INTERVIEW / Prunella Scales: a one-woman show

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Indy Lifestyle Online
PROLOGUE: The curtain rises on the kitchen of a spacious Edwardian house in south London. It is two o'clock in the afternoon. Prunella Scales, actress, and her husband, Timothy West, actor, are seated at their kitchen/ dining table finishing lunch. There is French bread and cheese on the table, and a fine bottle of Australian chardonnay. Beyond the window can be glimpsed a leafy garden. The sound of Schubert lieder filters softly from an unseen music system. Ms Scales begins:

'Do have a glass of wine. And after that, coffee? Where would you like to do the interview? Shall we go and sit in the conservatory? It's lovely and sunny, if you'd be comfortable there. Yes, it is a nice house, isn't it? We're so lucky. We've lived here for 21 years. Tim thinks we should move to something smaller now that the boys have more or less left home, but I couldn't bear to leave. So we compromise by letting off the basement to a music student. It's sort of subsidising the arts, I feel: but then all theatre people have to do that, nowadays. Our television earnings enable us to work in the theatre.'

Ms Scales leads the way towards a conservatory lined with theatrical cartoons depicting herself and her husband in some of their roles over four decades. The floor is attractively tiled, the windows have their original decorative glass and plants grow vigorously in every nook and cranny, threatening to crowd out the bamboo table and two chairs. The delicate pale blue blooms of plumbago hang from the glass roof.

SCENE ONE: modest beginnings. Ms Scales remembers her childhood:

'I'm so grateful to my parents because they were really very hard up. During the war we - my brother, also called Timothy, and I - were evacuated to a little village in Devon and my mother kept the two of us and a friend on pounds 8 a week. This is 'I was born in a shoe-box on the M1' territory, but my father only ever had what he earned.

'I never gave it a thought at the time, but looking back, I realise we were happy. The older I get, the more I realise what a secure and intellectual childhood they gave us. My father left school at 16, but he took us to the ballet and to art galleries for interesting exhibitions because he thought those were important things to do and I'd remember them. Looking back on that now, I'm so touched. I love my parents retrospectively even more than I did at the time and I think about them quite a lot.

'My grandfather had been a prosperous Bradford merchant, but he fell on hard times and when he died, all the money went away. (Her voice falls to a diminuendo.) I'm not quite sure how or where.

'My parents were a bit eccentric. They sold the only house they ever owned, for fear it would get bombed - which it didn't - and through friends, rented a farmhouse 35 miles from Hyde Park Corner. There was no gas, electricity or water but we had lots of books. When we went to other people's houses we used to enjoy the electric light. I walked through the woods every day and caught a bus to Dorking North station to get to school at Dulwich.

But we had a wind-up gramophone and a wireless, though we used to have

to walk up the road to get the accumulator re-charged. Do you remember accumulators? No? Well, wirelesses in those days had batteries which used accumulators.

'My mother used to read the classic children's books like E Nesbit to us in the evenings until we were quite old . . . in front of the fire in the sitting room, which was the only warm room in the house. We had no central heating, of course. We only had oil lamps and the brightest was the Aladdin. No, I don't think reading aloud would be unusual today. I don't want it to seem like a vanished world. My parents were ordinary, fallible people who loved their children and wanted to do their best for us.

'I went to a school called Moira House, where my contemporaries were much better off. My mother took a job as under-matron there. I also got a scholarship. I was quite bright, and there was a certain amount of pressure on me to go to university instead of drama school, but I got a scholarship to the Old Vic drama school. I was lucky: that doesn't happen any more. Every day we get letters from the cream of the young who've got places at drama school, but can't get grants. There are no further education grants for the arts these days . . .'

SCENE TWO: a diversion into politics. The music changes to a stormy section from Mozart: perhaps the sea passage from 'Entfuhrung aus dem Serail'.

