Sep 2002 Journal

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Manuel dexterity: Profile of Andrew Sachs

During almost fifteen years of writing profiles for AJR Information/Journal, I have interviewed, among others, a life peer, two heads of Oxford colleges, a Regius Professor of History, the drama critic of the Daily Mail, an inventor, two industrialists, and two published poets - but none of these had anything approaching my present profilee's 'instant recognition factor'.

TV viewers from Land's End to John O'Groats who split their sides over the shenanigans of Fawlty Towers know hapless Manuel from Barcelona. However, only a discerning few are acquainted with the fact that 'Manuel' hails from Berlin and not Barcelona.

Andrew Sachs was born in Berlin in 1930, the youngest of three children of a mixed marriage. His father was an insurance broker, and his mother a trained librarian. He grew up in middle-class comfort and started school unaware of being different from his classmates. Nazi reality only kicked in when his best school chum announced that his parents had forbidden him to play with a half-Jew.

In September 1938 Andrew's father was arrested, but a police official friendly with Andrew's mother's family saved him from going to a concentration camp. The father immediately left for London, where he obtained a job with the insurance firm Leroy Flesch. He brought over his family in December and they settled in West Hampstead, where Andrew's anglicisation started from scratch at his local primary school.

Andrew left William Ellis at sixteen-and-a-half and spent two terms at an acting school - the family budget didn't stretch any further. From that point on, with the exception of two years' national service, he 'trod the boards'.

At the start, Andrew's thespian career actually involved sweeping the boards more than treading them. He served the near-obligatory apprenticeship as an assistant stage manager at places like Bexhill-on-Sea and Worthing. In the 1950s local repertory companies tended to put on plays for one week - during which time the actors also had to learn the lines and attend rehearsals for the following week's production. Schedules being so tight, Andrew could hardly believe his luck when, promoted to stage manager of the Liverpool Playhouse, he found that this theatre went in for leisurely three-week runs.

Eventually London beckoned. Here he encountered living theatrical legends such as Robert Helpman, who directed Noel Coward's After the Ball at the Globe Theatre. Among the glittering first-night audience was Coward himself - on his arm a shimmering apparition in white who turned out to be none other than Marlene Dietrich. After the final curtain, when the two celebrities came backstage, Andrew resisted a strong impulse to remind la Dietrich that they had actually met once before: his mother was related by marriage to Emil Jannings and in 1931 the latter had brought his Blue Angel co-star to the Sachs apartment where she had chucked 18-months-old Andrew under the chin.

After his stint at the Globe, Andrew was talent-spotted by Brian Rix and he appeared in a succession of Whitehall farces. This secure long-term berth enabled him to spread his wings. He wrote countless letters to BBC producers and eventually got a foot inside the door of Broadcasting House. Here he worked as an actor - with the odd foray into the German section - as well as a playwright. He is particularly proud of having written The Revenge, a short play whose plot is conveyed by means of sound effects without a single word of dialogue (the play received an international radio award).

In the early 1970s, now married and with a growing family, Andrew got to know John Cleese through their joint involvement in making industrial training films. Cleese was, of course, the lead actor in, and main begetter of, the Fawlty Towers sequence, which launched them both into the stratosphere of popular acclaim and video sales. In between the first (1975) and the second series (1979) of Fawlty Towers, Andrew had a chance to display his versatility as the henpecked husband who breaks free in a television adaptation of H G Wells's History of Mr Polly.

Now at the peak of his powers, Andrew appeared in modern 'classics' like John Mortimer's A Voyage Round my Father and Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at leading theatres. His last stint at the National Theatre was in O'Keefe's Wild Oats six years ago. Since then he has kept busy with TV and radio work, voice-overs and poetry readings. Turned 70, Andrew is reluctant to follow the strenuous routine that acting on stage involves. He remains nonetheless - in his wife's words - a 'workaholic', and last year toured with a one-man show of his own devising.

Andrew Sachs's public appearances in 2002 have included a cameo role in the video that complements the Continental Britons exhibition. He also attended the launch of the exhibition. Such gestures demonstrate that, despite his minimum exposure to yiddishkeit (and a distaff family link to Emil Jannings), he feels an abiding identification with the Jewish community of fate.
Richard Grunberger

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