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20 Questions With...Timothy West

Stage veteran Timothy West - who opens in the West End this week in Alan Bennett’s The Old Country - reveals the secret of his long showbiz marriage to Prunella Scales, an envy of Bill Nighy & the right way to speak classical verse.

By • West End


A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National and the West End, Timothy West’s more recent stage credits include The Master Builder, Luther, Henry IV, The Life of Galileo, National Hero and, appearing opposite his wife Prunella Scales, The Birthday Party and The External.

Earlier in his career, for the Prospect (later the Old Vic) Company, in the UK and abroad, West played Prospero, Holofernes, Claudius, Enobarbus, Bolingbroke and Shylock. He has also undertaken many performances for Chichester Festival Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

In the West End, he has taken leading roles in Gentle Jack, The Italian Girl, Abelard and Heloise, Exiles, Hedda Gabler, The Homecoming, Beecham, Master Class, When We Are Married, The Sneeze, It’s Ralph and Twelve Angry Men.

On television, West has appeared in Brass, Bleak House, Bedtime, Murder in Mind, New Tricks, Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. His film credits include Beyond Borders, The Fourth Angel, Iris, Villa des Roses, The Day of the Jackal, Ever After and Joan of Arc.

West’s autobiography, A Moment Towards the End of the Play and the handbook So You Want to Be an Actor?, co-written with his wife Prunella Scales, are published by Nick Hern Books. West is also an accomplished director. For his services to the arts, he was made a CBE in 1984. West and Scales’ son, Samuel West, is also an award-winning actor and, currently, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

West was last seen in the West End in English Touring Theatre’s King Lear - his third go at the role – in 2003. He’s now back in the West End with another ETT production, a revival of Alan Bennett’s 1977 play The Old Country, directed once again by ETT artistic director Stephen Unwin. After a six-week regional tour, it opens this week for a limited season at London’s Trafalgar Studios.


Date & place of birth
Born 20 October 1934 in Bradford, Yorkshire.

Lives now in
South-west London, on Wandsworth Common. We’ve lived in the same house for 30 years, put down roots there, and we love it. We’re 12 minutes’ walk from Clapham Junction, so we never use the car.

What made you want to be an actor?
The short answer is it’s in the blood. Not only my mother and father, but my mother’s father as well, were in the business. I lived amongst actors for a long time, and saw a lot of plays, of course. When I was very young, my father was in weekly rep at Bristol, so apart from a few plays that I was kept from I saw a play a week. My father always said he would rather that I’d done what he called a proper job; and for about three years, I tried to. I sold office furniture for a short time, but not very much of it. And then I worked for two years as a junior recording engineer for EMI, which I did enjoy because I am very fond of music. But I was a member of so many amateur dramatic societies that really it was using up too much of my energy, and so I decided suddenly to take the plunge. On the 27th of February this year, I celebrated being in the business for 50 years. I started off as a student ASM (assistant stage manager) at the Wimbledon Theatre, which was then a weekly repertory company. On my first day, they were dress rehearsing Summertime, and they said they needed a farmer in a scene with a couple of lines, gave me a costume and told me to get on the stage. So on my first day in the business, I was saying lines in the evening!

First big break
I didn’t go to drama school – in those days, a lot of people didn’t. If you could get into a good rep, you kind of learned the practical way. In some ways, that gets you off to a quicker start; but in others, you learn later that you’ve missed out on a lot of things. For instance, I have always been an appalling dancer, and I’m not much good at fencing, which I would have learned at drama school. The first time I put myself on the map was Afore Night Come, the David Rudkin play at the RSC, which was a very remarkable play and made a particular stir at the time. I’d worked with Clifford Williams, who had directed me in the play we’re not allowed to mention years before at Canterbury. I was just bobbing along, doing a play here and a play there, and he sent me this play and asked me to play a rather minor part. I read it, and thought, “my gosh, actually, there’s a much better part that I’m absolutely right for”. So I cheekily replied, and he said, “you’re right!” The other part was then played by David Warner, so I don’t have to feel too badly about it. That put me on the map. But the first time anyone knew my name was when they did Edward VII for ITV, a 13-part series. It was a very lucky break, and brought me some national recognition.

