Friday 15 December 2017

Andrew Sachs

German-Jewish actor whose family fled the Nazis found fame from 12 weeks' work as Manuel in 'Fawlty Towers'

HE’S FROM BARCELONA: Andrew Sachs (left) as the hapless waiter Manuel and John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’ Photo: PA/BBC
HE’S FROM BARCELONA: Andrew Sachs (left) as the hapless waiter Manuel and John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in an episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’ Photo: PA/BBC Newsdesk Newsdesk

Andrew Sachs, who has died aged 86, was the actor immortalised as the bumbling, accident-prone Spanish waiter Manuel in the 1970s situation comedy Fawlty Towers.

When it was first broadcast in 1975 Fawlty Towers failed to make much impact; but by the time the second (and last) series had been repeated in 1979, it was attracting 14.6 million viewers, and it was voted the greatest programme in the history of British television in 2000.

Sachs said of his character, who is bullied by the monstrous Fawlty Towers hotel owner Basil Fawlty (John Cleese): "He has devotion to duty, loyalty, generosity; he'd probably be a wonderful father and husband. He has only one deficiency - a lack of intelligence."

A few felt that Sachs's portrayal of the gormless Spaniard - answering nearly every question with a bewildered "Que?" - was overtly racist, among them Spanish delegates at the 1979 Montreux Television Festival, who complained that Manuel was "an insult to the Spanish people".

Yet, as Sachs pointed out, "If [he's] insulting to the Spanish, what is Basil to the British?" and complaints about stereotyping rang hollow after Spanish television bought the series (though re-casting Manuel as an Italian named Mario). Sachs's memories of working on Fawlty Towers were chiefly happy ones, although he received a pittance for his work (£150 per episode for the first series; £350 per episode for the second). As Fawlty's long-suffering punch bag, however, Sachs had to endure being poked, slapped, smashed against a wall and beaten about the head.

He was left concussed for two days after Cleese accidentally swung too hard with a frying-pan for the episode The Wedding Party, almost knocking him unconscious.

On another occasion, Cleese hit Sachs on his teeth with a dirty spoon, ignoring script instructions to hit him on the head. Sachs remembered hearing his teeth "swing on their hinges".

Even more painful was the accident that occurred while filming for the episode The Germans, when Manuel is seen emerging from a kitchen fire with smoke billowing from his jacket.

The mixture of salt and acid deemed necessary for the effect had burned through the material, scorching his skin. The chemical burns were so severe that his arms were in bandages for weeks. He received £700 compensation from the BBC.

Andreas Siegfried Sachs was born on April 7, 1930 in Berlin, where he attended Zinnowald School. His German Jewish father, an insurance broker who had been awarded the Iron Cross in the First World War, was arrested in 1938 while dining out with his family. "He had cut out a newspaper article, uncomplimentary to the Nazis - and put it in his wallet," explained Sachs. "The police said it was sedition. They took my dad away there and then and told my mother [a half-Lutheran and half-Roman Catholic] she'd never see her husband again." Fortunately, his father, had a business contact in the police who was able to secure his release within a few days.

Sachs had painful memories of life as a half-Jewish pre-adolescent boy in Nazi Germany: "My best friend at school told me he wasn't allowed to play with me any more because my father was Jewish... We weren't allowed to go to certain restaurants. We were supposed to sit on special yellow benches. As I was only half-Jewish, I used to wonder how I should sit on the bench - maybe one buttock on and one off."

His family fled to London when he was eight.

Sachs had initial difficulty adapting to his new life in London: he had to learn another language from scratch and frequently moved schools. The family struggled to make ends meet after Sachs's father died of cancer when Sachs was just 13; in the same week, his 17-year-old brother lost a hand in an accident at the tool factory where he was apprenticed.

Sachs began his acting career in the late 1940s, spending two terms at Rada and moving on to repertory, starting at the theatre in Bexhill-on-Sea, in the full expectation that someone would "discover me and whisk me off to Beverly Hills". But it was not until the late 1950s, when he was performing in various Brian Rix farces, that he finally began earning what was then a substantial wage (£40 per week).

He turned out to be a brilliant farceur and it was through such work that he perfected the split-second comical timing crucial to the role with which he would for ever be associated.

Over the decades, he made an impressive number of stage appearances including as a "frenzied hotel manager in pursuit of his eccentric guests" in Wallace Douglas's production of Let Sleeping Wives Lie (1967) and a "professional fondler" in the first production of Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus (1973) with Alec Guinness, directed by Ronald Eyre.

