This weekend the classic comedy series Fawlty Towers celebrates its 40th birthday!
In December 1974 John Cleese cast me as cockney detective Danny Brown in the pilot episode of the series that is now celebrated as one of the great comedy shows of TV history.
Quite why he cast me I have never been able to figure out–until this morning!
The only time I’d met him before was when we were both in an undergraduate production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Trevor Nunn at Cambridge University in 1961. Although we were both in the same scene–Act IV Scene II–I can’t remember spending any time with him.
He was on the comedy side of university theatre in The Footlights and I was on the straight side, the ADC–the Amateur Dramatic Club.
This morning I pulled out my volume of The Works of Shakespeare (purchased, second hand, in 1960)–and looked up the scene.
John played a member of the Watch (comedy) and I was Borachio (straight)–a henchman of the villainous Don John.
Borachio and his fellow fixer, Conrad, are being arraigned by Constable Dogberry, having been caught red-handed by members of the watch.
Was John so impressed with my cockney accent that 13 years later he reincarnated a reformed Borachio as Detective Danny Brown?!
I was too nervous to ask him in rehearsal–seems the likely explanation though.
A week’s TV work just before Christmas after three years earning peanuts in the theatre was very welcome.
But it involved recording in front of a studio audience–something I’d never done–and I was nervous!
Snooty Basil didn’t like having his hotel foyer polluted with Danny’s broad Cockney accent, but was forced to show him a bit of respect when, failing to make Manuel–the waiter–understand his instructions to take the luggage upstairs–Danny steps into the breach with a surprising display of fluent Spanish.
I don’t speak Spanish–so I learned the lines by rote.
Come the “take”–nails biting into my palms–I managed a faultless rendition of the Spanish lines–only to be told by the floor manager that there was a camera in shot–and we would have to go again!
There I am on the DVD, speaking fluent Spanish, so I must have managed it again–but I have no memory of it!
I had just been cast as Ross Poldark and after Christmas began work on the epic that changed my life.
It wasn’t the end of Fawlty Towers for me though.
The pilot was approved and the series got the go-ahead. Six half-hour episodes were in the can, but a late plot change involving Polly–played by Connie Booth, John’s writing partner and wife at the time–meant they had to re-record part of my dinner scene exchange with Polly.
My hair had grown and changed color for Poldark–so for one afternoon at Television Centre in mid-summer, they dyed my hair dark brown and pinned it up at the back–and I was briefly Cockney Danny Brown again.
I just read a newspaper piece about the anniversary, in which actor Nicky Henson, who appeared in a later episode, rejoices that 40 years later the residuals (those were the days!) are still enhancing his pension.
I concur–we were lucky boys!
I doubt playing Borachio has ever paid off so well in the life of an actor!