they've been going for 20 years without paying us a penny, they could well owe us a very significant amount," he said.

Cleese said that over the years many student and amateur productions had sought and been granted permission to stage Fawlty Towers-inspired shows. However, the fact that one of them was making in the region of £1 million a year put it in a completely different category.

"They didn't ask our permission and we didn't know it was happening on this scale," he said. "If little groups are making some money that's not a problem, but this is entirely different."

Ms Pollard-Mensargh, founder and artistic director of Interactive Theatre International, which producesFaulty Towers The Dining Experience, responded to Fairfax's detailed list of questions on the legal status of her show with a short emailed statement.

"We understand that John Cleese has made a comment to the media concerning dinner theatre," she said.

"We do not know if his comments were intended to be directed at our show, which has been running for nearly 20 years. If his comments were directed at us we reject them – they are misleading and inaccurate. We are huge fans of his work and wish him all the best with his new show."

Cleese said he was considering taking legal action to protect the interests of investors in the stage version of his show, Fawlty Towers Live, which will make its world premiere in Sydney in August.

The 2014 season of Faulty Towers The Dining Experience at Sydney Opera House. Tickets for last month's Opera House season cost up to $195.

"Now that Fawlty Towers is about to happen as a proper stage show and producers are investing money in what is a risky enterprise, we certainly don't want other shows out there confusing people."

That's a position the producers of Faulty Towers the Dining Experience should be able to identify with. Their website includes a "legals" page, complete with the following warning:

"[We have] a genuine commercial interest to protect. [We] have successfully taken and will continue to take legal action when or if another company brands a similar show closely styled relative to [our] long-running show in such a way that any innocent party wishing to book/commission [our] services or purchase tickets for a show could be misled into thinking that the two outfits were one and the same."

This reporter reviewed the Melbourne season of the show two years ago, and judged it to be "impersonation, not re-creation, though there are nods to the show's most famous scenes". The three characters in the live show are Basil, Manuel and Sybil, and are all clearly derived from the TV series Fawlty Towers, which first aired on the BBC in two seasons in 1975 and 1979.

"These people are completely brazen, utterly shameless," said Cleese on Wednesday. "The awful thing about our society is that shameless people get away with things – look at [Donald] Trump.

"They take our concepts, they take our characters, they take our characters' names and then they change the W to a U and say it's got nothing to do with our show."

Despite all that, Cleese was still able to appreciate the irony in the situation.

"These people are shamelessly ripping off Connie Booth and myself, and they are publishing aggressive threats against anyone else who would seek to rip them off in the same way," he said. "It's absolutely wonderful!"