Andrew Sachs, who died last week aged eighty-six, was an actor of remarkable versatility and experience. Born in Berlin in 1930, he had lived in Britain since the age of eight, when his family fled Germany to escape the Nazis. From the 1950s onwards, he became a regular fixture on radio and then television, and his ability to inhabit a character so completely meant that he was perhaps not always immediately familiar. Much later, so ubiquitous was his voice on TV documentaries in the 1990s that he was an obvious choice for the role of a dry narrator on Peter Kay’s breakthrough television series. That Peter Kay Thing consisted of six individual pastiches of docu-soaps, the most famous of which – ‘The Club’ – spawned Phoenix Nights.
As far back as 1958, Sachs was also cutting his teeth in the world of physical farce, as part of Brian Rix’s repertory company, both in theatre and sometimes on television. Several members of Rix’s company (his wife Elspet Gray, Derek Royle, Joan Sanderson, as well as Sachs) would later become associated with a 1970s series now so famous that it’s sometimes forgotten that it is also in the grand tradition of farce.
Technically, Sachs did not write Fawlty Towers – his co-stars John Cleese and Connie Booth did that, combining logic, structure, absurdity and psychologically rich characters – but Cleese has been careful to point out how much he, as Manuel, helped expand and enrich their scripts, along with the rest of the cast, to give the end product a profoundly hilarious emotional truth. Manuel’s physicality, gesticulations and faltering attempts to communicate and understand were a joy to watch – especially when he began to absorb his surroundings, as when he adopted Basil’s exasperated ‘cuh, cuh’ grunts in times of crisis. (Basil’s own grasp of Manuel’s native tongue, incidentally, despite his claim of learning ‘classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up’, relies heavily on adding the lettter ‘o’ to French words, and shouting ‘arriba’ from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons.)
Or the moment in ‘Communication Problems’ (aka ‘Mrs Richards’) when, having been compelled to keep a secret by Basil, he is then told he can reveal the truth after all. Cue a theatrical clearing of the throat, and the proud declaration: ‘I know nothing.’ Manuel has painstakingly learnt and reproduced his crucial line. Unfortunately for Basil, he has delivered it at exactly the wrong moment. As Cleese has remarked, if Manuel were sullen and uncooperative, it just wouldn’t work: ‘It’s his sheer eagerness that makes all the incompetence funny.’
We are now so word-perfect on Fawlty Towers that it’s startling to recall that, like many hits, success was by no means guaranteed. The Internet has made the wider public aware of a brief memo sent in the BBC Comedy Department on 29 May 1974. Ian Main, a script editor in the department, had been sent a draft of what became the pilot of Fawlty Towers. He wrote the following terse reply to the then-Head of Comedy, James Gilbert:
‘I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title.
It’s a kind of “Prince of Denmark” of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.’
Cue hails of derisive laughter. Imagine turning down Fawlty Towers, comparing it to some short-lived Ronnie Corbett vehicle. What a fool! How could Ian Main have missed out on the genius of the greatest sitcom ever made. Etc etc.
Except it’s hard to tell from such a brief response what Ian had actually been sent. After all, there is no cast yet (certainly no Sachs or Prunella Scales), he has no pilot episode to relate to (‘A Touch of Class’ was taped just before Christmas ’74), and so he is reading it cold, save for knowing that it was the bloke from Monty Python and his then actor wife. Was it even a final draft, as we would know it? It would surprise me if Cleese and Booth, in the face of that damning response, hadn’t snatched that script back and rewritten it substantially. They were, after all, perfectionists; they would spend at least two months writing an episode, withholding any attempts at writing any dialogue until three weeks into the process.
Ian was right about the title, though. It’s terrible. ‘Fawlty Towers’ sounds like a Crackerjack spin-off starring Peter Glaze running a funny hotel assisted, or should that be hindered, by some annoying gonks.
Furthermore, Cleese may be a comedy giant, but not everything he produced was automatically gold-standard. As evidence, check out ‘No Ill Feeling’, a proto-Fawlty half-hour he submitted in 1971 for the ITV sitcom series, Doctor at Large. The series’ lead character Dr Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans) is booked into a hotel run by an officious, humourless and near-robotic proprietor and his equally forbidding and much taller wife. He is then plagued by a ghastly wise-cracking fellow guest (a thankless task for guest star, Roy Kinnear).
It demonstrates that if you get farce even marginally off-balance – if the mathematics are approximate rather than exact – it becomes grotesque and shrill and unfunny. But while it beggars belief something so mirthless came with Cleese’s name on it, it must be stressed that Doctor at Large wasn’t his creation: he was one of many writers on the series, and the Doctor format was a production line like a US sitcom, where up to 25 shows a year were taped. Compare with the time and care Cleese and Booth gave to writing Fawlty Towers – although even there, each episode had only five days allotted for rehearsal, and just two hours on a Sunday for a studio audience recording.
It’s possible that Ian Main had simply not noticed Fawlty Towers’ potential, but it’s easy to ridicule his judgement in hindsight. Few artistic creations immediately emerge fully-formed: think of each of your favourite books, films, albums and TV shows and chances are, there’s an embryonic version somewhere that ‘wasn’t quite there’. Teamwork made Fawlty Towers a thing of brilliance and Andrew Sachs, as Manuel, was as much a part of that process as anyone, whether it was how he elegantly poured cream into Mr Hutchison’s briefcase; how he performed “She” with rudimentary guitar accompaniment; or how he laughed along with Sybil’s ‘Uncle Ted’ anecdote, vainly standing on tiptoe to share the joke.
Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection is widely available on DVD for under ten quid these days, and not just from Amazon, and it also contains John Cleese’s audio commentaries, which are a masterclass of the genre, even if his laughter levels can be alarming.