Fawlty Towers is a series of twelve television episodes taking place in a hotel in Torquay. The protagonists consist of Basil Fawlty and Sybil, his wife, who are the managers of the hotel. Manuel, who does not speak
English properly since he comes from Barcelona, and Polly are both members of the staff.
“A Touch of Class” is the first episode. Frustrated by the social class of his guests, Basil Fawlty places a £40 advertisement in the newspaper to try to attract a “higher class of clientele.” In this extract, Dany Brown, in a leather jacket, asks for a room for the night. Basil immediately dislikes him and tells him that there are no rooms available. However, Sybil immediately gives Mr Brown the room seven. Later, Lord Melbury, who is just the sort of client that Basil wants to attract to his hotel, appears. Nevertheless, the manager is, as usual, impatient bordering on the downright rude. He takes a phone call while he is barking out instructions to his new guest until Lord Melbury tells Basil that he does not have any first name since he is known as Lord Melbury. At that moment, Basil realises his rude behaviour and immediately slams down the phone to talk with his, so long expected, Lord Melbury. Later, Mr Brown is revealed to be in fact an undercover police officer trying to arrest the so calling Lord Melbury, who has very simply ripped Basil off.
As far as the pragmatic aspect of my study is concerned, I have decided to develop the politeness aspect in this specific extract since we have a clear and obvious opposition in Basil’s behaviour depending on what person he is speaking to: a very rude and impolite language or, by contrast, a very high register of language when he learns that Melbury is in fact Lord Melbury. This contrast enables us to develop and to analyse different approaches of politeness in the English language through a real conversation with a background, a function (humoristic in that case to make the audience laugh), stereotyped characters and a mix of social relationships. Therefore throughout this essay, I will do my utmost to show how politeness is used in conversation, and how we use politeness to underline a certain trait of our behaviour, or as Brown and Levinson asserted: “what sort of assumptions and what sort of reasoning are utilized by participants to produce strategies of a verbal interaction.” (1987:57)
First of all, let us focus on the first part of this extract, that is to say, the exchange between Mr Brown and Basil, and particularly the beginning of the conversation since the start is important in a dialogue because this is the starting point of tensions, greeting, and requests. Mr Brown asks for a room. He seems to forget the boundaries set between Basil and himself and he totally ignores the social difference. He is speaking as if Basil was a friend – a “mate” – instead of considering him as the hotel manager. He does not say “Hello” or “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” He just says “Allo!” Then, instead of apologising for disturbing, he just asks very directly for a room: “Got a room?” This question is very inappropriate considering the status of both men. It would be suitable between two people from the same social status or the same age, like friends for example. There are no mitigating devices such as “excuse me” or “please”, and no auxiliary at all. Basil answers indeed in asking, “I beg your pardon?”, which shows that he did not expect such a language from Mr Brown. That sentence immediately shows the gap that Basil wants to re-create, saying to Mr Brown that they are not from the same world. Consequently, he does not greet his new guest. However, Mr Brown insists repeating, “Got a room for tonight, mate.” He obviously ignores Basil’s remark and goes even further calling Basil his “mate”. He wants to be put on the same level as Basil. The manager keeps on the same king of language insisting on the social gap contrasting “mate” by “sir” (l.4) and using modals (“shall have to”). Mr Brown answers that he would like a double room using the imperative form, ordering “Yeah. (instead of yes) No, make it a double.” This can be interpreted in two ways. Mr Brown may despise Basil’s job or he has completely forgotten what person he talks to, giving him orders.
To take his revenge, Basil decides not to give Mr Brown a room for the night pretending that Mr Tone is already in room number seven. Nevertheless, the room is kindly offered by Sybil who expresses his respect towards her guests, considering them customers bringing money, and therefore is very polite as witnessed by the mitigating devices: “would you”, “sir.” She even greets her new guest, telling him “hope you enjoy your stay,” and she calls him by his family name. This is a very conventional way to speak, but this is the appropriate register used for talking to customers.
Besides, Basil shows his sarcasm and irony, once again, calling Mr Brown “gentleman” (l.15) in spite of he does not mean what he is just saying. Later on, Basil recalls to Mr Brown that Barcelona is in Spain. (l.19) He willingly floutes Grice’s maxim of quantity. (Grice, 1989) He gives indeed too much information that we need. It creates humour, thinking Mr Brown is an idiot for perhaps not knowing that Barcelona is in Spain. The last line of that exchange is “Key?” to summarize all this talk as far as politeness is concerned. There is not even any sentence to that question, showing Mr Brown’s lack of deference.
This dialogue enables us to clearly show the concept of a “positive politeness” and of a “negative politeness”. According to Brown and Levinson, “positive politeness is redress directed to the addressee’s positive face, his perennial desire that his wants should be thought of as desirable.” (1987:101) By contrast, “negative politeness is redressive action addressed to the addressee’s ‘negative face.’” (1987:129) In other words, we use a “positive politeness” when we want to be accepted by others such as Mr Brown willing to associate Basil to his sphere. On the other hand, “negative politeness” is used not to be imposed on by others and to create a social distance like Basil refusing being called “mate.”
