Why we loved Manuel?
I’m in school, sitting at a bench, eating my packed lunch. Suddenly, Andrew Sachs appears and jumps on a table (in character and costume as Manuel) and starts advertising a charity event in which my school is implicated. This all takes about six minutes. I’m sure that this happened. I know somehow that this wasn’t a dream.
And for the duration of this cameo performance, the big room is full of big love. We’re a boys school. We’re a cynical bunch. But he’s smothered by requests for autographs (not from me – autographs aren’t really my thing), because he’s smothered by a yearning for some kind of physical trace, some reassuring proof, that he’s really shared a room with us – even for such a brief space of time.
We loved Manuel because he was an immigrant. Andrew Sachs of course was an immigrant, and Manuel was another. And we loved Manuel’s work ethic and determination. He had the worst boss in Britain and was somehow undefeated by him. And no matter how bad Manuel’s English was – it was significantly better than Basil’s English. It was Basil, not Manuel, who was the monolingual idiot. Basil perhaps remembered a few verses of “Una Paloma Blanca” and somehow imagined that if you rearranged some of the words of the song you could have a viable conversation with anyone from the Iberian peninsula. As for Catalan – Basil probably had no idea the language existed.
Manuel was, therefore, at least trilingual. More importantly, he retained a capacity to learn (something that a little-Englander like Basil had long since abandoned). “I learn, Mr Fawlty, I learn” was his most urgent protest in the context of one of the funniest episodes, the episode in which he is granted the sublime punchline of “I – know – no-thing” as he solemnly reaffirms a vow of silence that is comically obsolete.
Of course, Manuel is “childlike” and of course he is patronised. But his ability to learn is intrinsic to his “childlike” nature. He also demonstrates a bizarre excess of gratitude. Repeatedly beaten by his boss, physically and verbally abused… trapped by his boss in a burning kitchen, Manuel would be within his rights (in the 1970s as well as in any other semi-civilised decade) to have Basil Fawlty arrested, the hotel shut down, and find himself wearing a jacket with a first class ticket back to Barcelona in one pocket and a whopping great compensation cheque in the other. And yet Manuel still regards this hellish Torquay existence as some kind of golden opportunity. Of course, back in Spain, Franco was still (barely) alive as Manuel was boarding the plane to England. This would have been 1975, the year of the British EU (or rather EEC) referendum. Barcelona was, of course, a predominantly Republican city, so perhaps Manuel’s family have been politically persecuted by Franco’s regime. If Franco was harsher to them than Fawlty is to Manuel, then he really was a fascist dictator of no small magnitude.
Both Manuel and Polly are immigrants. Basil’s faux-genteel paranoid little shrine to all things supposedly English depends upon immigrant labour. Despite the amount of punishments that Manuel absorbs, he is, ultimately, no victim. He is someone who assumes the best in people, and by living and learning and hoping with his eyes wide open, each day is brighter for him than it ever is for Basil.
Barcelona appears on more bucket lists worldwide than Torquay. Yet Manuel seems fascinated by everything that Torquay has to offer. Obviously, he needs to be unionised, and obviously he takes far far too much punishment. But he’s had a fascinating life and he contributes. Back in the 1970s, Britain loved this EU immigrant – and Andrew Sachs, the EU immigrant who played him. Fawlty voted “No” in the 1975 referendum, but sees opportunities in a flexible labour market.
Andrew Sachs is dead. Manuel cannot die.
Britain, of course, is over.