Adam Jackson-Smith on becoming Basil Fawlty

Fawlty Towers: The Play. Adam Jackson-Smith. Credit: Trevor Leighton

Fawlty Towers has arrived on the West End! The play, an adaptation of the hit television series written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, has been adapted for the stage by Cleese himself. With direction from Caroline Jay Ranger, Fawlty Towers: The Play brings three of the most iconic episodes of the series to life, ending with a new finale that ties everything together.

Recently, we had the chance to speak with Adam Jackson-Smith, who takes on the iconic role of Basil Fawlty. We discussed what made him want to be a part of Fawlty Towers: The Play, how he has prepared for the role and why comedy shows like this are so important for the world right now.

How did you first get involved in the world of theatre?

When I was at university! I went to university in Sheffield and I was doing English literature and history. In my final year of uni, I auditioned for a play called Arcadia by Tom Stoppard - I was cast and I loved it. Then I basically spent the last year at uni just doing plays. I just jumped in, started doing plays and then moved to London. I did a bit in London, was working as a teacher for a bit, and then eventually went to drama school. So it's a slightly circuitous route, but a good one!

And what made you want to be a part of Fawlty Towers?

It's something I remember watching when I was a kid. I've always been a big fan of John's work and Monty Python stuff. The more irreverent Python-esque humour is what I was exposed to first, and then Fawlty Towers, which I suppose is more mainstream humour, although I don't think it would have been at the time. Yeah, because it was so iconic and it's a character that I've known my entire life and enjoyed. It was a massive privilege to be asked to come and audition. And then to get the part was incredible!

What is it like to play such an iconic character?

Multifaceted! [Laughs] I've been through lots of different phases with it. Obviously, there's an element of pressure that comes through the expectation of what people are hoping or thinking they're going to experience. That is probably pretty palpable. But also, again, it's just a total pleasure to perform those scripts and all the new stuff that's interwoven with it as well.

We're lucky we've got an incredible company of actors and everyone backstage as well. We're all having a lot of fun. That often isn't the case! When you're working with this many people, it's human nature, that's inevitable. But we are really lucky that we all get on well, and that helps when you're trying to present a comedy to an audience as well. If you're having fun on stage, I think that helps.

What were the rehearsals for Fawlty Towers like?

Great! Myself and a few others came in for the first week. We were doing closer textual work with CJ [Caroline Jay Ranger], the director, and we were looking at sort of the backstories of our characters.

I've always maintained that the most useful way of approaching any character is to do it from the inside out. So we were looking at the character of Donald Sinclair, the hotelier that John and Connie based Basil on, biographical research and stuff. This is a guy who probably fought during the war - we don't really know whether that was something that Basil really did, or if Sybil is just having a laugh! And then the rest of the company came in the week later. And we were lucky, we were at the English National Ballet down in Canning Town. We had most of the set in the room - that was incredible! That was a rare privilege. Day four, we were bringing omelettes in on plates. That doesn't happen! [Laughs]

It was really useful and it meant that the tech process when we were in the theatre was much easier. So rehearsals were great. It's always the way - long days, lots of hard work, but really good fun.

Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Adam Jackson-Smith, Anna-Jane Casey. Credit: Trevor Leighton
Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Adam Jackson-Smith, Anna-Jane Casey. Credit: Trevor Leighton

And did you rewatch the television series in preparation for the role?

I did, actually, yeah! It's funny, when I've done stuff in the past that has been based on other IP, I've been hesitant to watch it because, personally, I don't find it particularly useful to approach from an acting perspective. But for this, because it is so iconic, and because I think it would be foolish to imagine that there are people coming who don't want to see some elements of the original series, it would have been churlish not to do so. So I watched it and cherry-picked little bits and pieces that I found useful and left other bits behind.

Speaking of taking on the iconic character of Basil Fawlty, how do you find your own place within it while still honouring the original work of John Cleese?

I think that's a tricky balance. But the easiest things you get free. I am not John, I'm not six foot five - absolute machine! [Laughs] But I don't think I could do eight shows a week if I was - I'd have to strike that balance. I am me. I have my physicality and my voice. But it's inevitable that you have an awareness of Cleese in that role and some of those elements that he brought. Basil is equal mixtures of stubborn, British authority and frustrated, whimpering mess. He does the whole gamut, so there's plenty to dive into!

Basil Fawlty is such a stressful and angry character. How do you deal with that both onstage and off?

