Until a few years ago, Andrew Sachs was simply Manuel to many, the hapless Spanish waiter from Fawlty Towers. These days, he’s the man at the centre of ‘Sachsgate’. To mark the release of his autobiography, he tells Keeley Bolger about how the voicemail scandal affected his family and reflects on his Jewish childhood growing up under the shadow of the Nazis.
Until his late seventies, Andrew Sachs was often stopped and asked about his role as Fawlty Towers’ permanently confused Spanish waiter, Manuel.
Despite the fact that the series finished in 1979, it remained a firm favourite, often being repeated on TV.
Touring around UK theatres reading poetry in the early Noughties, Sachs would usually be prompted to drop in a few anecdotes from his time on the classic John Cleese comedy. It was a fairly standard request, he notes.
“Though I sometimes minded that Andrew Sachs seemed to have become Manuel, I am pleased to have been part of television history,” says the 83-year-old actor.
Not that he’s griping, mind. “It was Manuel who was the celebrity, not me, and I have John [Cleese] to thank for offering me the role – it certainly changed my life.”
Nowadays, you get the impression that Sachs would love nothing more than for people to ask him about being pummelled by irritable hotelier Basil Fawlty for cupping his hand to his ear and repeatedly saying, “Que? Que?”
But, more recently, his fictional alter ego has been somewhat overshadowed by other events – the unfortunate and cruelly named, ‘Sachsgate’.
The 2008 scandal saw presenter Jonathan Ross and comic Russell Brand upset Sachs’ happy home life by leaving him a series of “cursing, jeering” prank voicemails, alleging that the actor’s granddaughter had been in a sexual relationship with Brand.
The public were outraged by the messages, Brand and Ross were heavily criticised (Brand eventually resigned from his BBC slot, Ross was briefly suspended and the Beeb was fined by Ofcom) and, six years on, Sachs and his family are still distressed by the “hurtful mayhem”.
In an attempt to lay his demons to rest, Sachs has written his autobiography, I Know Nothing.
But dragging up the whole affair was “no fun” for the grandfather-of-four. A private man, part of him wanted to keep as much distance as possible from the scandal, but he says: “I can’t ignore the whole subject, sadly it wouldn’t go away if I tried.”
At the time of the fallout, his beloved wife Melody was in hospital. “My wife was having a hip replacement operation, and so she saw visions of me when she came out of the anaesthetic,” recalls the actor, who has been married to Melody since 1960. They have three children.
“She looked at [the] television and saw me standing outside our house talking to journalists.” Such things were hard for the “happy family” to bear.
“It was a horrible time but my interest was in my wife,” says Sachs. “I couldn’t care less about them. I was thinking about my wife and looking after her.”
Melody was furious about the intrusion on her family. “My wife got very angry about it all,” adds Sachs, who says he’s happy that Ross and Brand have never been part of his circle of friends.
“I didn’t like it and I stood up for my wife but she was much more angry about the two boys, Russell Brand and the other one [than me]. “She is still very angry with them, quite understandably, really. But anyway, life is good.”
In writing his autobiography, he wants very much to put the “mayhem” behind him and focus on his and Melody’s future. (Melody, “the cleverest person” Sachs knows, is also busy writing and is penning her first novel.)
Sachs had a happy, if tumultuous, childhood. Born Andreas Siegfried Sachs in 1930, he spent the first eight years of his childhood in Berlin, with his Jewish father Hans, Catholic mother Katharina, older brother Tom and “even older” sister Barbara. But the joyful atmosphere at home wasn’t matched outside their four walls.
With the Nazis coming into greater power, the family knew staying in Germany would be dangerous. “We kids were half Aryan and half Jewish, so we couldn’t really be known as Jews,” remembers Sachs.
“We were not welcome in Nazi Germany when Hitler came to power. My father was very much affected and in fact, was arrested.”
Fortunately Katharina, a “tough woman” who “hated Hitler”, rallied the family’s friends, among them a high ranking police officer who “pulled weight” and talked his colleagues into releasing his old associate.
After three months living in London without his family, Hans, who Sachs affectionately called ‘Vati’, the German diminutive for ‘Daddy’, was reunited with his wife and children. A friend who had recently moved from Germany helped him find work; he was an insurance broker by trade. It could be a rather depressing tale to recount, but Sachs has much gratitude for how life has panned out.
“It was really very good that we found ourselves alive,” says the softly spoken actor who now lives in north London. “Had I stayed in Germany, I would have been arrested – or I would have had to be in Hitler Youth and I wouldn’t have wanted that.”
Instead, the family stayed in the UK and youngest child Sachs soon settled into school life. Like his small screen alter-ego Manuel, his command of the English language was limited; Sachs came to England knowing just one phrase.
“My mother said, ‘If you’re out in the street and somebody wants to speak to you, then what you must say to them, Andreas, is, ‘I’m sorry, I do not understand you, I am a little German boy’,” he recalls. And he soon found himself using the expression.
“I took a walk on my own and saw a man in uniform,” says Sachs. “Now to a little German refugee like me, a man in a uniform might be a Nazi and he might be dangerous.
“I was very worried but he was just a friendly policeman. He tried to speak to me in German and I tried to offer him some English words. Then I started teaching him German and he gave me his police whistle.”
Unlike Manuel, it wasn’t long before Sachs had mastered the language – and was chasing the lofty dream of becoming a star. “I thought I was superbly talented and that it would only take me a few weeks to get to Hollywood and play Tarzan,” he recalls, chuckling.
“I knew I had the body for it. I’m still waiting [to play Tarzan], still waiting!” His chances of swinging from the trees and bellowing for his Jane may have been hampered by his recent knee surgery (from which he is still recovering) but, despite the challenges this mild-mannered man has faced over the years, he’s content with his lot.
“I have, in many ways, had a lucky life,” he reflects. “But I’ve had to work at it to get it going, plodding along and doing it and doing it, as well as I can.
“Sometimes that works and sometimes it works better than other times. Anyway, life is good.”