This morning awaking before 5am I was saddened to learn of the death of Andrew Sachs who famously portrayted the well-meaning but inept Spanish waiter Manuel in the classic comedy Fawlty Towers.
Manuel was always in a state of constant confusion, and with a tenuous grasp of English syntax, he was invariably the target of Basil’s rages. However it it was just one role in seven decades of acting that spanned comedy, classical and dramatic roles.
He was born Andreas Siegfried Sachs on 7 April 1930 in Berlin. His insurance broker father was Jewish while his mother, who worked as a librarian, was a Catholic of part-Austrian ancestry. With Nazism on the rise in Germany, his father was arrested by the authorities in 1938, but later released after intervention by a friend in the police but was enough to persuade the family to flee Germany, and they moved to London.
They lived in several parts of north London, once acting as caretakers in the house of the noted anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski. Sachs later recalled being fascinated, at the age of 10, by piles of images of naked women he came across while exploring the house.
If the good Lord wanted us to be afraid, then he would have given us someone to be afraid of…..
He has, my WIFE!!!! – Mr O’Reilly and Basil
Andrew was a keen cinema-goer in his teens and auditioned for Rada but only had enough money to complete two terms. He eventually secured an assistant stage manager’s job at a theatre in Bexhill, East Sussex.
He endured the gruelling routine of rep, performing a play one week while, at the same time, learning lines and rehearsing for a completely different performance the next. Eventually he secured a job as stage manager at the Liverpool Playhouse.
A move to the Globe theatre in London followed, where he was spotted by the producer Brian Rix, who signed him up to appear in his Whitehall Farces. This gave Sachs more stable employment and a base to map out his future career.
A tenacious individual, he bombarded the BBC with material and requests for auditions. He was eventually hired by the Corporation where he wrote scripts, appeared in a number of radio productions and, occasionally, worked in the BBC German section.
His film debut came in the 1959 comedy, The Night They Dropped a Clanger, which also starred Brian Rix and the future first Doctor Who, William Hartnell. He followed this up with a minor part in another Rix film, Nothing Barred.
But despite a steady stream of work his profile remained low. He had a role in a 1962 BBC drama The Six Proud Walkers, and there there were appearances in a number of 1960s TV series, including The Saint.
He appeared in the 1973 film, Hitler: The Last Ten Days, featuring Alec Guinness as the dictator shut up in his bunker. Sachs didn’t miss the irony of a half-Jewish actor playing Walter Wagner, the Nazi lawyer who married Hitler to his mistress Eva Braun shortly before the pair committed suicide.
Sachs encountered John Cleese when both men were working on a series of training films. When Cleese finally managed to persuade the BBC to make Fawlty Towers – Corporation executives were sceptical – Sachs got the part that catapulted him into the public eye.
For those who have never seen Fawlty Towers, it is impossible to quite explain what a great impact the show has had on British culture. I might go as far to say that whilst many other British comedies are hits around the world, perhaps Fawlty Towers is the best and offers much of the same style of gentle, chaotic and self-depreciating humour of many of our other shows such as Dad’s Army.
Fawlty Towers is a hotel set on the English Riviera in the small town of Torquay and is run by the slightly awkward character of Basil Fawlty. Basil isn’t really cut out for life in the hospitality industry, he isn’t a people person and views his customers as a nuisance. A social climber who has aspirations to mingle with his betters whilst also always trying to take short cuts, cut corners and do things on the cheap. Hence why he has hired the young Manuel no doubt on peanuts. To make matters worse, his wife is a very fierce characters and infinitely more normal and capable but is herself rather pre-occupied with her social circle and chatting on the phone which leaves a lot of scope for things to go wrong.
The show is remembered for many things, the rat, the hotel guest who died, the fire, the hotel inspectors, the Germans of course. If one group of 12 short episodes can have too much to explain, then Fawlty Towers are those.
My favourite character in lots of way is actually the slightly senile, alcholic and very politically incorrect Major but undoubtedly the real highlight are the interactios between Basil and his waiter, Manuel.
I’m going to sell you to a vivisectionist! – Basil to Manuel
It wasn’t an easy role for Andrew, he twice suffered injuries, once when Basil attacked him with a metal saucepan – Cleese wanted to use a rubber one but was overruled by the producer – and once during the kitchen fire episode in The Germans.
A chemical on his clothes, designed to emit smoke, proved to be corrosive and ate its way into his skin.