Onstage is easy - he is 100% focused on everything. [Laughs] It shifts, so he's 100% convinced that this guy's a hotel inspector, so he's gonna fawn and simper, then he realises he isn't and he hates this guy. And then he's 100% on this other person.

It's quite satisfying because there are very few grey areas with Basil. He goes in all guns blazing, which is nice to play. And offstage, I think I'm gonna have to start having lots of massages and get into meditation - just try and chill out!

Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Paul Nicholas, Anna-Jane Casey, Adam Jackson-Smith, Victoria Fox, Hemi Yeroham, Kate Russell-Smith, Nicola Sanderson. Credit: Trevor Leighton
Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Paul Nicholas, Anna-Jane Casey, Adam Jackson-Smith, Victoria Fox, Hemi Yeroham, Kate Russell-Smith, Nicola Sanderson. Credit: Trevor Leighton

So you recently started preview performances. Have the audience reactions been what you were expecting?

Much, much more! I've never been in a show that's had reactions like this, which is quite incredible. The first show we did, it was mad. It was probably that first night energy anyway, but just having everybody stand up as one at the end . . . During the show, you can sense palpable ripples in the audience when they know that something's coming. And it's lovely, because we've all experienced those moments, those jokes, on TV, but if you have 800 people together in a room all experiencing it, there's a ripple that goes through the auditorium, which is quite magical. It's been great. It's been really, really good.

Have you talked with fans of Fawlty Towers about being in the show?

People just seem really excited, really pleased and really just delighted that they can go out and laugh, which I think is really important at the moment. Important at anytime, but I think it's quite important at the moment.

It's nice just seeing people relax for ninety minutes and get lost in something that they're quite familiar with. Again, there are new elements in there as well. But ultimately, I think people find comfort in something that has an element of nostalgia to it and I don't think we should be too afraid of that - there's room for that.

I've done lots of smaller, independent, really interesting theatre pieces, which I've loved, but it's a broad church - there's room for everything. We need all aspects, especially at the moment. You hear lots of stories about the industry and how it's going through a bit of a tough time. Having a show like Fawlty Towers on in the West End, with people just coming to enjoy themselves and not having to think too much about the political machinations of the characterisations or anything, it's just a nice release for people. So that's been really enjoyable, hearing people at stage door and out and about around the theatre, just smiling and having fun. That's been really nice.

Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Hemi Yeroham, Victoria Fox, Adam Jackson-Smith, Anna-Jane Casey. Credit: Trevor Leighton
Fawlty Towers: The Play. Image shows left to right: Hemi Yeroham, Victoria Fox, Adam Jackson-Smith, Anna-Jane Casey. Credit: Trevor Leighton

On the topic of nostalgia, what do you think it is that has kept Fawlty Towers in the public mind for fifty years now?

I think everybody can relate to Basil Fawlty. Everybody can sense their own pride and frustrations threatening to bubble over and explode! [Laughs] And it's very cathartic watching someone else absolutely lose their mind when you're dealing with similar stresses and strains - hopefully on a more minor level in your own life! He's universal.

The scripts are incredibly well-written, they're really tight! I write as well, but seeing the architecture in the writing is quite incredible. Breadcrumbs that are dropped in Act One that are then picked up, and that's the same in every episode! John has done a really good job in putting these three episodes together - maintaining that same structure over ninety minutes is not to be underestimated. So I think it's just really good writing. And it's still weirdly relevant despite being written '74 and '79. Those very simple, fallible human emotions are very much still on display in 2024.

Do you have a favourite line from the show?

It changes quite regularly, actually! But I like a lot of the Major stuff. He's in his own world completely. One of my favourite ones is the Major is looking at the moose and he's asking where it's from - "Japanese, is it?" And Basil says, "Canadian, I think, Major," which I quite like at the moment!

What do you hope audiences take away from Fawlty Towers?

Building on what I was saying earlier, I think it'd be lovely if people just came in and had a great time - just relaxed, laughed, and got to enjoy this piece of work in a theatre with 700 other people. It's lovely having a shared experience with everyone else, everyone on the same track. I just want people to come and have a really good time, have a laugh and go home smiling. That'd be great.

And finally, how would you describe Fawlty Towers in one word?

Riotous!


Fawlty Towers: The Play runs until 28th September at the Apollo Theatre on the West End. fawltytowerswestend.com

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