Interview: Timothy West

Timothy West back on dry land near his home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Timothy West back on dry land near his home in London. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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Why Timothy West and Prunella Scales are still making waves with their Great Canal Journeys

Actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales have a sailaway success story on their hands with their TV series for Channel 4, Great Canal Journeys. Married for 52 years and known for many roles from Sybil in Fawlty Towers (Scales) to Edward VII and EastEnders (West), as they say at the start of each episode, approaching the final curtain there are still a couple of parts they like returning to, captain and his mate. West is every bit the salty old sea dog while Scales remains his jaunty companion in her floppy denim hat, whatever the weather, occasionally quoting relevant classics, like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Timothy West and Prunella Scales on one of their Great Canal Journeys

Timothy West and Prunella Scales on one of their Great Canal Journeys

For the past eight series and 26 episodes the pair of veteran thesps have boarded canal barges and narrowboats in the United Kingdom and Europe, and in season seven India, exploring waterways from the Kennet & Avon Canal to the Forth & Clyde, Sweden’s Göta Canal, Venice and Kerala and back to the Norfolk Broads. As they go they discover and describe the places and people they meet, with a cheery shipshape-and-Bristol-fashion spirit of adventure.

“All of our journeys appeal in different ways, but we did enjoy our Scottish adventures around the Union and Crinan canals,” says West obligingly, when I ask about their Caledonian journeys.

“We were blessed, or cursed, with some rather frightful weather which was exciting. Corryvreckan was VERY exciting,” he says. Given that he’s referring to the world’s third largest whirlpool, the most notorious stretch of water in the British Isles, where they met 30 foot waves as they island hopped their way towards the Crinan canal, his understatement is impressive.

“Is it safe?” Scales asks him as they pass the whirlpool.

“Very safe,” he replies, confidently.

“What?” she shouts into the wind.

“Very safe, yes.”

“Well you could have fooled me. Bloody ‘ell!” she says as the boat bobs around like a cork.

On this occasion the viewer is relieved to see they are passengers on another boat, but do people ever tell them they should be taking it easy now that they’re in their eighties?

“Not to my face!” booms West and laughs.

West and Scales’ journeys, often down memory lane, are given an extra poignancy owing to the fact that Scales, now 85, has dementia. In 2014 West, who is 83, revealed that Scales had been suffering a form of Alzheimer’s that had developed over the past 15 years. It’s something they have been open about and at the start of each show West says kindly, “Pru’s memory is not what it was,” to which Scales concurs with a jokey, “it’s true. Some days I don’t know whether it’s Monday or Lewisham!” With memory adrift, they embrace living in the moment, and sailing is something they have always done, and can still share.

Despite having been in some of TV’s biggest hits, the pair are more likely to be recognised for Great Canal Journeys nowadays, most recently in Sri Lanka where they were on holiday.

“It was a local too, not a tourist, who thanked us for the show,” says West. “I’ve no idea why it’s so popular, but I think it’s a combination of something which is slow and peaceful, and also a bit interesting. It’s a journey by two people who people sort of recognise, which makes it slightly different from the usual travelogue where there’s one person explaining things. I don’t know,” he says, mystified, but delighted anyway.

“When we made the first four programmes I thought this is going to be shown on More4 on a Tuesday and a few old ladies will be watching it, but I was quite wrong.” He laughs, a hearty chuckle as he celebrates launching the book of their travels, Our Great Canal Journeys, this month.

“We’re really pleased with the book. It’s got beautiful pictures and looks exciting. It’s a little bit more than a coffee table book, I think. We included some stills from the programme and included various photographs, many of them from my daughter.”

Sailing was something West and Scales always did with their two sons, Sam and Joe, and Timothy’s daughter Juliet from his first marriage to actor Jacqueline Boyer.

“There are lots of things I’d forgotten in there; it’s a lifetime of memories, pictures of our sons Sam and Joe when they were 10 and eight on our first canal holiday – they’re 50 and 47 now and my daughter is just over 60 which is unbelievable. I can’t believe it’s gone on so long, but it has.”

