Russell Blackstock is a senior reporter at the Weekend Herald and Herald on Sunday.

John Cleese threatens to sue Kiwi's version of Fawlty Towers

John Cleese and his co-writer on the two seasons of the  Fawlty Towers  TV series, ex-wife Connie Booth, receive no money from the productions. Photo / Brett Phibbs
John Cleese and his co-writer on the two seasons of the Fawlty Towers TV series, ex-wife Connie Booth, receive no money from the productions. Photo / Brett Phibbs

John Cleese is threatening legal action against an Australian theatre company founded by a Kiwi over claims it has ripped off some of his most famous work.

The Faulty Towers The Dining Experience is slotted to run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from April 12.

It is one of nine versions of the same show being staged worldwide 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 $218 for dinner and show.

But Cleese and his co-writer on the two seasons of the Fawlty Towers TV series, ex-wife Connie Booth, receive no money from the productions.

"I had absolutely no idea this was going on until about a year ago," Cleese told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I think people will find that very hard to believe, but if people don't tell you, how do you know?"

Cleese is presently in New Zealand to perform live stage shows with his former Monty Python co-star Eric Idle in Auckland tonight and Wellington tomorrow.

Cleese said the Australian company 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 many student and amateur productions had sought and been granted permission to stage Fawlty Towers-inspired shows over the years. However, the fact that one of them was making in the region of $2 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."

Alison Pollard-Mansergh.
Alison Pollard-Mansergh.

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

"We are staggered by John Cleese's vitriol towards us and our tribute show. He and his management have known about our show for years. We have made nothing like the sums he claims we have.

"We are not an unauthorised rip-off show - anyone who knows the law in this area will understand that we do not require authorisation to use the concept of Fawlty Towers. We are not the bad guys he is painting us to be.

"It is a shame he has chosen to air his frustrations so publicly rather than contacting us directly about this matter."


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.

"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 is a position the producers of Faulty Towers The Dining Experience could well identify with. Their website includes a "legal" 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 only appeared to infuriate Cleese further.

"These people are completely brazen, utterly shameless," he said. "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."

However, 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!"

- NZ Herald

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