In addition to that, the second conversation is between Melbury and Basil. However, we can divide this oral exchange into two parts. On one hand, we have Basil’s behaviour before he learns that Melbury is a Lord and after, which is completely different as I am going to demonstrate. So, in the first part, Melbury opens the talk, asking a room for a few nights as well. However, the register is completely different from Mr Brown’s. We have, here, a face saving act since Melbury by saying, “I was wondering if”, offers a greater freedom for Basil to refuse his request. Then, he plays down his request saying that it is just for a “a few nights”, and he uses, besides, terms belonging to a high register such as “accommodation” (l.35) or “I beg your pardon?” (l.49) Basil’s language is just the contrary in that extract. He asks very direct questions without any mitigating devices repeating his question twice: “Have you booked?” There is no “sir” or “gentleman” at all. Furthermore, the manager is rather aggressive asserting, “we’re not full, we’re not full. Of course, we’re not full.” The repetition of the adjective “full” is not required and is irrelevant here, rendering that quite abrupt like in “There! There!”(l.48). Basil keeps on behaving that way, interrupting his guest twice. (ll.44,46)
However, he cannot forget to use a minimum of politeness due to his job. This is the reason why, he is using “could” (l.46), “please” (l.48), and “would you” (l.50) Apart from doing two thinks at the same time: addressing Melbury and being on the phone with Mr O’Reilly, Basil asks very directly “You don’t have a first name?” This lack of politeness can be seen as a “face-threatening act.” However, Basil has extenuating circumstances since he is surprised by Melbury’s reply.
Finally, as soon as Basil understands that Melbury is in fact “Lord Melbury” and that he, consequently, fits perfectly to his vision of a “higher class of clientele”, he reacts completely differently. He immediately changes his language and his behaviour calling for instance Melbury: “your Lordship” (l.54) or “your honour” (l.58). This sudden change makes the audience laugh since they can notice just in two seconds time Basil’s transformation. He realises his rude attitude towards the guest and tries to apologise, begging, “I’m sorry”, “I do apologise”, “please”, “forgive me.” He uses emphatic forms “so” “do” to underline that. He does indeed too much in order to satisfy Melbury, and this exaggeration renders Basil’s character even more hilarious. Next, he employs indirect expressions like “I’m so sorry” or “to have kept you.” Then, he offers Melbury all that he can offer, telling him “Is there something, anything I can do for you? Anything at all”, and the fact that he is fetching Melbury’s cases – accepting therefore to do Manuel’s job – is a way to satisfy Melbury’s requests. This is what Peccei called “maximize the praise of the other to look more polite.” (Peccei, 1999:63) On top of that, he flatters Melbury exclaiming “how very wise” (l.58), but he takes immediately precautions saying, “If I may say so,” which is a way not to offend Melbury. Then, Basil tries to be funny saying “naturellement” with a French accent. Jokes are basic positive politeness techniques to put the addressee at ease. As far as Melbury is concerned, he keeps on using the same language as before, using modality such as “I shall” (l.61). Later on in the exchange, Basil rings the bell to call Manuel, but unfortunately, this latter does not come. That situation obviously embarrasses Basil since he does not know what to say. The only theme he finds is weather in Torquay. According to Brown and Levinson’s theory about politeness, weather is a “safe topic allow[ing Basil] to stress his agreement with [Melbury] and therefore to satisfy [Melbury]’s desire ‘right’, or to be corroborated in his opinions.” (1987:112) As Levinson says, the more the speaker knows about the addressee, the more close to home will be the safe topics. “The Face Threatening Act of making a request is normally preceded by an interim of small talks on safe topics, as a way of reassuring the addressee that you did not come simply to exploit him by making a request, but have an interest in general in maintaining a relationship with him.” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 112)
Finally, Basil Fawlty does not hesitate to exaggerate facts, making his discourse totally absurd, unlikely, and hilarious. He uses exclamations such as “splendid” (l.68), “beautiful” (l.64) and “wonderfully” (l.66). Basil invents completely trying to satisfy Melbury, who does not care about what the manager says at all.
To conclude, on this extract of Fawlty Towers, “A touch of class”, we constructed an overall theory of politeness, integrating notions of polite friendliness and polite formality in a single scheme. That analysis shows that strategies, used to look more polite, could be mixed allowing us to investigate about the diversity of social relations in the British society. However, despite this analysis is based on real situations which could happen in real life, this is crucial to bear in mind that the script was invented and built to make people laugh, and therefore in everyday life, it is often unlikely to have all these features in one single conversation.
BROWN, P. and LEVINSON, S.C. (1987) Politeness: Some universals in language usage Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
PECCEI, J.S. (1999) Pragmatics London: Routledge.
BRIGHT, M. (2001) Fawlty Towers: fully booked London: BBC.
EELEN, G. (2001) A critique of politeness theories Manchester: St. Jerome.
WATTS, R.J. (2003) Politeness Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.