Biography’s no laughing matter
I Know Nothing! The Autobiography
By Andrew Sachs The Robson Press, 336pp, $39.99 (HB) COMEDIANS always like to claim they started making jokes after childhoods made harsh by poverty; that at a formative age they were tormented by appalling cruelty and neglect. Griff Rhys Jones had to leave Wales at the age of six days, for instance.
Nevertheless, the Chaplin family could afford a maid in Kennington. The Leeds of Alan Bennett and the Morecambe of Victoria Wood always sound cosy, and there was not much wrong with Barry Humphries’s salubrious Melbourne, though I concede it has been knocked flat by ”developers” since.
But with Andrew Sachs the horrors were very real, as he writes in this autobiography: “Aged eight, I stood open-mouthed as a number of men, wielding wooden clubs, shattered the front of a shoe shop. It was November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht.’’
Sachs, best known as the waiter Manuel in the 1970s television comedy Fawlty Towers, was born in Berlin, with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Hans Sachs was a decorated World War I veteran of “solid-gold Prussian ancestry’’.
This now counted for nothing. He was a distinguished lawyer, but work dried up: “Longstanding clients found it necessary to take their business elsewhere.’’ On top of that, a 20 per cent tax was levied on Jewish property.
Sachs’s mother’s jewellery was confiscated. The family was humiliatingly thrown out of their favourite restaurant and harassed generally: “Jewish patronage was no longer welcome.” Insult was added to injury when a “collective fine of one billion marks was levied on Jews to pay for the damage” caused by all the Nazi By 1942, they were all dead. “This terrible event weighed heavily on her conscience for the rest of her life,’’ writes Wasserstein. Later, she would risk arrest by refusing to hand over to other senior Nazis Jewish names or addresses.
She eventually fell out with her boss at the Jewish Council, co-chairman David Cohen, who was reviled for his subservience to the Germans. In fact, in 1947 Cohen was arrested for collaborating with the enemy, but the case was dropped in “the public interest’’. Wasserstein writes that in 1943, Cohen crossed “the last moral barrier’’ when he selected for deportation to concentration camps 7000 council employees, effectively deciding who among his vandalism. The Sachses were fortunate to have the wherewithal to escape; Jews wanting to leave the Reich had to purchase expensive permits and exit visas. Hans “packed his bags and saved his life”, and the rest of the family followed soon afterwards, abandoning their apartment and heirloom furniture. Bourgeois comfort was exchanged for refugee status in London’s Hatch End.
Sachs vividly recalls his first sight of the London populace: characters straight out of Hogarth or Cruikshank engravings, “displaying unsightly blemishes and bandy legs, embarrassing acne, cold sores, moles, boils, crusty warts and false teeth that clattered”. The family ended up in the damp basement of a house in Oppidans Road, owned by Polish anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski, which was later “crushed to pieces by a V2 rocket”.
Sachs Sr was interned for the duration on the Isle of Man. “We were told that the British wanted to make sure there were no Nazi staff would die and who would live. Van Tijn was violently opposed to this.
In 1944, she was interned at Bergen-Belsen. She survived but after the war, there was so much resentment of her in Amsterdam, she could no longer work with the city’s shattered Jewish community. She settled in the US and helped a sizeable number of Jewish refugees who were stranded in Shanghai to settle in Australia.
By the war’s end, about 75 per cent of The Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews had been exterminated, one of the highest death rates in Europe. In contrast, it is estimated that more than half the Jews who went into hiding in the country infiltrators.’’ When he was released, he got stomach cancer and died. Sachs Jr did his best to blend in and learn a new language: luvaduck, cor blimey, wotcher mate and shitabrick. His first confident English sentence was: “We got a canary, you know. Lovely little f..ker.”
As an assimilated cockney, Sachs was given work as an extra in Ealing comedies. He toured Wales for the Arts Council. In Manchester he was directed in a flop by a pompous Noel Coward. He says little about his career as an actor in this autobiography: nothing about how he started or what made him choose the profession.
He does mention in passing that “there are times when you have to be careful about what you reveal of yourself, in order to fit in” — so it could be argued that as a terrified Jewish immigrant, on the run from Nazi persecution, a world of disguise and masquerade was also a world of concealment. Such was his facility that in an average month he would appear in 17 radio productions at the BBC.
Farces with Brian Rix and Ray Cooney led, in 1975, to the offer from John Cleese for Sachs to play Manuel, the waiter from Barcelona whose catchphrase gives this book its title. Nearly 40 years on, Fawlty Towers is still being repeated around the world. But are the jokes about dumb dagos and wops really very funny? What happens with comedy, over time, is that it becomes tragedy.
Sachs didn’t have much fun filming Fawlty Towers. He was concussed by a frying pan and set on fire in a kitchen scene. The BBC grudgingly paid him 700 in compensation, and the scars did heal after several years. But Sachs doesn’t like to make a fuss. As Cleese says, in real life Sachs is incredibly nondescript, like a civil servant. This is his strategy, of course. The little boy from Berlin, keeping his head down. Rosemary Neill is a senior journalist on The Australian.
The Spectator survived. If Amsterdam’s Jewish Council had encouraged more Jews to go into hiding, would more have survived?
Was van Tijn, who died in the US in 1974, a Nazi dupe or a champion of her people? Wasserstein’s carefully argued, compassionate narrative suggests that at different points in her life she was both.
He also concludes, quite rightly, that the “complexity of the horrors of her time preclude any simple categorisation of the responses of those caught up in Nazism’s tentacles’’.
Andrew Sachs as Manuel in