Much of the comedy revolved around Manuel’s shaky grasp of English – “I learn eet from a book” -which made him incapable of understanding the simplest instructions.
Cleese’s break-up with his wife Connie Booth, who co-wrote the scripts, meant that only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers were made over two series. They have become comedy classics and are regularly repeated four decades after they first appeared.
In 1978 Sachs, inspired by a meeting with the playwright Tom Stoppard, wrote an experimental drama in which all the action was conveyed by sound effects rather than dialogue.
It first aired on BBC Radio 3 with Sachs in the leading role. It puzzled many critics, one of whom opined that it stood for “all that was wrong in contemporary radio drama”.
Basil Fawlty: Look, uh, go and get me a hammer.
Manuel: Uh, como?
Basil Fawlty: Hammer.
Manuel: Hammer, oh… Oh, hamma sandwich!
Basil Fawlty: Oh, do I have to go through this every time? Look, a HAMMER.
Manuel: My hamster?
Basil Fawlty: No, not your hamster. How could I knock a nail in with your hamster? Well… I could try, no, it doesn’t… No, I’ll get it. You come here and tidy. You know – tidy?
Manuel: Oh, tidy. Si.
Basil Fawlty: [walking away] Yes, I’ll get hkhammer and hkhit you on the hkhead with it hkhard.
Although there were further TV appearances, notably as the title character in the BBC adaptation of HG Wells’s History of Mr Polly, Andrew Sachs’s distinctive voice made him a natural for radio.
He played Father Brown in a Radio 4 adaptation of GK Chesterton’s detective priest stories, as well as radio versions of Sherlock Holmes and PG Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters.
He was also much in demand for narration, notably all five series of the The Troubleshooter for BBC television, which featured John Harvey-Jones as the businessman aiding struggling companies.
Sachs’ voice has also appeared on a number of audio books, including some Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
In 2009 Sachs made his debut on the ITV soap, Coronation Street, as Ramsay Clegg. At the time he revealed that his wife Melody was such a fan the family had been watching it since 1962.
He continued to work on TV and radio well into his eighties. “Oh yes, I just like it,” he said. “And because I’ve done quite well in the business, I don’t want to give it up.”
Despite Manuel being the butt of the jokes, he was extremely well loved and the audience always felt sorry for him and willed him on just as they did for his eccentric hotel manager.
My mother is always going on about men folloing her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her…. vomit on her Basil says – Sybil Fawlty
You can see just a few of the countless hilarious moments in the video below. Manuel features in a few of them. I picked an American video as I know some of the official BBC videos don’t play overseas though personally I find the voice over lady rather annoying!
Bizarely most of my favourite moments are even listed which show what a great show it is. I’ll always remember the happy moments that the show brought and the odd moment when my mother would have to dash off to the toilet during uncontrollable fits of laughter. Basil calling the conman’Lord’ a bar-steward was always popular as was the moment when Basil was waving his fist at God when he lost the key to the fire alarm.
For however long I have left on this planet then I know that I will always have the comedy genius of Andrew Sachs and his Manuel along with all the others which can’t be the worse way to be remembered.
Basil Fawlty: Shhh-shh-shh-shh-shh. You know nothing… about… the horse.
Manuel: [parroting] I know “nothing… about… the horse.”
Basil Fawlty: Yes.
Manuel: Ah. Which horse?
Basil Fawlty: What?
Manuel: Which horse I know nothing?
Basil Fawlty: My horse, nitwit!
Manuel: Your horse – Nitwit.
Basil Fawlty: No-no-no. Dragonfly.
Manuel: It won!
Basil Fawlty: Yes, I know!
Manuel: I know it won, too!
Basil Fawlty: What?
Manuel: I put money on for you. You give me money; I go to betting shop.
Basil Fawlty: Yes, I know, I know, I know.
Manuel: Then why you say I know nothing?
Basil Fawlty: [desperately] Look, look, look, you know the horse?
Manuel: Uh, Nitwit or Dragonfly?
Basil Fawlty: Dragonfly! There isn’t a horse called Nit… YOU’RE the Nitwit!
Manuel: What is Witnit?
Basil Fawlty: It doesn’t matter. Look, it doesn’t matter. Oh, I can spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Now, please, please, try to understand before one of us dies.
Manuel: I try.
Basil Fawlty: You’re going to forget everything you know about Nitwit.
Manuel: No, no. Dragonfly.
Basil Fawlty: Dragonfly!
Manuel: I know nothing.