Before Fawlty Towers, Andrew Sachs’s biggest drama was his escape from the Nazis. By Jenni Frazer.
Andrew Sachs has a slightly evil gleam in his eye. He is speaking of his secret ambition to work on Coronation Street: “I fancy being Norris’s twin brother. We would drive Rita Fairclough mad.” Playing the twin brother of the supernerd played by Malcolm Hebden in Britain’s longest-running soap would certainly be an interesting departure three decades on from the role with which Sachs is irresistibly identified in the public mind — the demented Spanish waiter, Manuel, in John Cleese’s incomparable sitcom, Fawlty Towers.
It always comes as a shock to realise that only a dozen programmes were made in the Fawlty canon. Cleese and his then wife Connie Stevens, who co-wrote the scripts, refused to write more. As Sachs observes, Manuel took up just three months of his time in a 50-year-long acting career.
We are sitting in the somewhat Dickensian offices of Sachs’s agent in Covent Garden — and Dickensian is appropriate, since Sachs is fresh from an audition for the role of Marley’s Ghost in a new Hollywood version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. “That would be a dream,” he says, smiling, his only previous foray into Hollywood being a flight to LA 10 years ago to record a two-line part in a Belgian part-animation film.
This week, Sachs was the guest at the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s “Liberation” event to mark VE Day, reading excerpts from a letter sent home by a liberator of Bergen-Belsen. It is one of a number of activities in which he frequently participates for the LJCC’s Holocaust education department, speaking to survivors.
Slightly to his own surprise, he says, the man born Andreas Siegfried Sachs in Berlin in April 1930 is a survivor, too — the youngest of three children of a Jewish father and a “completely Aryan” mother. “So half of me is Jewish,” Sachs explains, gently. “Sometimes I think it might be the better half.”
His father came from “a family of extremely rich bankers” but had no real interest in money. His mother’s father was a writer and one of her brothers a sculptor. “My father had been married before,” Sachs reveals, “and had stepchildren from his first marriage. One of his stepsons joined the Luftwaffe and was killed just as the war began. My father, as a Jew, was not very popular with him.”
He tells a sweet story of a phone call received by his mother just before she was due to marry. It was from a man claiming to be “an official from the Vatican who had got wind of the fact that she was going to marry a Jew. He warned her very strongly against doing any such thing, a good girl from a German Catholic family. My mother was shaking. She reeled into the next room — just in time to see my father putting the phone down…”
In their comfortable home in Berlin, Sachs says, he and his brother and sister had a blissfully happy childhood. He defined himself neither as Aryan or Jewish — until politics intruded into the eight-year-old’s world. He and his best friend Ralph had spent happy hours together collecting scrap metal for Hitler. “One day Ralph said, ‘My father says I’m not allowed to play with you any more. My dad says your dad is Jewish.’ And I said, ‘Yes? So?’ ‘My dad says the Jews don’t like Hitler,’ Ralph said. I couldn’t understand it… but that was the end of my friendship with Ralph.”
One day in September 1938, the family went to the circus in Berlin and afterwards to a res- taurant where they were regular customers. But there were signs outside declaring: “No Jews.” His father, says Sachs, for a quiet life would have been happy to go somewhere else, but his feisty mother insisted that they went inside.
“So they found us a table, a discreet one. But during the meal the police came in to check everyone’s documents. I remember his name; it was Captain Schneider, all in black. He came straight over to us — maybe we’d been pointed out — and asked for my dad’s papers. Of course, they saw the red J [for Jew] in his documents. That brightened their day. Then they made him empty his pockets, and in his wallet they found a newspaper cutting. It was a satirical version of Little Red Riding Hood where she was the German people and the wolf was the Nazi party.
“The police looked at each other and they said, ‘Sedition!’ Then they said to my mother: ‘You won’t see your husband again.’”
Sachs’s father was bundled off by the police, leaving his wife and children in the restaurant in a state of “deep shock”. Eventually, someone from the restaurant escorted the family home, though Sachs remembers that, halfway across the square towards their house, as the reality of the situation hit her, his mother collapsed.
A contact of Sachs’s father in the police was prevailed on to pull what strings he could to get him released. Plans were immediately drawn up to get Sachs senior out of Germany.
Britain was chosen because his father had a colleague in the insurance business who had set- tled in London earlier. And so, in October 1938, Sachs’s father arrived in Southampton — Sachs still has his passport — with the aim of sending for his family as soon as he could.
It took a while, and Andrew was still in Berlin during Kristallnacht, in November 1938: “I remember coming home from school and seeing Stormtroopers breaking shop windows and looting.” Another vivid memory is of a man with a professional business-plate outside his house, getting in and out of a taxi. At one point, Sachs recalls, the man ripped the metal plate off the wall, threw it to the pavement and then gently smoothed it out before leaving Berlin while the Stormtroopers rampaged around the corner.
In December, the Sachs family took a train to Hamburg and then sailed to Southampton on the SS Manhattan. The family started off in Hatch End, Middlesex, eventually settling in London, in Swiss Cottage. His father, who was interned briefly as an enemy alien, was, says Sachs, hardly ever there because he was working so hard. In 1943, his father was found to be suffering from cancer. He died the following year, aged 59. It was, says Sachs, “a dreadful time” — the week before his father died, his elder teenage brother, Tom, had a horrific accident in a machine toolshop, severing the fingers of one hand.
By the end of the war, Sachs was left without any discernible ambition. Except, he says with a wink, he was desperate to be an explorer in Africa. Finally, enthused by a boy at school who had appeared in several films as an extra, Sachs joined the Aida Foster agency in Golders Green and appeared in several films, including Nicholas Nickleby and The Guinea Pig, with Richard Attenborough.
After a couple of preparatory terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (“It was all about the history of the theatre. I didn’t want classes in that. I wanted to know how to cope with mass adulation”), he went off to be an assistant stage manager in weekly rep.
In May 1949, he was called up for national service in the tank corps. Two years later (during which he never actually entered a tank), Sachs returned to rep, in Worthing, before landing jobs in theatre and radio, building up a reputation as a character actor. By 1975, when John Cleese came to him with the scripts for Fawlty Towers, Sachs was playing the lead in the long-running West End production of No Sex, Please, We’re British. He had also begun to write his own scripts. Sachs laughs as he remembers asking Cleese if, in the interests of an authentic accent, the character of Manuel couldn’t be German. This was immediately rejected by Cleese: “A German waiter would have made sure everything worked properly, John said.”
The rest is TV history. Yet, says, Sachs, “I don’t often get recognised in the street. I was in a Tom Stoppard play, Jumpers — highly intellectual, great production, packed houses. One day after the show, an elderly couple waiting outside collared me for my autograph… The man said: ‘I must congratulate you on your performance.’ And I said, ‘Where were you sitting?’ He said ‘No, no… as Manuel.’ He’d just sat through two-and-a-half hours of really challenging theatre, but…”
Somewhere in the world, every day, Fawlty Towers is transmitted, sometimes all 12 episodes in one televisual festival. Sachs still gets royalties but, as he only got £150 an episode, he is not exactly rolling in money from the programme.
Instead, he has made a successful theatre and TV career, ranging from his own plays — including one at the Chichester Festival — to making well-received programmes for the BBC. One, Berliners, which he co-wrote, traced contemporaries from his German childhood. And now he is writing an “unreliable memoir — actors are professional liars… they don’t commit any crimes,” he says with a smile. “But people pay to see them be something that they’re not.”Download original article as a PDF