Interview: Alison Pollard-Mansergh

The farcical antics of incompetent hotel owner Basil, his perpetually exasperated wife Sybil and eternally bewildered Spanish waiter Manuel have enshrined 1970s BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers as a comedy classic.

Inspired by the TV show, Faulty Towers The Dining Experience is taking up an open-ended residency in London’s West End. From 26 October, intrepid diners will be able to sample Basil, Sybil and Manuel’s unique brand of hospitality at the Torquay Suite Theatre in the Charing Cross Hotel.

Now in its 15th successful year, Faulty Towers has toured the globe with a rotating cast, leaving laughter and culinary chaos in its wake. Australian company Interactive Theatre International developed the site-specific piece from an idea by actress Alison Pollard-Mansergh, who also produces the show and has played Sybil throughout the world since 1997.

As she prepares to unleash Basil, Sybil and Manuel on London on a permanent basis, I spoke with Pollard-Mansergh about what inspired the show, the secret of its longevity and the catharsis of being politically incorrect once in a while.

What was the genesis of Faulty Towers?

It came about really organically, as this incredible rollercoaster ride. It was 1992 and I was an actor New Zealand. Because I had two small children at the time, I couldn’t really do a lot of travelling, so I joined a theatre company that did corporate work. We also did theme nights, which can be awful, but we had fun doing some of them, including Fawlty Towers. It got to the point where these nights were so much fun that we started doing them regularly, about once a month.

What happened next?

I left New Zealand in 1996 and went to Australia. By 1997, I was looking for an agent, but because I had a New Zealand accent, everyone said no. You wouldn’t find that now – they’d accept you wholeheartedly with a New Zealand accent! But that wasn’t the case in those days. I knew I had to do something, so I met up with a couple of peers and suggested doing some Fawlty Towersshows. We started out thinking it would last about six months, but we really gelled as a team of improvisers and came up with a lot of material that was worthy of writing down. So I sat down with Andy Foreman, who is still with the company and plays Manuel, and started to form a script. And as people came and went from the group, they would improvise with us, and produce more material. The more we got into it, the more we wanted it to not just be a theme night. We really wanted people to experience what it would be like to be on the set of the TV show, to feel as though they were customers in that restaurant. When we get comments like that, I know we’ve really hit our mark.

The escalating chaos of the TV show seems well suited to a semi-improvised piece.

Absolutely. We start the show very subtly, just wandering around the hallways, looking like staff and greeting people. Obviously, they know who we are because we’re in character, but we break down the fourth wall very gently. We begin doing bits and pieces gradually. This is also an opportunity for us to find out what our guests are like. The ‘players’, as we call them, make themselves known to us very early on.

Who are the ‘players’?

We have a lot of little routines before we get into the fully scripted piece – which we can throw in whenever we feel the energy is right – and the players are the ones who give us the improvisational offers that we’re going to be able to work with. Either they know the TV series really well or they’re just up for a good night. They welcome us in and give us that energy straight away. You can read them instantaneously. While we’re doing our low-key beginning, they’re the ones that actually start the show for us, by saying things like, ‘Hello, Mrs Faulty, How’s Basil?’

Does the show change from performance to performance?

The people in on any given night will always affect it. Some nights, you’ll get someone with a really raucous laugh, which boosts the energy in the room up a level. On other nights, you’ll have people who listen incredibly intently, but at the end give you this massive roar of applause to let you know how much they’ve appreciated what you’ve done.

Has the show had different reactions in different countries?

Certain things work differently in different cultures. For example, we do things slightly differently in countries where English is the second or third language. We might slow things down fractionally. But we also have some lovely routines where Manuel might misconstrue words in, say, Dutch or Swedish, that sound similar in English. This brings in another element, because the audience might also misconstrue these words. So when Sybil explains this to Manuel, we can teach the joke to the restaurant as well. It’s lovely to be able to work within such an elastic framework.

When you perform, are you playing the characters or impersonating the original actors?

It’s a bit of both. The show is a homage to the writing, because John Cleese and Connie Booth created timeless scripts that work as well today as in the 1970s. We don’t reproduce lines, but we do nod to them as we create our own chaos. And we know that people are coming to see the characters created by Cleese and Booth, not Alison, Andy and Jordan or whoever happens to be in playing the roles at the time. They’re coming to see Basil, Sybil and Manuel.

Do you have to put ego to one side?

Yes, to some degree. It’s lovely to come out at the end and have people go, ‘Oh, you were just her. You were exactly Sybil.’ But it’s been interesting working with the actors over the years and saying to them, ‘I know that you’re creative, but people aren’t coming to see your version of Basil, Sybil or Manuel – they’re coming to see what they remember and Prunella Scales, John Cleese and Andrew Sachs doing with those characters.’ You’ve got to make sure that anything artistic you do exists within that very solid framework.

After 15 years, what keeps you invested in the role of Sybil?

The fact that I can use absolutely everything I love doing: I love scripted work, I love comedy and I love improvisation. That keeps it fresh, and working with the energy of a room is great. Also, as the show’s producer, it’s been incredible to watch it grow from something that I thought would last for six months into something that’s lasted for 15 years – so far. I just love Faulty Towers and what it does to people.

And what is that?

For example, we did some shows in Melbourne just after the Black Saturday bushfires. People had had lost their lives and so many others had been affected, but audiences came up to us afterwards and said that it was just so good being able to laugh. They found it so cathartic. And we’ve had people who have had cancer or are terminally ill, who haven’t laughed for months, come up to us and say: ‘You made me laugh, and I could forget for a while.’

Do you think there is there something cathartic about such wilfully un-PC characters?

Yes, because you can go along for the ride. I do think the world has gone slightly mad with political correctness, so it’s nice to be able to relax and laugh, and know that it’s comedy and not for real. You can just accept it and let it happen. Nobody really gets offended. Some people, particularly British people, are much more polite than other cultures we work with. I’m speaking mainly about Australians, because we’re not as politically correct as the British as a cultural group. Australians are well known for being very blunt: we call a spade a f**king shovel!

Did you always plan to find the show a permanent home?

When we debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008, I knew then that it wasn’t going to end there. I thought, right, how far can we go with this? What’s going to be the pinnacle point? So I gave myself five years and said to myself: ‘If in that time we are in permanent residency in the West End of London, I’ll know that we’ve achieved a high level of acknowledgement around the country, and across the world.’ I didn’t know what the path would be – I had no idea we’d be in 15 countries this year and 20 next year – but I needed to see if we could do it. And that path has just rolled out in front of me like carpet.

Do you see the move into Charing Cross Hotel as a validation of your work?

I’ve worked incredibly hard on Faulty Towers, but I’ve got a team of people who also work incredibly hard. But as fantastic as the actors are, it’s the audiences who have dictated that they want this thing to continue. Promoters are always really keen to have us back, wherever we go, because audiences want to book for the next year. I hope we’ll be well-received by London as a whole and by people who visit London as well.

So, why should audiences book a table in Basil’s restaurant?

Because they will never, ever forget it – you really have to experience The Dining Experience to experience it! It’s for anyone who’s ever watched the TV show and thought, ‘I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that situation.’ But it’s also for people who just want to sit back and enjoy themselves. You’re free to have whatever experience you want with this show.

Faulty Towers The Dining Experience opens at the Torquay Suite Theatre (Charing Cross Hotel) on Friday 26 October. For more information, and tickets, go to:

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