Over the years, what has marked Scales out is her uncanny ability to inhabit other people. Sybil Fawlty, for instance, with her nightmarish laugh and even more nightmarish hairdos, was a character so believable that she is still viewed as a national institution. Scales herself affirms that one of her own strengths is "pretending to be people different from myself. The reason I became an actress is because it gave me the chance to be people more interesting than I am. They can always think of more entertaining things to say than I can."
Her latest piece of eerie impersonation is as Sara, the aged, conventional mother of gifted mathematician Alan Turing in BBC1's version of Hugh Whitemore's play, Breaking the Code. Sara's world is bouleverse when her son (Sir Derek Jacobi, reprising his successful stage role) reveals to her not only that he is gay but also that he is being prosecuted for an act of gross indecency. As the camera circles her, she outlines her abiding love for her son. As the tears stream down her face, she recalls driving away after leaving him at boarding school. "For a moment I felt quite breathless with panic," she sobs. "I wanted to jump out, run back and hold you in my arms forever." It is tear-jerking without seeming implausible or over-the-top.
"It's that sense of honesty that distinguishes her," reckons Jack Emery, the producer of Breaking the Code. "Over the years, I'm sure she's been offered flashy roles, but has turned them down. She accepted Breaking the Code because she thought it was an important piece - that was the overriding factor. No names, no packdrill, but there are actresses I could mention who'd say, `You want me to play Derek Jacobi's mother? You must be joking.' Vanity has no place in her vocabulary. If the part's good, she'll do it. Any debate you have with her is rigorous. It's always about the scene and never frivolous."
Herbert Wise, director of Breaking the Code, underlines her lack of flippery. "She has an ability to get inside a part," he observes. "Her skill lies in what she leaves out. She's a sinewy actress. There's no spare fat in her performances; they're always trimmed to what's necessary. To continue the metaphor, everything you see is like a well-tuned body, taut and crisp."
She becomes particularly animated on the subject of politics. A long- term Labour Party member, she counts Neil Kinnock a "dear friend". She feels "concerned not so much as an actor but as a citizen about what the market economy has done to education. Also, I hate what the market economy has done to the arts. In Italy, everybody flocks to the opera because it's cheap. My least favourite word in English is `elitist'. As Jonathan Miller says, `Elitism is in itself a philistine word'."
Sybil Fawlty was, of course, the dragon that breathed fire into Scales's career. The actress believes the enduring success of Fawlty Towers is down to the fact that "It was written with a passion. John [Cleese] and Connie [Booth] wrote it out of a passionate anger about bad service in hotels. After 12 episodes, their anger was expiated and they didn't have to write any more."
In the 1980s, Scales again grabbed the limelight with her portrayal of the Queen. "It was wonderful, enormous fun," she remembers. "It was the first time that a reigning monarch had been played on stage. Playing at the Royal National Theatre gave it an extremely powerful `blasphemy factor'."
Ever anxious to deflect attention from herself, Scales maintains that the play's the thing. "I slightly minded about the emphasis given to me. The play is a profound study of the nature of treachery and impersonation, and I thought the publicity about me playing the Queen took too much precedence."
Now she finds herself attracted to directing; she directed her husband, Timothy West, in Alan Bennett's Getting On two years ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. "The great thing about directing is that you can have your say about parts you could never play yourself," she muses.
For the moment, though, she is sticking to acting; she is about to appear in Staying On opposite Richard Johnson. "I've been very lucky to have been offered as much as I have," she contends. "But watching Breaking the Code, I'd like my next part to be about 30 years younger, extremely glamorous and with lots and lots of make-up."
A very well-preserved 64, Scales still has the pick of parts for women of a certain age. A man stopped her in the street the other day and told her she looked younger than she did in Fawlty Towers. "That was shot 20 years ago," she laughs, "so I must be doing something right."
Prunella Scales appears in `Breaking the Code' on BBC1 next Wed at 10.30pm and opens in `Staying On' at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, Surrey (01483 440000) on 17 Feb
PRUNELLA'S TOP THREE PERFORMANCES
1. Sybil in Fawlty Towers. The actress still feels "very proud of the show". Sybil struck a chord because "the British public love to hate bossy women; they have a hunger for the dominant, repellent female".
2. The Queen in A Question of Attribution. Jack Emery, TV producer and long-standing colleague, reckons that "She played that role without grand majesty. She went for what was inside rather than outside".
3. Sara in Breaking the Code. "In many ways Sara was a disastrous mother for Alan Turing to have," she reflects. "She embodies a society that treated homosexual acts between consenting adults as a crime."
1932: Born Prunella Illingworth in Sutton Abinger, Surrey, the daughter of actress Catherine Scales. Her father was a cotton salesman
late 1940s-early 1950s: Won scholarship to Old Vic Theatre School. Also studied at Herbert Berghof Studio, New York
1963: Married Timothy West, by whom she has two sons, Samuel, an actor, and Joseph, a teacher
1960s-1990s: Hardly a day out of work. She makes no distinction between straight and comic acting: "As somebody once said to Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre, `Anton Pavlich, how do you want me to play this part?' And he said, `As well as possible'. " Highlights - TV: Coronation Street (as a bus conductress in episodes 13 and 14), Fawlty Towers, Mapp and Lucia, After Henry, A Question of Attribution (as the Queen), The Rector's Wife, Signs and Wonders, Searching, Breaking the Code. Theatre: The Merchant of Venice, Quartermaine's Terms, The Seagull, Single Spies, An Evening with Queen Victoria, Long Day's Journey into Night, Happy Days, A Perfect Ganesh. Film: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, A Chorus of Disapproval, Howard's End, Wolf, An Awfully Big Adventure
1994: Gave evidence with Fay Weldon to all-party Commons Select Committee on working mothersReuse content