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Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Kipper and the Corpse

In the “Fawlty Towers” episode “The Kipper and the Corpse,” Basil Fawlty delivers breakfast to one of his lodgers.  As the man is still in bed, propped up against the headboard, Basil sets the tray on the man’s lap.  Caught up in his thoughts, he doesn’t notice the man’s complete lack of response.  When his waitress Polly subsequently visits the room, she returns to report that the man is dead.  Basil, who had previously noticed the expired date on the empty kippers packaging, fears that he’s just poisoned his lodger.  He rushes up to the room, grabs the kippers off the tray, and then is forced to hide in the wardrobe when his wife brings in a doctor to confirm Polly’s prognosis.

On our recent vacation in England, the staff at our hotel in Thirsk brought us such generous portions of food that I hesitated to ask about the kippers on the breakfast menu.  Yet, ever since watching that episode two decades ago, I had been curious about kippers.  Every time a character on another English TV program ate kippers for breakfast, my curiosity increased.  I faced a conundrum.  They listed kippers on the menu, but my taste for fish usually doesn't extend beyond the basic varieties that come battered and fried.  Still, one morning I plucked up my courage.  

Our server apologized: he could not bring me “just a small one to try,” as they were all the same size.  Nevertheless, he seemed anxious to serve me one.  I dug into the rest of my breakfast, and hoped that I wouldn’t take one bite of the kipper and find the taste so disagreeable that I couldn’t eat any more.

"I'm sorry, sir.  We don't serve small kippers."

When the kipper arrived, it was larger than those depicted in the show.  While its head had been removed, the entire skeletal structure remained.  I discovered that if one worked carefully, one could lift the spine out of the fish, and some of the bones came out with it.  But many more remained.  Kipper bones resemble cat whiskers: they’re thin and pliable, and I hadn’t brought my reading glasses to breakfast.  After removing all I could find, I ate several bites, only to crunch thin bones that eluded my efforts and clung to the inside of my throat.  Still, I enjoyed the strong but pleasant flavor, so I worked away on each bite, and then raised the fork to eye level.  With the morning light streaming in through the restaurant windows, I found more bones I had not spotted at plate-level.

During this, the rest of my food was growing cold, my eyes were fatigued from so much squinting, and my wife’s stomach seemed slightly upset.  She pulled the kipper plate over and went to work, separating flesh from bone while I returned to the rest of my food.  At intervals, she scooped sorted-through fish onto my plate.  I still raised each forkful up to eyelevel for a final test, but her diligent work sped my progress through the rest of the meal.  Still, I hadn’t intended to make her do my work, and wondered what the other diners thought of a man who needed his wife to cut up his fish for him.

Having enjoyed the kipper, the next morning I brought down my reading glasses and ordered another.  But time still hurtled by, if anything faster than the day before.  Meanwhile, my wife was just sitting there.  Again, her stomach seemed unsettled.  So after awhile, I let her perform the initial surgery while I worked at the rest of my breakfast.

The next day, I opted for a kipper-free breakfast.  My wife’s appetite returned, and she suffered no more stomach upset during the rest of our vacation.  While I enjoyed their flavor, and am glad to have finally sated my curiosity, I think I’ll steer clear of kippers in the future.  Not only do they take too long to eat, but even if they’re not past their sell-by date, they still seem to make one of us sick.

James Gilbert, who oversaw the pilot and first season of “Last of the Summer Wine,” initially rejected “Fawlty Towers,” declaring it “a disaster.”  Gilbert’s instincts served him well in assessing Summer Wine’s potential: the series would continue production for thirty-eight years.  Perhaps he also had a point about “Fawlty Towers,” as John Cleese and Connie Booth decided to abandon the show after making a mere twelve episodes.  Still, the British Film Institute wouldn't agree, as it's named “Fawlty Towers” the best British comedy of all time. 

Remembering my wife’s rather fishy stomach problems,
Dragon Dave

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