FUNNY foreigners were the foundation of many a TV comedy in the politically incorrect Seventies, but Andrew Sachs’ portrayal of a waiter known only as Manuel was no stereotype and Fawlty Towers no ordinary sitcom.
That may help to explain the universal outpouring of sorrow and, in equal measure, recalled laughter, which accompanied the passing of Sachs at 86, after a four-year battle with vascular dementia.
He had been cast as Manuel after impressing the show’s creator, John Cleese, with his portrayal of a piano tuner mistaken for a bra fitter in Alan Bennett’s play, Habeas Corpus.
As Cleese recalled later, “When Andy started on the standard pianist’s hand-and-finger stretching routine, she (co-star Margaret Courtenay) began to register anticipation of nameless carnal delights, producing one of the funniest farcical moments I have ever seen.”
The last six episodes of Fawlty Towers were made in 1979, but such is the enduring appeal of a show rated by the British Film Institute as the greatest TV programme of them all, that children even today can reel off Manuel’s one-liners.
Yet Sachs’ repertoire was far broader. Besides his adroitness as a farceur, he played Dr Watson in a Sherlock Holmes series and Jeeves in PG Wodehouse’s The Code Of The Woosters, both of them radio adaptations.
He made his West End debut in the 1958 production of the Whitehall farce, Simple Spymen. Later, he starred as Father Brown in a BBC radio series based on the stories of GK Chesterton, and appeared in numerous children’s TV shows.
He was a narrator on many television documentaries and radio productions, and his audio books included CS Lewis’s Narnia series and Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions.
On television, Sachs would go on to play Ramsay Clegg in Coronation Street in 2009, a year after the BBC scandal in which Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand made a prank call to him on the radio, about a relationship Brand said he had had with Sachs’ granddaughter. More than 500 people protested, and the BBC was forced to apologise to Sachs for “unacceptable and offensive” remarks.
Following his death, Cleese noted that Sachs “turned into a completely different human being” when wearing his familiar Manuel moustache.
He said: “Occasionally you come across someone who loves physical comedy and although he was such a quiet demeanour, Andy absolutely loved it. He was wonderful.”
Cleese said his favourite scene with Sachs involved them having to smuggle a body out of Fawlty’s Torquay hotel.
“I think that was some of our very best physical comedy and working out all that stuff like getting the body into the basket and getting it out again I think that was so much fun,” he said.
Sachs’ son, the TV commentator John Sachs, said that as his father battled with dementia he no longer recognised his old show.
He said: “Vascular dementia is a terrible thing for an actor because you lose your voice, you lose movement and they even tried playing Fawlty Towers to him but he didn’t even recognise it, so it is a terrible change.”
Asked if Sachs considered the role to be the standout of his career, his son said: “I don’t think he ever thought that as anything particularly special. I guess we did.”
Sachs’ wife of 57 years, Melody, said: “It wasn’t all doom and gloom, he still worked for two years (after his diagnosis in 2012).
“He had dementia for four years and it wasn’t very pleasant. We didn’t really notice it at first until the memory started going.
“It didn’t get really bad until quite near the end. I was there for every moment of it.”
The actor Samuel West, whose mother, Prunella Scales, played Sybil Fawlty, said it was “impossible to think” of Sachs without smiling. And Cleese’s former wife Connie Booth, who wrote the series with him and played hotel maid Polly Sherman, said he “spoke to the world with his body as well as his mangled English.”
She added: “It made him a universally beloved figure. It was a privilege and an education to work with him.”