Career highlights to date
They’d all be quite separate – there wouldn’t be a pattern. In the theatre, the things I’ve especially enjoyed don’t have to be good or you don’t even have to be good in them. There are a variety of reasons for enjoying them. But certain things were blissful to do, like Beacham, for instance, which was lovely. I also thoroughly enjoyed playing Dr Johnson in three versions of the play. I’ve enjoyed Lear all three times I’ve done it. It’s such a challenge and so rewarding to find new things each time, and to look at it from slightly different viewpoints because of the way one has moved on as a person and society has moved on. I first did it when I was something ridiculous – I think I was 37. And last did it three years ago, when I was… older!

Favourite co-stars
The assumption when you talk about co-stars is as if one is in a starry position, and I’m not. But there are lovely people that I like working with. I only once worked with Eileen Atkins on a television film of Oliver Twist in which I played Mr Bumble, and I think she is actually the best actress we have in this country now. I love working with Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, and loved working with Glenda Jackson before she left us for pastures new. It’s difficult to name everyone – I’d have to look through Spotlight!

Favourite directors
I’m very fond of Stephen Unwin obviously, who is directing The Old Country. I’ve also worked with his brother Paul at Bristol Old Vic, where I was his associate for a time. I like working with Richard Eyre enormously; and Harold Pinter is I think a wonderful director. I’ve never worked with him on his own plays, but on the plays of others. Because he’s established as a playwright and actor, he doesn’t need to say “I’m a director too, and this is my stamp”. He just tells the story, and he’s always concerned with serving the writer. As for directing myself, I find it awfully difficult to combine both jobs, as I suspect Sam will too (his son, Samuel West). It’s a question of time. If you want to direct something, you have to lay aside a whole lot of lead time for the casting, talking to designers, and research. And if during that time you were offered something to do as actor that was very inviting, you’d want to do it, and that’s very difficult.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare, Marlowe, Middleton and Webster. Of modern playwrights, Pinter, always, but also Stoppard, Frayn, Peter Nichols, and Bennett of course. And going back a bit, Rattigan and Coward up to a point, though I don’t think I’m a Coward person.

Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
The stage, of course. Not because I don’t like the idea of filming – I do actually enjoy it and I enjoy television particularly - but it’s just that, if you want to do good writing, you have to stick with the theatre, don’t you?

What's the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
I suppose the one that really made me want to be up on that stage was Richard Burton’s Hamlet. I think it was 1952, and I just wanted to be there. Most recently, I thought the National did a splendid production of Pillars of the Community, it was terrific. I love Ibsen – I should add him to my list of favourite playwrights - but I always thought that was an almost impossible play.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
They just need to realise that we speak in the most widely spoken language in the world, with arguably the greatest dramatic literature – so can we not subsidise it as if it were any other industry, to make it doubly available?

If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I suppose there wasn’t anything else I wanted to become, which is why I became what I did become. But, if I’d stuck with EMI, I suppose I would have worked towards becoming a classical recording producer.

What roles would you most like to play still?
They get a bit thinner as you get older, of course, and they’re probably not leading roles now. I’d like to play Polonius in Hamlet, or Menenius in Coriolanus. And there are things I’d like to go back to, still – I think I’ll leave Lear for a bit, but I wouldn’t mind another go at Prospero. I did Galileo last year, and I wouldn’t mind having another go at that.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
At the moment, I think it would be Bill Nighy. Sometimes you look at an actor and you can see the trajectory - I can see he’s going to go up and up and up, that he can do any part ever written and he’d be bloody good in all of them. I want to say: “Good luck to you, and I wish I was you!” But I’m not a bit like him, so there’s no danger of it!

Favourite holiday destinations
We’ve been to all sorts of places. We have rather a large family, and a few years ago, we made the decision we’d do Christmas for them every second year. So every other year, we’ll nip off somewhere – we’ve had Christmases in Egypt, India and South America; that’s our treat. But we also love this country very much – I love exploring this country. We have a narrow boat and we love getting on it and travelling around.

