Friday 2 December 2016
Andrew Sachs, who has died aged 86, was never more effective than when playing a bewildered victim unfailingly eager to please his sometimes equally comic tormentors. The most popular and inspired example came in the role of Manuel, the waiter from Barcelona who spent most of his waking hours being abused by Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) in the BBC’s Fawlty Towers (1975-79). Manuel – short, shoulders sloping in submission – was a star of the television show, which attracted more than 15 million viewers and became a comedy classic.
Sachs was grateful to Manuel for making him famous, but often counted the cost. He tried to persuade Cleese, who co-wrote the series, to stop short of actual violence in rehearsals, but there was still plenty of hitting – often involving a spoon on the head.
One memorable episode had Manuel setting fire to himself and later, as a reprise, emerging from the hotel kitchen with smoke billowing behind him. The “fire” was heat-free, but some of the chemicals used to produce the flameless smoke caused acid burns to his arms. Nonetheless, Sachs still felt that Manuel was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Andreas Sachs was born in Berlin at the time when the Nazis were beginning to persecute Jews. His father, Hans, was a Jewish insurance broker who had been awarded the Iron Cross in the first world war. His mother, Katharina (nee Schrott-Fiecht), a Catholic, decided to remain in Berlin with her children after their father fled to Britain in 1938. She thought that as her son was only half-Jewish he would be safe – a supposition that became increasingly shaky.
The family eventually joined Hans, who died in 1944. Andrew left William Ellis school, north-west London, two years later, then went to a local acting school for just two terms, before making his first professional appearance in 1947 in a seaside repertory production of Ronald Millar’s Frieda at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.
The play concerned the German bride of a British soldier who finds a mixed reception in the postwar UK. Sachs put the essence of his art down to detachment, an ability to sit on emotional and intellectual fences that had been produced by his birth in Germany and his residence in Britain.
He admitted that he had at first wanted to act in order to be a “star” and only later had discovered that he was motivated to do the work for its own sake. The outcome was a wide range of stage parts, from romps of the No Sex Please: We’re British, Not Now Darling, Dry Rot and Let Sleeping Wives Lie genre to John Mortimer’s touching A Voyage Round My Father, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and, for BBC TV, The Tempest, as Trinculo in a 1980 production led by Michael Hordern as Prospero.
After undertaking national service in the Royal Armoured Corps (1949-51), for the next couple of years Sachs was in repertory in Worthing and Liverpool. His first West End appearance was at the Whitehall theatre as Grobchick in John Chapman’s Simple Spymen, which ran for more than 1,200 performances between 1958 and 1961. Recruited by Brian Rix, he gained his introduction to Whitehall farces, which supported him for 20 years until his television work brought him wider fame.
Following Fawlty Towers, he played a vague and bespectacled vicar in the ITV series Lovely Couple (1979). His films included Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Consuming Passions (1988).
Sachs was also a writer, contributing sketches to the Yorkshire TV series Took and Co (1977), with Barry Took, but never made a mark in that activity. He wrote radio plays, including one without words, Revenge (1978), in which an escaped prisoner communicates with the audience only by his heavy breathing, running footsteps and other special effects.
His stage play The Stamp Collectors was produced in Worthing in 1977. Another, Made in Heaven, staged at Chichester two years previously, was said by Michael Billington of the Guardian to be the product of random jokiness rather than a sustained comic vision.
Fortunately his acting was better received. His performances in Fawlty Towers gained him the Variety Club of Great Britain award for most promising artist of the year in 1977, although he was no youth. He became a familiar face on television through the 80s and 90s, taking the title role, Alfred Polly, in the BBC version of HG Wells’s comic tale The History of Mr Polly (1980), and in Every Silver Lining (1993), a sitcom in which he played opposite Frances de la Tour.
Detective stories on BBC Radio 4 provided a rich seam. Sachs took the role of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown (1984-86), and played Dr Watson to Clive Merrison’s Sherlock Holmes (2002-10). Radio was a favourite medium of his, and brought the opportunity to play another great scene-stealing subordinate, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves, valet to the upper-class buffoon Bertie Wooster, played by Marcus Brigstocke, in The Code of the Woosters (2006).
He also supplied the voices for several children’s animations, such as William’s Wish Wellingtons (1994-96), and Asterix and the Big Fight (1989). A popular narrator with a distinctive voice, Sachs can be heard on all five series of BBC’s Bafta award-winning TV show about business life, Troubleshooter, as well as two audiobooks of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. In 2000 he reached a new comedy audience by narrating That Peter Kay Thing, a spoof documentary series on Channel 4 created by the Bolton comedian. He also appeared in Coronation Street (2009), playing Norris Cole’s brother, Ramsay, in 27 episodes.
All his roles seemed to be marked by good nature, and this made him a much-liked figure. He retained it even under provocation, when, in 2008, rowdy telephone answering machine messages were left for him by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross during Brand’s BBC Radio 2 show. At one point Ross shouted out that Brand had “fucked your granddaughter”. The result was recorded and then passed by BBC executives for broadcasting. Sachs was not amused and the public sympathised.
So seriously was the Ross-Brand incident regarded by the BBC top brass that Ross was taken off air for three months, effectively fining him £1.5m from his £6m yearly contract. In the subsequent media inquest, the attitude of Sachs himself was that he really did not know what the telephoning had been about; that he had no personal animosity towards whoever had phoned; and that he had scarcely noticed the whole business since his wife was in hospital at the time. As for suggestions that some newspapers were using him to boost their circulations, he said: “Oh yes, but that’s their job.” He also said: “My profile’s up – great! They did me good. Thank you very much.”
At the time he had written 40,000 words of his autobiography but had only got as far as the age of 14. He said he doubted whether Brand or Ross would play a prominent part in the book. When it appeared in 2014, he drew on a memorable Fawlty Towers line for the title, I Know Nothing!
His final film role came in Quartet, Ronald Harwood’s story set in a home for retired musicians, directed by Dustin Hoffman and released in 2012, the year that Sachs was diagnosed with vascular dementia. His final TV role was in 2015, as Cyril Bishop in EastEnders.
In 1960 Sachs married the actor Melody Lang. She survives him, along with their daughter, Kate, and sons, Bill and John.
• Andrew (Andreas Siegfried) Sachs, actor and writer, born 7 April 1930; died 23 November 2016