There was much picturesque site-seeing to be had, but it was whilst out on a day trip to Torquay that I got all proper excited as we happened to drive past this very ordinary looking hotel...
This is the legendary Gleneagles Hotel, where in May 1970 the Monty Python team stayed whilst filming in the area. At that time the hotel was run and owned by Donald Sinclair and his wife Beatrice.
There was a great 'South West' episode of the wonderful 'Comedy Map of Britain' TV programme a few years back (oddly, I've caught this very episode at least twice this year whilst flicking through the satelite channels), and they dedicated some time to the Gleneagles Hotel, and the odd behavior of its manager. Stories include Sinclair throwing a bus timetable at a guest who dared to ask when the next one to town was, verbally abusing Terry Gilliam because his table etiquette "wasn't British", and the famous chucking of Eric Idle's suitcase over a wall because Mr Sinclair thought it might have contained a bomb!
Michael Palin's excellent book - "Diaries 1969-1979 - The Python Years" has a couple of entries in May 1970 relating to this episode. Palin notes that Sinclair "seemed to view us as a colossal inconvenience right from the start”, and goes on to say that when he and Graham Chapman decided to leave the hotel after just one night, the Sinclair's gave them a bill for two weeks! Chapman too wrote about the experience in his book "A Liar's Autobiography", where he described Sinclair as "completely round the twist, off his chump, out of his tree". Cleese has said of Sinclair that he was "the most marvellously rude man I've ever met".
Almost all of the Pythons checked out of the Gleneagles rather quickly, in favour the Imperial Hotel down the road. But John Cleese stayed on for weeks, and even invited his then wife Connie Booth to join him and marvel at their host.... and comedy gold was born!
The first series of Fawlty Towers was broadcast in 1975, however an early prototype of Basil Fawlty was actually aired several years earlier in 1971. John Cleese was a writer for the sitcom Doctor in the House, and in the the third series (which by then was titled Doctor at Large) one of the doctors checks in to a hotel, owned by a very aggressive and incompetent manager!
There's a clip of this Doctor at Large episode on YouTube, but the rotter has disabled embedding... but if you're keen to see a non-Cleese Basil Fawlty, click here.
A number of stories used in Fawlty Towers were based on second hand accounts of Sinclair. The episode The Builders was inspired by an incident involving several builders who had come to rebuild Sinclair's garden wall. Sinclair's berating of Terry Gilliam must have been the inspiration behind the Waldorf Salad episode. And the "we've had a bomb scare" moment in Basil the Rat must surely relate to poor old Eric Idle's suitcase! Oh and Sinclair really did employ cheap foreign labour too, many of whom suffered abusive treatment from him. And the coincidences don't stop there either, many years later, in the interminable film Rat Race, John Cleese plays an eccentric hotel owner called Donald Sinclair!
However the Gleneagles is not the building shown in the opening titles of Fawlty Towers, as many think... in fact none of the programme was ever filmed in Torquay. Those opening credits show Wooburn Grange Country Club at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire (which was alas demolished in the early 1990's).
Oh and guess who's voice was merrily chirping away on my Tom-Tom as we drove past the Gleneagles, yup John Cleese! Weird!