West recalls his son Joe falling into the water when he was about eight or nine, and as his anxious parents watched, failing to reappear. “We realised he’d had a heavy windlass in each hand when he went in and we’d said never, ever let go of them because we can’t get through locks without them.” He laughs a big, hearty, booming laugh. “So we shouted, ‘it’s all right, we’d rather have you!’, and he let go and came up. We had to retrieve the windlasses,” he says and chuckles some more at the memory.

“Our life together is a journey we’re still making,” he says. “We go to new places and meet new people. And Pru’s condition could very easily… So I say, ‘come on, there are not very many things we can do now, let’s just do it.’ We could say we’ve had a good time and sit down and watch the television and go to sleep. We could do that – although I couldn’t because I’m not that sort of person – but I think it has been very good for Pru to still feel she can actually do and be part of something which is important and popular and works, and also have some fun and do interesting things and meet interesting people.”

West first noticed a change in Scales when he watched her performing in a play and realised she was having to think about the next line.

“She didn’t seem to be doing it quite in her usual way and I thought ‘there’s something wrong here’. She had a brain scan and it was diagnosed. That’s a good 15 years ago,” he says.

West and Scales debated whether to mention her illness on Great Canal Journeys but as West says, “you’ve got to, because lots of people in the business know about it, and members of the public too, and to deny it or avoid it is just dishonest and wrong.”

When I suggest that West gives hope to other people facing this situation, he gently clarifies for me. “I think what I give them is encouragement. Not hope. Because you can’t do anything about it in the end. But it takes place at different speeds and we’ve been terribly lucky in that it’s progressed very slowly, so that you adjust day by day. You don’t wake up in the morning and think ‘Oh my God, where is this person?’ because you’ve already become accustomed to it. And you just think ‘what can we do to make the most of things?’

“There aren’t any positive things to say about dementia, except you’ve got to keep it at bay if you can. We all know people who have it and people who look after people who have it and have their different solutions. But the fact I seem to have given some public encouragement to keep people going is good.

“You can get terribly, terribly depressed and think the future doesn’t hold any brightness for you… you can’t think ‘oh we’ll get through this and it will be all right’, because it won’t be.

So you just have to manage from day to day, to make life as pleasant and bearable and interesting as it can be.”

Apart from dealing with dementia, the couple, who met on a “really awful television play” that was cancelled due to an electricians’ strike, have managed to plot a successful course through 52 years of marriage. To what does West attribute their success in these often choppy waters?

“Humour is vital,” he says “and respect for what people do and what people think. Kindness is important, and we’ve always had the same humour, laughed at the same things, been interested in the same things, got cross about the same things. And been in the same business. We have often been away from each other work-wise and therefore we’re always very glad to see each other again.

“We met when we were cast with small parts in that really boring play, so had both brought the crossword to stop us going mad. We saw each other across the rehearsal room doing it, so decided to sit together. Then we couldn’t record because of the strike one day so we went to the cinema, Pru and I, to see The Grass is Greener with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. The show was cancelled, but a bit later Pru sent me a card saying ‘they’re reviving that terrible play, are you in it?’ I wasn’t but we started writing to each other then.”

Since the keen cruciverbalists also enjoyed letter writing, missives criss-crossed the country from Aberdeen to Brighton, Norwich to Bristol, as the pair corresponded while touring with respective theatre companies.

“Then we started getting night trains from various places so we could spend a day together. We finally we finished up in the same town when she was doing a play in Oxford and I was on tour with a farce that went there, and we had a proper Sunday together.”

And where did they go? To the river of course. West’s love affair with boats had begun when his father took him boating on the Thames as a child and Scales’ when she was evacuated to the Lake District during the Second World War.

“We sat by the river and both realised we loved the water, being by it, on it, not so much in it from my point of view because I’m a really awful swimmer, dreadful, dreadful…” he says. “And then we went to a hotel, and the rest is history!”

