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Fawlty logic

Explaining the comic construction of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said, “The essence of farce is almost always that some kind of taboo has been transgressed and the protagonist has to cover up. So he does one lie to cover up the first. As he seems to get caught out in that lie, he has to switch to a slightly different lie and then to a third until you just get bogged down in worse and worse degrees of lying.” That’s what farce is, “A plausible progression from a reasonably realistic calm to an eminently imaginable comic hell,” and of this device, who can deny that John Cleese and Connie Booth were both black belt masters.

One man who overestimated his belt division in the use of farce was a Roman governor called Pontius Pilate. Presented one Friday morning with the duty of deciding a criminal case, he began the descent from the heights of ‘reasonable calm’. Instinctively knowing that the man before him was innocent, but knowing that the crowd was baying for his blood, Pilate played his first lie. In his generosity, read – political idiocy, he would let one of the city’s prisoners go free. Who would it be? The man before him that they called the Christ, or the city’s most notorious criminal, Barabbas?

When against the script the crowd chose Barabbas, Pilate switched to his second lie. He had Jesus severely flogged, reasonably supposing that the crowd would be appeased and promptly disperse. But when their demands for crucifixion continued and intensified, Pilate was forced to play his third lie. He washed his hands in judicial protest, forcing the responsibility for issuing the death penalty upon their shoulders, hoping that they might sober up and relent. But he was to be disappointed. The scene ended in farce. Pilate was shamed, Barabbas was released, and Jesus was crucified.

But before the higher throne of God, the result was anything but a comic hell. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (1 Cor 1:25), and Jesus’ Cross became the very door into a safer and saner place.

DM 18th Mar 2014


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