Life & Culture

The Turkish Jew who’s now that waiter from Barcelona

Hemi Yeroham is taking on the role of Manuel in a stage version of Fawlty Towers. He shares how he is priming himself for the punishing part and why following in Andrew Sachs’ footsteps is such an honour


Comic reprise: Hemi Yeroham as Manuel with the Fawlty Towers cast Victoria Fox (Polly), Adam Jackson-Fox (Basil) and Anna-Jane Casey (Sybil)

Here’s the thing, one of the most iconic roles in British comedy, Manuel, the little Spanish waiter in Fawlty Towers was played by a German Jew, the late actor Andrew Sachs. Now John Cleese’s seminal 1975 TV sitcom is coming to the West End stage. Again, Basil Fawlty’s foil, Manuel, is played by a Jewish man. This time, Turkish-born Hemi Yeroham takes the role of the hapless waiter from Barcelona.

“Well I am Sephardic, so we’re getting closer!” says Yeroham when we talk during his lunch break from rehearsals. “Actually, I grew up hearing Spanish and Ladino. There’s a lot of times Manuel says ‘Que’ during the show, but I do have a couple of lines of proper Spanish!”

Yeroham, now 44, has not always been aware of Fawlty Towers and it’s status in British light entertainment. “I didn’t come to London until I was 20, and it was long before my time.” He says. “So, I watched a couple of scenes before going in for the audition, but I just went for it in the audition and kind of played the scene for what it was. And then got a recall, and then pretty soon after that I was offered the part. I thought, ‘OK, I need to watch it all. Everybody I spoke to was like, ‘This is quite big, it’s really well known.’”

He then watched all 12 episodes and began researching Sachs. “I would have loved to have met him. I watched so many interviews that he did, and I really got a sense of how gentle he was and naturally warm and sympathetic. I think he put that into Manuel. I understood Manuel much better.”

It could be a dangerous role to take on as in the TV series Manuel was regularly hit with a frying pan or a spoon, but Yeroham is not running for cover. “We have ‘fight classes’ and it’s [the violence] actually a little less than I thought it was, and it’s all gone very professionally. It’s for the stage, though, not like TV where you do it once, it’s eight times a week, I have to survive! There is a funny anecdote about Sachs going to John Cleese and saying, ‘You know, you’re really hitting me hard, and I’m being battered’, and Cleese replying, ‘It’s not like you’re doing it eight times week in a theatre!’ Well I am!”

Meeting Cleese for the first time was daunting. “He was definitely a hero. I loved Monty Python, Life of Brian and all that. In the end, I felt I just have to treat him as another man and not get weighed down. It’s the same as playing Manuel, it could be paralysing if I think too much about how big it is.”

Yeroham and his sister grew up in a traditional Sephardic Jewish family in Istanbul. His late father was in business and his mother was a PA to a CEO of a large company. “We had about 20,000 people in the community then. I had a very traditional childhood. I went to a Jewish school and to a couple of Jewish clubs every week. Coincidently they were theatre clubs. They did big shows every year and they were very well attended by the community. They usually focused around a Jewish family and I was the son in a family. It definitely gave me the taste for acting.”

Despite that, at first he tried business studies. “But it wasn’t for me, I knew I wanted to act,” he recalls.

He came to the UK and went to Guildford School of Acting to study drama. His career had a slow start but one of his first roles was a small part in the first Mamma Mia! film in 2008. ”My mum turned into a typical Jewish mum, telling everyone her son was making a film with Meryl Streep,” he says laughing. “But it is great to be part of something that is so instantly recognisable, you don’t have to explain what the show is. It’s the same with Fawlty Towers.”

Ironically because of his dark colouring he’s mainly been cast in Arab roles. “One hundred percent! They want an illegal immigrant, cab driver, kebab shop owner, then it’s me!”

He’s no stranger to comedy having been in Sky Atlantic’s Common Ground with Charles Dance. He’s also equally at home with drama having played Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet in a 40-state tour of the US.

It wasn’t until 2022 that he played someone Jewish when he was cast as Iraqi-born Edwin Shuker in Jonathan Freedland’s Jews. In Their Own Words at the Royal Court, a performance that Shuker himself described as “wonderful”. “I’d almost not allowed myself to be Jewish, when acting, until then. It’s also rare that stories like his, of non-Ashkenazi, non-European Jews get heard. It was emotional talking about Edwin witnessing Jews being hanged in Iraq. So it was great to do it on many levels. Because also for the first time since I’d been here, I was mixing with Jewish actors and directors and now it’s great because I have a circle of Jewish friends. You know when I went to Guildford, there wasn’t really a Jewish community there, so it was good to feel part of it all again.”

He lives in London and has a partner and his mother still lives in Istanbul. “I rang her up and told her I was going to be in the Jewish Chronicle, she was so pleased, more bragging!”

He’s hoping when he’s older to tackle the so-called big Jewish roles of Shylock, Fagin and even Tevye. “Actually I did audition for Fiddler on The Roof the same time as I did for Fawlty Towers, although I think I’m a bit young still for Tevye. I didn’t get it and I’m glad because then I would have had a dilemma of what to do! I love Fiddler on The Roof and one day I would like to do it.”

Meanwhile, he’s priming himself to be bullied on stage eight times a week as Manuel! Que?

Photos: Trevor Leighton

Fawlty Towers: The Play opens on May 4 at London’s Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.

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