Sad to hear that Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers, passed away today.
I was a big fan of Fawlty Towers, and of John Cleese who said of Andrew: “If you met him you would never think for a moment that he was a comedian, you would think he was a rather cultivated bank manager… And then you stuck that moustache on him and he turned into a completely different human being.”
I loved Fawlty Towers for how it started as much as for how funny it was. It began with John Cleese getting terrible service at a hotel and – while everyone else left – he stayed longer and got the material he needed for one of Britain’s most successful comedy series.
While Monty Python were filming “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in Torquay in 1970, they stayed at Gleneagles Hotel, where the eccentric owner, Donald Sinclair, threw a timetable at a guest who asked for the bus times, hid Eric Idle’s briefcase behind a wall because he thought it contained a bomb and criticised Terry Gilliam’s “un-British” table manners for holding his fork with the wrong hand.
John described him as “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life” and while most of the team changed hotels, he stayed and extended his stay after filming ended so he could study Donald further.
The result was enough inspiration to create “Fawlty Towers”, which he took 7 years to write – with the main four characters being Fawlty Towers played by John Cleese, his wife Sybil, the Spanish waiter Manuel and the maid, Polly (played by John’s real-life wife and co-writer, Connie Booth)
Despite all the effort he had put into it, the idea was rejected by the BBC, with the exec who reviewed it saying: “This is a very boring situation and the script has nothing but very clichéd characters. I cannot see anything but a disaster if we go ahead with it.’
John persevered, and finally Bill Cotton, BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment read the first few scripts and said he could see nothing funny but trusted John knew what he was doing and gave him the go-ahead.
From that first inspiration from bad service, and the perseverance of the team, Fawlty Towers went on to win three BAFTAs and placed 1st in the list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000.
Just goes to show, even bad service can be seen as either a problem or an opportunity.