'Our lives today seem to be ruled by car manufacturers, arms dealers and drugs barons. There are such sinister forces at work. Who is selling arms to the Serbs, and with what are they paying for them? Those are the crucial questions which nobody asks, because the bulk of the press is anti-Labour. (She leaps from her chair with the force of her conviction, takes a step or two, and then sits down again.) I'm passionately engaged with politics and . . . well, alas, well, well . . . we are still members of the Labour Party, although saying that immediately exposes one to the 'luvvies for Labour' label, which if it means anything, means one's views are automatically discounted. People so easily say (she mimics a voice of contemptuous dismissal), 'Oh, she's just an actress': meaning a liar, a stupid person. Yet if somebody agrees with you, then you become (voice weighty and impressed) 'this serious and important artiste'.

'We still live in a free country, but I wish I were more effective. The Labour Party has lost so many elections one fears that the support of actors doesn't help them. We get to one ward meeting in 84 and try to drive people to the polls at election time. But we're stigmatised as the chattering classes.' Her voice rises again, fuelled by passion.

'I cannot bear living in a country where education is not free, or health, or public transport. Because of the market economy, people have been taught and conditioned to want things that cost money for their leisure time . . . not books, but videos or compact discs, which require equipment. As a very poor child, I was always making something, even if it was only a pudding. Today, people seem to consume, passively.

'I do regard the market economy as a total evil and a most ridiculous mistake. It's asking people to worship money and do anything, regardless, in order to get it. You split society with a huge gap between those who've got money and those who haven't; you then make goods desirable by advertising and that creates a criminal class. It sounds so trite, doesn't it? But because the arts develop the imagination and conscience, which is not what you want if you're running a market economy, the Thatcher regime starved the arts of funds. Now we're seeing the consequences, sociologically and imaginatively.' As she becomes more agitated her voice takes on a deeper, fuller note at the crux of her discontent.

'The Government and the media are forever going on about the crime rate or single parents, but what about happiness? Are people to be forced to stay in misery with a partner because of the Tory notion of 'the family'? Why doesn't the Government take on all children and make proper provision for them? Why aren't teachers the best-paid and most-honoured people in our society? I simply can't bear it.' Again she gets out of her chair in rage, swivels, and subsides, waiting for the next question.

SCENE THREE: Ms Scales, who has twice played the present Queen, reflects on the monarchy and its conflict with her socialist views, to the accompaniment of an orotund Handel aria. She laughs, midway between amusement and embarrassment.

'Yes, I've played the Queen, but that's neither here nor there. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm in favour of her. Actually, I think - in common with a lot of people - that she does a tough job extremely well. Obviously, as a socialist I would like to see modifications of all wealth-distribution, including that enjoyed by the royal family. As to the monarchy itself, these may be my feelings as an actor coming out or it may be a cultural thing, but I think if we got rid of it, a lot of babies would get thrown out with the bathwater. Would you like another cup of coffee?

'No, I don't think the Queen ever came and saw me play her in the theatre, but I believe she's now seen the Alan Bennett play on tape. When I got my CBE - which was a total surprise, incidentally - she made a quite sweet, quite gentle remark about it.

'The main experience I had as an actor playing the Queen was the sort of attention the royal family gets. As a socialist I deplore all class distinctions but as an actor they're a huge part of the equipment, the attributes you bring to a role. So 'class' is politically deplorable and professionally fun]'

SCENE FOUR: Prunella Scales, alias Mrs Timothy West, muses upon marriage, the theatre, and domestic matters, to the sound of an aria from 'Cosi Fan Tutte'.

'Well, we've stayed married for over 30 years] I don't think theatrical marriages are necessarily less stable than others; I think this is a slight misapprehension.

'Yes, I'm incredibly lucky there. And he's so funny with it. You do meet other attractive people in this business, there are long absences - yes, I think all those things are true. Yes. Umm.' (She reflects, pauses, waits.) 'I don't know. It's just, as I say, incredible luck. It gets better. Gets easier. When the children were young I did have a lot of time when I was getting much less work, and I was a bit discontented. I think, to do him justice, Tim was equally worried. But on the whole, over the past 18 years, we've had the same amount of work, and that's a great blessing.

