Saturday, 3 December 2016

"I Learnt it From a Book"


Like scores of other people, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Andrew Sachs this week, who’ll always be synonymous with his portrayal of the bumbling waiter Manuel in Fawlty Tours.  Consequently, it was nice to switch on BBC1 last night to be treated to an airing of the first episode of the second series, Communication Problems.

Farces are a bit of guilty pleasure for me. At their broadest, they're simplistic and obvious, but if the set-up is believable and the script is well-written and performed, they can be painfully funny. Such is the case with Fawlty Towers, which is clearly the best TV example of the genre (with a handful of episodes of Frasier coming close).

The fact John Cleese and Connie Booth managed to write twelve half-hour farces that manage to be both plausible and manic in equal measure is pretty exceptional. To say it was just down to the scripts though would fail to do justice to the excellent performances from the central characters; primarily Prunella Scales’ Cybil and Andrew Sachs’ Manuel.

In the wrong hands, Manuel could have been a two-dimensional cliché bordering on racist, but this was plainly not the case with Sachs at the helm. He gives him warmth and sweetness to counteract his ineptness, somehow enabling us to love him and laugh at his misfortunes at the hand of his violent boss. Manuel is the one who gives the programme its heart - and while it’s clear that Sachs brought much to so many other roles, I imagine he wouldn't mind being defined by a supporting character in six of the finest hours of TV comedy to date.

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