Fawlty Appliance: Andrew Sachs Remembered

‘¿Qué?’

He’s the voice of William’s Wish Wellingtons and That Peter Kay Thing. Not long before the coalition came to power, he turned up in Weatherfield as Norris’s half-brother Ramsay Clegg. And while we won’t discuss it at the DWC, he’s the man who destroyed Russell Brand’s BBC career, without actually doing anything except fail to answer the phone.

But to most of us, he’s this man.

The words ‘national treasure’ are thrown about far too much these days, but if they’re used in the case of classic BBC sitcoms, Fawlty Towers is basically a textbook definition. The angry impotence of snobbish Basil Fawlty – counter-balanced by the calm acidity of wife Sybil – led to some of the best television of the 1970s, but it was Spanish waiter Manuel, played by the late Andrew Sachs, who arguably provided some of the biggest laughs. Whether it was being hit on the head with a prop frying pan (or, on one unfortunate occasion, a real one), struggling with the phones, or hiding a rat inside his jacket, Manuel was one of the show’s undoubted highlights, leaving a blueprint for comedic immigrants that’s held enormous influence during the decades that followed. Going through the wringer both while the cameras were rolling and after they had stopped (while filming a fire during The Germans, Sachs’ chemical-soaked jacket left him with second degree burns and landed him in Harley Street), the hapless waiter endeared himself to the British public almost as much as he enraged his furious employer.

An immigrant himself (his family fled Berlin in 1938), Sachs’ life has been well-documented, both by him (2014’s I Know Nothing) and by others – but it’s his connections with Doctor Who that grant him an entry in the fledgling DWC obituary column. While Sachs’ TV work never dried up, in later years he developed something of a reputation as a jobbing voiceover artist (notoriously performing every voice in a the English redub of a 1994 Czech version of the story of Faust).

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What’s striking is how close Sachs himself came to becoming the Doctor – he was up for the role in 1987, losing out to Sylvester McCoy, who in turn suggested him as a possible replacement for the departing David Tennant in 2008. At seventy-eight, such an appointment would have been improbable, but it’s a shame that no room could have been found for him in the revived Who, perhaps as an ageing professor or sinister diplomat. Instead, Sachs stuck squarely to the voice work: and the first time we see (or rather hear) him is in the 2003 webcast production of Shada – its narrative rejigged to suit the Eighth Doctor, rather than the Fourth. Lalla Ward returns as Romana, BF veteran Sean Biggerstaff turns up as Chris Parsons, and Sachs himself is cast as the villainous Skagra, all white suits and universal domination.

It wouldn’t be the last time that Sachs resurrected an abandoned character. Five years after Shada, he played a crazed, elderly Adric, mind twisted and warped by years living in a prehistoric jungle. It wasn’t only his mind that was twisted – history itself was changing around him, as Adric had used block transfer computations to warp reality and put a race of scorpions in charge of the planet. Crucially, it is revealed in the third episode that a séance the Doctor had held to locate his stolen TARDIS caused him to briefly re-materialise on board Adric’s space freighter just before it crashed: hence the dead companion’s legacy is tied up with that of the equally irritating Thomas Brewster, which seems oddly fitting.

The Boy That Time Forgot is Sachs’ most notorious Big Finish story, and that’s a shame; Sachs really does his best (Paul Magrs is a decent writer, but he handled the concept of lunatic pensioners far better in The Wishing Beast), and Sarah Sutton has a couple of interesting scenes, but it’s no fun listening to Adric complain about how the Doctor abandoned him, while cackling like a child and lusting after Nyssa. It leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and even the redemptive finale can do nothing but reassert the maxim that some people really should stay dead. Orbis is better – Sachs inhabits the hermaphroditic Crassostrea with a fiendish angst – and better still is Aladdin Time (also by Magrs), in which he plays the Fourth Doctor’s scarf.

It’s too late now to wonder what might have been – but we’ll always have that small, broadly satisfying selection of material, and a host of memorable performances in the likes of Quartet, Casualty, and the oft-forgotten Every Silver Lining. And while aspects of his private life are bound to be the subject of tabloid headlines over the coming weeks you’ll find the most appealing part of Sachs lurking on YouTube, getting hit by a moose head or dragging John Cleese across the floor. His catchphrase might have been ‘I know nothing’, but when it came to comedy – and acting in general – Sachs’ legacy proves him to be one of the masters of his trade.