He co-starred with Michael Crawford in No Sex Please - We're British (1975); was the gormless North Country army conscript in Brian Rix's farce, Reluctant Heroes (1976); played Aguecheek in Keith Michell's production of Twelfth Night (1976) at the Chichester Festival Theatre; the detective in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers (1985, with Paul Eddington, Felicity Kendal and Simon Cadell) and Brod in Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick (1986, directed by Richard Eyre). In later life he toured the country with his own stage show, Life After Fawlty (2001).

He had a tally of television roles to match, including the "hunchback who told impossibly tall stories" in Roy Clarke's The John Hilarian Salt Exhibition and Numerous Illustrated Slides (1969) and the eponymous hero in The History of Mr Polly (1980). He presented the how-to series Assert Yourself (1987), which included appearances from John Cleese and his therapist, Robin Skynner, with whom Cleese wrote two bestsellers; had a role in the Jewish sitcom Every Silver Lining (1993) and starred in the BBC series Jack of Hearts (1999)

In 2006 he was reunited with his Fawlty co-star Prunella Scales in Mr Loveday's Little Outing (2006), set in a 1930s lunatic asylum and based on a short story by Evelyn Waugh. In 2009 he appeared in 27 episodes of Coronation Street as Norris's brother, Ramsay.

His role in Fawlty Towers catapulted him to fame but typecast him for the rest of his life - despite the fact that he had spent just 12 weeks working on the series in an acting career that spanned more than 50 years.

One critic, commenting on a 1980 television performance, said: "However he may disguise himself... he never quite escapes the incipient bald spot, shambolic gait and anxious stoop of the immortal Manuel." Even in later life, fans would ask Sachs to sign autographs with "Manuel", and, once, a holidaymaker on a cruise asked if he had always been a waiter.

Yet Sachs was happy to play up to the public image. Over the years, he appeared as Manuel opening supermarkets, at corporate events and on advertisements; and his voice provided links for the audio tapes of the series.

In 2005, to mark the 30th anniversary of the series, Sachs starred with Cleese in a "modern recreation" of Fawlty Towers, set in the Norwegian town of Stavanger, where Manuel was helping Fawlty to run a restaurant that had strong echoes of the original hotel. But it was not shown on mainstream television, having been made for a Norwegian oil company as a staff training film.

Sachs was a diffident man, who always avoided re-runs of Fawlty Towers because "they make me cringe. All I can see is where I've gone wrong".

He developed an aversion to stage work after 1995. "I feel under stress; that I might look a fool and forget my lines," he said in 2006. "I have this recurring dream that I haven't rehearsed."

Once described as a "prolific" radio performer, Sachs won the 1989 Sony Radio award for best actor and his work included the title roles in Radio 4's Wagner at Sea (1974), the story behind The Flying Dutchman, and in a production of Puss in Boots (1982) aimed at adults for the same radio station.

In 2001, he claimed to have rediscovered his Jewish roots and embarked on interviews with academics, rabbis, actors and experts on Jewish matters for the four-part Radio 4 series The Jewish Journey, a personal look at 1,000 years of Jewish life in Britain.

In stark contrast with the stutterings of his alter ego Manuel, Sachs's own fluent speaking voice was ideal for storytelling and narration.

His numerous voice-over commissions included advertisements and documentaries, including the Channel 4 series on the Mediterranean, The Encircled Sea (1990), and the BBC series Egypt (2005).

For audio books he narrated all of CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, as well as, among others, Wuthering Heights (1989), Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust (1994) and Tom Holland's Persian Fire (2005).

In 1999 he won the Talkies Award for best actor.

In 2008 Sachs evoked a huge outpouring of national sympathy when, during an episode of The Russell Brand Show. the comedian Russell Brand and presenter Jonathan Ross left explicit messages on his telephone answering machine stating that Brand had had sex with his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie (a member of a burlesque dance group).

In the public outcry that followed, the BBC issued a grovelling apology, Ofcom launched an inquiry and Brand and the Controller of Radio 2 Lesley Douglas resigned, with Ross suspended.

In an interview with the BBC in 2014, Sachs said that he had been deeply affected by the calls, which had also caused a family rift.

Andrew Sachs, who died on November 23, is survived by his wife, Melody, whom he married in 1962, as well as by their daughter and Melody's two sons from her previous marriage, whom he adopted.


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