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Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Andrew Sachs, actor and writer

'I learnt English at the age of eight'

Interview by Jonathan Sale
Thursday, 2 February 2006

Andrew Sachs, 75, played Manuel in Fawlty Towers. He was the narrator in the recent BBC1 series Egypt, and his audiobooks include Persian Fire by Tom Holland. He has written several radio plays, including The Revenge, a binaural-stereo classic featuring 11 actors and assorted sound effects, but no actual dialogue. It won an award in Barcelona.

I am one of the few people who can say "Thanks" to Hitler. If we'd stayed in Germany, where I was born in 1930, I would probably have gone to university there and never become an actor. If Hitler had left it till three years later, I would not have started to learn my second language, English, at the early age of eight-and- three-quarters, when my mind was still flexible enough to pick it up naturally.

On my first day at school on the outskirts of Berlin, kids got a cardboard cone or witch's hat full of sweets - a good reason for going to school. We moved to the centre of Berlin and at my second school, coming home one day, I saw the windows of Jewish establishments bashed in after Kristallnacht.

My father was Jewish, which wasn't very helpful. He was arrested in a restaurant where we were having supper but released after a few days because of a business contact in the police who pulled some strings. We emigrated to England a few weeks later, in December 1938.

I swapped schools rather often. I went to a school in Hatch End, Pinner, but this part of north London was near an airbase and, shortly after we moved there, it was declared a restricted area and aliens were turfed out. My father was interned for a time. When I was 10, we moved Kilburn and I went to Harvist Road School, where I launched into my short career of juvenile delinquency. I started playing truant and went to the local playground, where I spent hours on the roundabouts. I would come home dizzy and ashen-faced.

Then we moved to Primrose Hill and took over as caretakers in the house of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, famous for his book The Sexual Life of Savages. I found masses of slides - naked ladies! - in a store room: very entertaining for a 10-year-old boy. Apart from being called "a German-Jewish pig" (the boy was much bigger than me, but I hit him and he was surprised), I fitted in with my English mates.

Then we moved to Swiss Cottage and I started going to secondary school, William Ellis, though it was then called the North London Emergency Secondary School, as the William Ellis boys had been evacuated to Leighton Buzzard. It was a bit of a ropy education there, and my father was shocked that I got bad results. He was ill and died a week before my 14th birthday. But before then, almost with his dying breath, he took me through my schoolwork. From getting Ds, I started getting As for everything except maths. I had to take my School Cert [O-levels] again, in the winter term, and did well, except for maths and physics.

I loved films and thought, "You don't have to learn much to be an actor". I read stories about lumberjacks being stars in Hollywood. Shirley Temple was only three! Even dogs could be film stars, like Lassie! I auditioned for Rada, and they said I was good but too young, so suggested a term at Parada, their preparatory academy. This cost my mother 17 guineas a term. At the end of the first term, Rada said another term would be good. I did my second term and then they said that a third term would really do it. But I wasn't learning what I really wanted to know: how to cope with mass adulation, and the price of property in Beverly Hills. I gave up and got myself a job in Bexhill rep.

I tried to speak the King's (later, the Queen's) English and develop what I thought was beautiful diction - and producers cast me as French jockeys, Russian POWs, Japanese scientists... and Spanish waiters.

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