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After 50 years in the spotlight, Prunella is still scaling the heights

PUBLISHED: 11:12 11 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 September 2010

With 50 years of experience under her belt, including acclaimed performances with the RSC and as John Cleese s overbearing wife in Fawlty Towers, Prunella Scales might be forgiven for resting on her laurels. But, complacency is not in the 74-year-old s na

With 50 years of experience under her belt, including acclaimed performances with the RSC and as John Cleese's overbearing wife in Fawlty Towers, Prunella Scales might be forgiven for resting on her laurels. But, complacency is not in the 74-year-old's nature, discovers Bridget Galton

PRUNELLA Scales is typically dissatisfied with her acting. It's not until the second week of a theatre run that the

74-year-old finally feels she's nailed the role.

That's not because she doesn't know what she's trying to achieve - but because there's no room for complacency in Scales' vocabulary.

Despite 50-odd years in the business, she still strives for improvement and insists that in any drama "the actor is the least important person in the equation".

"They are just a contributor, responsible for delivering the writing to the people who have paid that night in the most informed and truthful way," she says.

"The better the writing, the more stimulating it should be. If it works and people say, 'Well done,' well, that's a lovely buzz. But, on the whole, the best things I have done have been written by people infinitely more intelligent and talented than I am - like Pinter, Simon Gray or Shakespeare."

Scales has a formidably lengthy acting CV that ranges from Coronation Street in the 60s to classics with the RSC and, of course, her best-loved role as John Cleese's monstrously overbearing wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers.

"Very often, working is not a question of choice. You are just lucky to be working," says Scales, who has been married to fellow actor Timothy West for 43 years.

"My husband and I have been in the business for 100 years between us. We have been extremely lucky to be pretty well constantly employed. But you can never rely on it - it's a dodgy business."

Her latest role is one of a series of monologues at Hampstead's New End Theatre penned by her relative Benedick West.

In Gertrude's Secret, she plays the title role of a lonely woman harbouring a violent revelation as she awaits a phone call on her birthday.

"It's a series of beautifully written very clever monologues," says Scales.

"Ben is an individual writer and, although he is a dear friend and relation, I wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been good. I don't think you should ever do something as a favour. That doesn't serve the writer, the actor or the audience."

Like similar monologues by Alan Bennett and Stewart Permutt, most contain a surprise or interesting development that subverts character expectations.

Gertrude's Secret was originally presented as a lunchtime show at the King's Head in Islington this autumn. But Scales' involvement has ensured an extended life at the New End.

"I am looking forward to playing it again. There is something very stimulating about repeating something in front of different audiences. You learn something with each performance and the thing grows," she says.

After years performing her one-woman show, An Evening With Queen Victoria, Scales is only too aware that, with a monologue, "you only have yourself to blame and rely on".

"When you have other actors, they bring different things to the relationship and that's exciting. The interaction between the writer, the participants and the audience can grow, spark and create something special."

Scales was born Prunella Illingworth and took her actress mother's maiden name when she went onto the stage.

She has acted since her schooldays and confesses she never really thought about doing anything else.

She studied at the Old Vic Theatre School - Joan Plowright was in her year - before travelling to America to train under method teacher Uta Hagen.

She is extremely proud that the youngest of her two sons, Sam, has become a famous actor and director (currently running the Sheffield Crucible Theatre) but admits to early qualms about him continuing the acting dynasty.

"When he was eight, sitting over the breakfast table, he said, 'Mum, do I have to be an actor?' With two parents, grandparents and great grandparents as actors, bless him, it was all he knew. He said, 'I really want to be a professor of chemistry.' I couldn't believe my luck.

"When he was 11, I said, 'I am going to talk to your form master about O-Levels. What do you want to do when you leave?' And he said, 'I suppose I want to be an actor.' I told the form tutor, 'He's got to do bricklaying at O-Level so he has a craft and can pay the rent when he is out of work.'"

Fortunately, none of the Wests have been forced to take to laying bricks during their prestigious careers. But Scales is vociferous about British theatres feeling the financial squeeze.

"Theatre is ludicrously under-funded. We have this wonderful language - the most widely spoken in the world - a wonderful literary and dramatic heritage and a number of splendid regional theatres. But we pay less per capita towards the performing arts in this country than in any other country in Europe apart from Portugal.

"When we were young, Tim and I used to tour the world with the British Council and we could just afford to take the children with us. You couldn't get the funding for a two-person recital programme these days. It's so short-sighted."

Scales advocates funding-performed readings of all set theatre texts for GCSE and

A-Levels so youngsters can hear plays performed.

"When Tim and Sam were doing Henry IV together, two boys came up afterwards to say how fantastic the performance was. They asked, 'Who did the translation?' They had been taught so badly that when they heard it spoken by professional actors it sounded like a different language."

She also wants actors' union Equity to become a closed shop again so young actors have to gain a set amount of experience to earn the right to perform.

"You can get anyone off the street to play the right part in a TV thing. But if they want to be an actor of any quality they need to go to drama school for a year - preferably with a grant."

For herself, Scales aims to continue striving towards the rewards of her profession.

"The biggest buzz I know is hearing people falling about at a 400-year-old joke and knowing you have helped."

o Gertrude's Secret runs at the New End Theatre until February 11.

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