AMERICAN REMAKE 3: PAYNE

 

The American remakes of Fawlty Towers were terrible, right? Well - maybe not!

 

American television had already tried (and failed) to make two previous versions of Fawlty Towers – “Snaveley” in 1978 and “Amandas” in 1983. The first didn’t get past the pilot stage, and the second famously jettisoned the Basil character completely. However, in the late 1990’s they tried once more to produce the show for the American market. This time it was entitled “Payne” and (unlike Amanda’s) it credited both John Cleese and Connie Booth in the titles. “Payne” was a mid-season replacement on CBS and aired in March and April 1999.

 

It starred American actor John Larroquette as Royal Payne, who was credited as an executive producer for the series. The show also starred JoBeth Williams (as Constance Payne), Julie Benz (as Breeze O’Rourke) and Rick Batalla (as Mo).

 

In total, 9 episodes were produced, but only 8 were originally aired before the show was cancelled.

 

I actually quite like this series – and while it certainly isn’t in the same league as “Fawlty Towers”, the episodes do stand up to more than a couple of watches. I find it infinitely more enjoyable than the previous remake, “Amanda’s”. All of the major characters are in place, with equivalents of  Basil, Sybil, Polly and Manuel. I think the idea of substituting Indian “Mo” for Manuel works extremely well – and I find his performance to be quite engaging. There is some nice interplay between Royal and his wife – with Breeze acting as his (often ineffectual) moral compass.

 

Later I will discuss the series in general, but fist lets take a look at Episode 5. “Pacific Ocean Duck” – which was actually filmed first (as a pilot) but broadcast fifth on 7th April 1999. In essence this episode is most like Fawlty Towers.

 

Okay – the episode really starts with a pre-credit sequence – but let’s start here. The title is a play on words “Payne for PAIN” as “Fawlty is for FAULTY”. I don’t find the central character a “Royal Payne” – nor indeed his wife a “Constance (Constant) Payne” Yes they DO stress the gag about the names in this episode – but hey – I’ll let them off – the cast seem to be having fun with it. The exterior of the hotel matches Royal’s obsession with marketing the place as being far more up-market than it really is. There is even (later in the series) a gag with the sign. So…. A good start.

Unlike Amanda’s (1983) this series apparently had the blessing of John Cleese. His name is referenced in the credits – and to be fair – it only says “based on the series Fawlty Towers” – however Episode 5 in particular is very close to the source material.

 

The set is beautifully designed and is a “reflection” of the Fawlty Towers hotel – with the reception desk on the right of the screen.

There is some nice chemistry between Royal and Constance. Later in the series they appear to have quite a “healthy” marriage – but in this episode the characters are more closely matched to Basil and Sybil, where their relationship is based on mutual affection and mutual “put downs”. The characters do seem fairly rounded though and the actors play well against each other. Royal enjoys the “robe charge” and has even taken to accepting notes about his guests from Constance – the desire to make money and be a successful hotelier is evident – and fairly believable!

The character of Mo is just as keen and eager as Manuel to do the right thing. The joke about running off before an instruction is complete works beautifully. There is the physical violence between the characters, but it is played humorously and with a ‘pantomime’ reaction from Mo. This works far better than the Aldo character in Amanda’s. There is some great language confusion (including a gag about leverage / beverage) that is delivered naturally – These actors aren’t wringing the script for laughs – some are stressed – some aren’t. It seems confident in itself.

Even the old ladies are present in this episode – although they are slightly more risqué than the ones we are used to. In later episodes they talk about smoking pot – and in this one they are seen heading to the (clothes optional) beach. Moments like this allow Royal to be seen interacting with his residents in a fun way. Like Basil he appears to tolerate some of his guests, fawn over others and resent the ones that he sees as beneath the hotel. All good character stuff.

 

 

As the hotel prepares to host its own “Gourmet Night” – (or GOR-MET night as Mo pronounces it) the Payne’s draft in a wonderful and talented chef – with a problem. In Fawlty Towers it was drink – in this series it’s the fact that he dies. This leads to a slight problem in that there is a reviewer coming to sample the hotel…

 

I suppose the “death” is an attempt to go “bigger” with the jeopardy of the situation – or maybe it is just to be a bit different. Either way – it actually works well  here

 

 

In this episode there is a case of mistaken identity – Royal accuses a female guest of being a hooker – when in fact she reveals herself to be the reviewer – There is then the familiar ‘squirming, wriggling, lying and fawning’ to laugh off the mistake that we would expect of Basil.

In Fawlty Towers, Basil’s manic behaviour is an attempt to NOT be rude to his guests – here the rudeness is simply rudeness – but still successful – mistaken identity is always funny!

 

 

Here, Breeze performs the Polly role well – it is her duty to inform Royal that the chef is ‘indisposed’ – but he is not willing to listen. Again the characters work well together. In other episodes Breeze is seen as much more judgmental than Polly – who would often assist Basil in his schemes / lies. Anyway – it is nice that the humour here is based on the audience feeling uncomfortable for the hotel owner – it is similar to Fawlty Towers in that respect.

 

 

Strange one this…. Perhaps the most classic sequence of all – the “damn good thrashing” is missing from this remake! It is replaced by Royal’s car breaking down and then falling off a cliff. Here the idea of going “bigger” actually lessens the humour of the episode. I suppose that Royal is very different to Basil – Royal actually manages to maintain his composure throughout the series – and there really isn’t the sense that he is living on the edge of some sort of mania. Perhaps the “thrashing” wouldn’t suit Royal. The cliff-drop IS funny though.

 

 

There is no denying that Basil desperately running up the hotel drive is hilarious – the desperation in his eyes is clear for all to see – and I wouldn’t change it for anything – but Royal stealing a boy’s bicycle to complete his journey – and then being chased by a pack of kids is (for me) a highlight of this episode… and part of we wished that Basil would have resorted to this!

 

 

Obviously, Royal makes it back to the hotel with his “Pacific Ocean Duck” under a huge silver cover. The pompousness of the build-up is brilliant. The fact that is hotel critic is sat in front of him increases the jeopardy. The audience know that something is amiss – and perhaps they are waiting for the reveal of a trifle….

 

 

… here it is a plate of left overs – rubbish, cigarette ends, bottles and a stripped carcass. Maybe this is what a “Pacific Ocean Duck” would look like – and the reveal is funny – although I do miss Basil’s trifle-diving.

 

And there you have it – a pretty decent version of “Gourmet Night” really. Some things work well, and there is certainly mileage in it. Later episodes don’t follow the original scripts as closely as this one – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

 

On the whole the episodes are well scripted and well acted. As I said earlier, the cast seen to be enjoying this. If you enjoy American sit-coms from the 1990’s then you will probably enjoy this. Having re-watched episode 5 to produce the screen captures for this page I am tempted to re-watch the whole series. I don’t really know why episode 9 was not shown on its original run in the US – The version I watched was online and from a showing on ITV in the early 2000’s.

 

I think John Larroquette does a pretty good job of holding the show together actually. He is supported by a good cast that each play their role in a believable way.

 

I suppose it is possible that the spectre of the two previous failed remakes weighed heavily on the shoulders of Payne – which is a shame really as I would have liked to have seen more. It is true that the other episodes were not as heavily influenced by Fawlty Towers, and a brief run-down of what happens is as follows….

 

Episode 1: Royal gives a brooch that has been found in a hotel room to his wife as an anniversary present. All fine until the owner returns…

Episode 2: Royal installs a phone system that allows him to listen in to his guests – and provide whatever they want… before they can ask!

Episode 3: Royal wants to show off a wholesome, family image to a reviewer – shame about the dubious other guests!

Episode 4: A mysterious guest arrives at the hotel with only a cat. Payne is intrigued but won’t admit he likes to gossip.

Episode 5: See above

Episode 6: Royal decides to rent a room “by the hour” to a young couple – but doesn’t tell his wife because he wants to buy a watch!

Episode 7: A blind guest arrives at the hotel, mistaking it for the Sand Dune. Royal pretends she is in the right place. Who will know?

Episode 8: There is a wedding at the hotel – all fine until Breeze and the groom to be share a moment…

Episode 9: The Payne’s nephew arrives at the hotel, fresh out of prison!

 

In some ways it is actually better that the show produces its own scripts – a slavish remake would serve no purpose at all – other than to alienate fans of Fawlty Towers. The fact that they do “have a go” at copying one – and doing it fairly successfully shows that this was produced by a talented bunch of people. It would be very easy for this show to have fallen flat on its face. It doesn’t.  This is an enjoyable comedy show – and well worth a watch if you have a spare afternoon. Go on. Try it. You might like it!

 

 

Episode List:

 

  1. The J. Edgar Hoover Pin Story (15 March 1999)
  2. Sexual Intercom (17 March 1999)
  3. Whatever Happened to Baby Payne? (24 March 1999)
  4. Gossip Checks In and a Cat Checks Out (31 March 1999)
  5. Pacific Ocean Duck (7 April 1999)
  6. Trouble in Room 206 (14 April 1999)
  7. I Never Forget a Face-Lift (21 April 1999)
  8. Wedding Fever (28 April 1999)
  9. Uncle Royal and Aunt Connie (Originally unaired)