Faulty Towers The Dining Experience has been a fixture of the Edinburgh Fringe for nine years and counting. Broadway Baby’s Sophia Charalambous met Suzanna Hughes (Sybil), Benedict Holme (Basil), Oliver Harrison (Manuel) and Alison Pollard-Mansergh (creator) to find out more about the world-touring culinary experience.
I thought at one point she really wasn’t enjoying herself, but it turns out she was just playing along.
The Faulty Towers trio have just come off stage. And by stage I mean B’est restaurant on Drummond Street where they’ve just performed a two-hour piece of interactive theatre, emulating the experience of being a diner in the hit 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers.
Disappearing from the restaurant while audience members finish their profiterole desert as part of a three-course meal, I hunt down the actors at their Potterrow residence.
Scampering around the kitchen, Suzanna Hughes (Sybil), Benedict Holme (Basil), and Oliver Harrison (Manuel) are making teas and coffees - still in their stage make-up. I sit down with them and Faulty Towers The Dining Experience creator, Alison Pollard-Mansergh, to hear about how the show has become a global phenomenon.
Do you do the stage make-up yourselves?
Suzanna: Yes, but I’m just keeping mine one because there no point taking it off and putting it back on again as we’ve got another show to do in a couple of hours.
Benedict: I tend to just mascara my moustache. No one seems to buy brown mascara. It’s like the reject. Seriously no one wears it, just Basil impersonators.
How long did it take you to perfect Basil?
Benedict: I was doing pub impressions of Basil before I even got the role. I would run poker nights to keep me financial buoyant between acting jobs. It’s during these that I’d let people know I was an actor and do a few impressions. When I saw it advertised I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve got the lanky, grumpy thing going on so that’s half way there.
Do you have lines ready to fire at the audience?
Benedict: Yes, but I’m always delighted to have a bit of a surprise. There was a very interesting one today, I had a lady who said, “I don’t like this soup, it tastes of s***” and when she handed it back to me, I said, “At least it’s fresh s***” or something like that. I thought at one point she really wasn’t enjoying herself, but it turns out she was just playing along.
Suzanna: I had some bloke who pretended it was his birthday just so I could flirt with him. It was really weird.
Oliver: I grew up in Spain even though I’m English, so it’s always a fun opportunity when there are Spanish speakers in the audience. People come in and say, “Oh yeah I speak Spanish” but then they realise they can’t speak as well as they thought, which is quite good to play with. I do a little story and ask for translation help, which really works.
The nature of the show is fast-paced and interactive. Have you ever injured yourselves?
Benedict: There’s one bit in the show when Sybil exposes me - not in that sense - that hasn’t happened yet, but that’ll be exciting. Anyway Manuel says, “Don’t tell the dragon”, and I slink down into a woman’s lap.
One time, I hit my face into a corner of a chair. I just thought, “That’s going to be a nasty bruise”. But as I was doing the fire drill people were pointing at my head and I could feel blood gushing.
Suzanna: I was holding a door open before the bows and my co-star slammed the door so hard… I broke my finger. Everyone must have been wondering why I wasn’t bowing properly.
Oliver: People are encouraged to play with Manuel, but often people have had a bit to drink and they go too far… they get a bit manual with Manuel. One drunk couple thought it was a really good idea to tie my shoelaces together. They’d also unclipped my braces and my trousers were around my ankles, and I’m left thinking, “What am I doing with my life!”
Ali, why did you decide to set up Faulty Towers The Dining Experience?
Ali: I was a New Zealander who moved to Australia with a Kiwi accent, so I couldn’t get an agent. True story. I was one of eight Fawlty Towers tribute shows working in New Zealand in the early 90s, and so my husband saw me do one of these, and said why don’t I do this. After six months of doing this in Australia (with an Aussie accent) I had two fabulous performers with me and we knew we had a hit on our hands. I only retired from playing Sybil last year.
Did you change the name to Faulty Towers to get the rights for the show?
Ali: No. When I contacted Cleese’s manager back in 1997, they told me there are lots of tribute shows out there, call it what you like, they weren’t interested. I decided that as people could get confused if I called it Fawlty Towers, because they’d think it was John Cleese and co., we would use a ‘U’. A lot of tribute shows still use a ‘W’. There are no rights for a tribute show, and there are no royalties to pay if you don’t use the original script.
You’ve been trying to become recognised as the official tribute act?
Ali: I’ve tried very hard become the official tribute show, because there’s hundreds of them in the world. But every time we’ve offered money as a recognition free it’s been ignored. Mr Cleese and his new management are now doing a stage show and have been making claims about our shows on social media etc that aren’t actually true. It’s quite upsetting - people think we’re ripping somebody off when in actual fact all we’ve ever wanted was to pay a fee to become recognised as the official tribute act.
Why don’t you use Polly in the show?
Ali: That was a decision I made very early on because when you look at the character of Polly she’s the antithesis. She’s the person that solves the issues. Having her would mean there were no issues for the audience to solve. The audience has to help Manuel hide his rat.
What was the best pieces of improv you’ve come up with?
Ali: Andy, who I’d been working with for fifteen years, was doing Manuel and I was Sybil and I said to him, “Four for four please, four people for four”, and he replied “no no no Mrs Fawlty it’s por favor”. We looked at each other and said, “Why on earth did it take us fifteen years to come up with that!” It’s so obvious.
Oliver: We try to give each show some new elements just to add some flavour because there are so many people who return. This time Basil said “Hand out the nibbles”, and I shouted “Nipples!” I was very pleased with that.
Benedict: This is an anatomically fixated Manuel.
Next year will be your tenth year at Fringe, will you be doing anything to celebrate?
Ali: I’m very loyal to B’est, I’ve been there for nine years. It’s not the most ideal venue for our show but it’s an ideal location - that’s how we really got noticed. It’s also a good name for our restaurant because it’s far from the best! For our tenth anniversary I think I’m going to do three shows a day, but going to reduce the number of audience members to 60.
Find the company on Twitter @thefaultytowers and their full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/faulty-towers-the-dining-experience/710940