Both West and Scales hail from acting families, with West being born on the road when his father was appearing in a play in Bradford. Scales’ one-time actor mother encouraged her daughter, but West’s parents were less keen that he enter the family business.

“My mother’s father was an actor too, so it was in the blood, but they thought it was very precarious. They hadn’t had an easy life and it was a long time before my father started working regularly in London and we were able to buy a small house. He thought I could do better than that. And also, they came to see me in amateur shows, and I think they thought I wasn’t very good,” at this he breaks out into laughter again.

So West became an office furniture salesman, which he paid no attention to whatsoever, his attention on the many am-dram societies of which he was a member, and admits to being “completely hopeless at it.”

After landing a job as assistant stage manager in a London theatre, the acting roles increased and his career took off. Sixty years on he can look back at a career that spans theatre, TV and film. He’s played Macbeth twice and Lear four times, but there are still roles he’d like to take on. “I wouldn’t mind having a go at Prospero,” he says.

Big screen roles have included The Day of the Jackal, The Thirty Nine Steps and Cry Freedom (1987) and his big TV break came with his portrayal of Edward VII when he was 40. Later he showed his flair for comedy as Bradley Hardacre in Granada TV’s satirical Northern super-soap Brass, and he has appeared in both Coronation Street and EastEnders. As the Carter family patriarch and former Billingsgate fishmonger Stan, an armchair manipulator and curmudgeon who died onscreen in 2015, he lent gravitas and complexity. “EastEnders deals with universal stories, modern problems, but universal themes, that’s what I liked about it,” he says.

“I love the variety of my career very much, and I think as actors we have a mission to show that we can do different things because there is a tendency now among the management and casting directors to categorise you, to say ‘oh, he’s more of a classical actor, will he be able to do the accent?’ Of course you can, if you’re an actor you’ve learnt to do everything.”

Most recently, when he wasn’t on a canal boat he was filming a part in a “sort of thriller for the BBC”. As yet unnamed, it’s one of a series.

“It’s not a large part, but I play a man who may be very devious, or may be doing things for the right reason. But it’s been difficult fitting it round the canal series, because that takes quite a bit of time. This last one to Alsace was very interesting.”

Highlights include Strasbourg Cathedral and the United Nations building, mention of which prompts West to an outburst on Brexit.

“Being a dedicated Remainer I thought ‘this is all so wonderful…’ Brexit? It’s crazy, crazy... don’t get me started… I think it’s going to be very difficult to undo it, but I think people are beginning to realise they were conned, and given all sorts of reasons for it, none of which makes any sense in how it’s turned out. I think a lot of people had one idea in their mind that immigration was going to be a global problem and we were going to get flooded with all sorts of people that took our jobs and were a danger to the community. It isn’t like that at all. Various people made promises then walked away, ran away, like rats from a sinking ship…” he says.

“It’s a critical issue, a social issue, and in our business – entertainment – we owe so much to and are so involved with Europe. I mean you couldn’t suddenly say, ‘oh, I don’t think we’re going to play any European music!’ ”

As for the future and whether there will be any further Great Canal Journeys, West is circumspect.

“I think we may have said goodbye to the canal programmes now; that Alsace might be the last. They are trying to get us to do more and we’re thinking seriously about it, but it will depend on Pru’s condition, and whether we want to go on.

“We love it, and there are so many places to go, but we have to think about it quite hard. I think we’ve had a pretty wonderful life. It’s been a learning curve, but we’ve got quite good at it. And to get on a boat and go off somewhere, that’s always been exciting. It does sort of restart the clock in one’s head. The world is still our oyster really…”

@JanetChristie2

Timothy West and Prunella Scales’ meander along the waterways of Europe and beyond in Great Canal Journeys has been delighting audiences since 2014. With a book of the series now out, Timothy West talks to Janet Christie about his devotion to Pru, how they cope with her Alzheimer’s disease and the importance of seizing every moment of their autumn years. Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown