Ballard Berkeley aka The Major
“We loved this guy who was in his own world. He never quite understood what was going on, but always added his own interpretation of it.” — John Cleese.
Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, in Fawlty Towers was a bumbling, quintessential stiff upper lipped English gentleman. And proud of it! Well known for his distrust of foreigners in general, and Germans in particular, he could always be found wandering about Fawlty Towers enquiring if the newspapers had arrived yet. The only thing more important to Major Gowen than the arrival of the newspapers to keep himself abreast of the cricket scores was the opening of the bar. This was an era with less liberal licensing hours than can be enjoyed in England today.
Born in 1904, Ballard Berkeley's film career began as far back as 1930 in a film called The Chinese Bungalow — nearly half a century before he could be found wandering around Fawlty Towers. His film and TV career spanned the decades and the genres — comedy, horror, suspenseful thrillers and more — often playing the type of role he was so brilliant at.
His last film role was in National Lampoon's European Vacation playing a character more than a little reminiscent of Major Gowen. His best-known small screen appearances included To The Manor Born and Fresh Fields.
See the Internet Movie Database entry for Ballard Berkeley for a full list of his film and TV credits
Ballard Berkeley was just as big a cricket fan off screen as The Major in Fawlty Towers was on screen. Ballard would often signal to John Cleese on set to keep him informed on the progress of his beloved England in the Test Match.
It was at the good age of 84 that Ballard Berkeley died on January 16 1988. As far as I have been able to establish, he was born Ballard Blascheck on August 6, 1904 in Kent in the South East of England.
Fully Booked, the definitive book on Fawlty Towers, is dedicated to Ballard Berkeley — an indication of the deep affection felt for Ballard by everyone associated with the series. The book is also dedicated to Brian Hall who played Terry the Chef, who sadly died young at just 59.
The inspiration for the character of The Major in Fawlty Towers was said to be one Captain Lancaster — John Cleese's Latin teacher as a young lad.
Major malfunctions — classic scenes
One of my favourite scenes involving the Major was in The Germans when he thought the moose head was conversing with him in perfect English. Unknown to the Major, Manuel was the source of the voice — out of sight underneath the reception counter!
Another was when he comes striding into the bar in Basil the Rat with his shotgun under his arm on a mission to rid the hotel of vermin!
Contact me through this page with your Major Gowen favourite scenes, lines, thoughts etc and I'll add them to this page.
The Major’s Regiment
This doesn’t seem to be mentioned in any of the twelve episodes but sharp-eyed viewer Andrew Chapman from Australia tells me The Major was wearing an 8th Army Gunner’s tie in one episode. Update: Another viewer tells me The Major sometimes wore a Royal Artillery tie (pictured).
I've now had further confirmation (from a serving Major in the Royal Artillery) that Major Gowen does wear the pictured tie in the Basil The Rat episode. He mentioned that the red zig-zag pattern represents lightning bolts from the patron saint of Artillerymen, St Barbara. Also, it is something of a tradition that all Gunner Officers serving and ex-serving wear their "Gunner Tie" on a Friday.
The main picture at the top of this page confirms that Major Gowen does indeed wear a Royal Artillery Gunners' tie in Basil The Rat. It's worth noting that he wears this particular tie when he is strutting around the hotel bar wielding his shotgun in pursuit of the Rat!