'As for grandchildren: well, our elder son is 27 and the younger is 24 and it's up to them. (She laughs.) The children have been such a devastating joy in my life that I'd hate to think they might miss out on that.'

Happy times on the family canal boat.

'We first went on a narrowboat 20 years ago, when the boys were young. Lynn Farleigh lent us one for the weekend, and I fell in love with the whole idea immediately. From Tim's and my point of view it's brilliant because he loves travel and I'm a very 'nest-building' sort of person and for us, this has been the most wonderful compromise. The boys got lovely and tired opening locks and went to bed early, so in the evenings their parents could play scrabble and chess and make love. I cook better on the boat than I do here: there's no telephone, no TV - it's been the perfect resource for us.'

SCENE FIVE: Ms Scales, 60 last year, reflects upon her own youthful appearance. She blows out her cheeks, 'Oouff]', and laces her fingers behind her head.

'I've got very little grey hair. It's to do with the genes. My mother and father were the same. I had the bags under my eyes done in 1978, and would do it again if it became necessary.'

She leans forward as if scrutinising herself in a dressing-room mirror, and plucks at the skin below her eyes to show how loose pouches can disfigure the face: a disadvantage to an actor, who needs a variety of facial expressions.

'I'm lucky to look as young as I do because it means I've managed to catch up with a lot of parts I didn't play in my twenties when I was out of work having our sons Sam and Joe. When I was very young I was never pretty or beautiful and didn't get the chance to play many parts I'd have loved to tackle: the great Shakespearean parts - Viola, Helena.'

SCENE SIX: Ms Scales speaks of her theatrical career and how she reacts to critics.

'I'm not one of those actors who says (lofty voice) 'Oh, I never read reviews]' I do eventually read them because you always learn something from notices, good or bad. But I try not to read them during the first week or so after opening. Good ones can make you cocky, bad ones can hurt so much, it's difficult to heave yourself onstage again. Either way, much safer to wait until you're 'played in'.'

She talks about the role of Dolly Levi, which she is currently playing in Thornton Wilder's 'The Matchmaker' at Chichester.

'It is, quite literally, a funny old play, but I couldn't resist the temptation of having a go because I appeared in the play, in a very minor role, 40 years ago. You must empty your mind of Hello Dolly] - which I think the critics aren't able to do. When you go on stage you have to feel, I know more about this part than anybody else in the building. The people you learn most from are the audiences, which is why I'm always best on my last night. I have done 350 performances of An Evening with Queen Victoria, which is virtually a monologue, and last Saturday night's was one of the best I've ever done.

'The part of Queen Victoria is entirely composed of her own letters and journals. I can't help feeling very fond of her after all these years. I think of her as an endearing, surprising character.'

Ms Scales contemplates the future, her theatrical hopes and ambitions.

'I have only once appeared in Sheridan professionally; I have never appeared in Congreve; I have been twice in Shaw, once on television and once on the radio; but I haven't had a chance to play the great classical English comedies. It is source of infinite regret to me that I haven't been entrusted with the great English comic writing. I do hope, before I die, to be allowed to do more. It hasn't happened so far, partly bexcause they're very expensive to mount and therefore not very often done. I feel sad that there are these wonderful plays, which the public do enjoy, and we can't afford to put them on. If you can keep hold of your memory, the parts keep on coming and in the end old age becomes an advantage.

'My other hope is to do more new and radical work. I've only appeared once at the Royal Court. I should love to be stretched, vocally and physically.'

Envoi: how would Ms Scales like her career to end?

'I'd like to die on stage while taking the third curtain call . . .'

She picks up the coffee tray and carries it to the kitchen, past a large painting of her sons as children, past a silhouette of Samuel Beckett by Tom Phillips, below which are written Beckett's words, 'Try again. Fail again. Try harder. Fail better.' She deposits the tray and turns to smile.

'Goodbye. I have enjoyed our conversation.'

The curtain falls.

(Photograph omitted)