What’s the secret to a successful showbiz marriage?
We always say the secret is long and frequent separations! It keeps the relationship at fever pitch when we see each other. There’s a certain truth in that, but I think it would be no good if you didn’t thoroughly respect the other person’s work and their attitude to it. We both feel the importance of teaching, which in a way chrystallises what we really feel. We’ve just done a book together. It took rather a long time, but (publisher) Nick Hern had done a book with Stephen Unwin about how to be a director. We thought, “why not have a companion?” so we did How to Be an Actor. It’s the same sort of format, not too chatty. We got a bit of criticism that we don’t go into our personal experiences of how we played a particular part or found our way through a complex scene, but I don’t think that’s what we wanted to do at all. Pru has had a biography written about her, and I’ve done my own autobiography – we don’t want to get lost in anecdotage. There are wonderful books by actors already, from Harriet Walter and Simon Callow, who spoke of how they coped with particular situations and the way out of them, but Simon’s Simon and I’m me and I don’t see it that way. This is a practical guide, we hope. Pru and I have worked together quite often. On the whole, we’ve turned down offers to do things as a married couple, partly because we feel it’s a bit of a cheat for the audience – if the relationship on stage is meant to be jagged or irresolute, they’ll think it’s all right really, which is not doing the author any favours. Also, there’s a tendency to think if you appear as a married couple, it’s set up as a vehicle.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
I think probably from John Barton years ago in the RSC, when I hadn’t done an enormous amount of work yet. He said: “Just remember that anything you say in classical verse is exactly what you mean. And if you detracted in any way from any of the words or punctuation, it would mean less.”

What's your idea of perfect happiness?
To go on living in the house I am living in. Without the telephone and without the computer - but with someone coming around every so often with a script for me to do.

What made you want to accept your role in The Old Country?
It’s a play that I saw and liked very much in 1977, and I remember well. It struck me that it had a very, very particular kind of feel about it, and quite unlike Alan’s other plays about specific, real people who were spies, this is about an imaginary man. It’s an analysis of his own feelings about whether he could go back home and what he’d like to find back there, and whether in fact he should be trying to find reasons to go back or reasons not to go back. What’s it like following in the footsteps of Alec Guinness (who played the role in 1977)? Well, you’ve always got to be following in the footsteps of somebody, haven’t you? But we’re very different sorts of actors. I don’t feel I’m trespassing on his property.

You’ve worked regularly with English Touring Theatre. How important is touring to you?
I think that by nature I’m a touring person. Quite possibly that’s something I inherited from my mother and father, who were touring actors for most of their lives. But I also think that’s really basically what you should be doing as actors: reaching that whole audience all around the UK who are critical and enthusiastic. So many actors think that people ought to come see us; but I think we have to go and see them, at least some of the time. Every audience is different, and the physical nature of different theatres is a challenge, but I think the rewards more than match the challenges. I love the fact that when you’re playing to a regional audience you can so often meet them, off duty as it were. You might see them at the bus stop or in the pub or the gift shop, which you don’t if you’re playing in the metropolis. It becomes more of a two-way exercise. But also regional audiences on the whole do not see quite so enormous a depth of product. Metropolitan audiences will come out saying “that was lovely, but do you remember that production at the RSC?”, whereas in a regional theatre, if you know what you’re doing, they’ll say “what a wonderful evening in the theatre” or “what a wonderful play that was”. I don’t want them to come out saying “isn’t Timothy West amazing” – I don’t give a damn about that. I want them to come out having really enjoyed the play and thinking, “gosh, the theatre is a wonderful thing and maybe we’ll go again next week”. It’s absolutely essential that a company like ETT doesn’t get locked into the classics only. You do need revivals of modern plays, too, and this is one of the ones that has been rather neglected. The two things feed each other.

What discoveries have you made about the play in rehearsals?
We make discoveries all the time. It’s an extraordinarily profound play. Alan’s writing is absolutely fascinating, it touches very lightly on themes which you have to bear in mind because they’re going to be treated a little more exhaustively later. It’s full of pre-echoes of things that are really only going to work if you remember that something was said about it earlier. My favourite line from the play is “I remain, of course, firmly in two minds”.

What are your plans for the future?
There’s nothing firm yet. I want to do a play with Sam in Sheffield in the autumn that will probably feature the two of us. I’ve directed him, but he’s not directed me yet!

- Timothy West was speaking to Mark Shenton.


Following a regional tour, The Old Country opens at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios on 20 March 2006 (previews from 13 March) and continues for a limited season to 16 May 2006.


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