Long before she won immortal fame as Sybil in Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979), Prunella Scales had built a formidable television career, beginning with Pride and Prejudice (BBC, 1952), as the flighty Lydia Bennet. She attempted to forge a film career at the same time, with appearances in Hobson’s Choice (d. David Lean, 1953) and Room at the Top (d. Jack Clayton, 1958), but most of her best-known work has been for television, and specifically in comedy.
Born Prunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth on 22 June 1932, she was the daughter of actress Catherine Scales, and trained at the Old Vic Theatre School, then with Uta Hagen in New York. She is of the generation that learned its craft in repertory theatre playing a wide variety of parts, which has stood her in good stead in her subsequent career. Perhaps the key to the success of her many ‘monstres sacres’ is the way in which she makes them recognisably true-to-life, before tipping them slightly but hilariously over the edge.
The future queen of British television sitcom made her first real impact in the genre with the very popular The Marriage Lines (BBC, 1963-66), in which she and Richard Briers played the Starlings, young newlyweds coming to terms with married life. A decade on, having worked in a variety of genres, from the single play to literary adaptations such as Saki (ITV, 1962), she cemented her reputation with her most famous character, Sybil Fawlty – big hair, over made-up, loud, vulgar, tottering on high heels in tight skirts, dominating and emasculating, with a bray of a laugh memorably described by her husband Basil as “someone machine-gunning a seal” – but also capable of turning on the charm to placate the many hotel guests he had offended or insulted, as well as being a much more capable manager of the hotel than Basil. John Cleese recently revealed that Scales had not been the first choice for Sybil, but it is now impossible to imagine anyone else in the part, despite the petite and dainty Scales’ utter physical dissimilarity to the character.
She impersonated another monster in 1986, when she teamed up with Geraldine McEwan and Nigel Hawthorne for the incomparable television version of E.F. Benson’s stories of Mapp and Lucia (ITV, 1985-86). As Miss Elizabeth Mapp, Scales is spiteful and frumpy and a terrible snob, who reigns as the queen of social and cultural life in Tilling-on-Sea (a thinly-disguised Rye in Sussex), until the arrival of sophisticated widow Mrs Emmeline Lucas, aka Lucia, and her devoted accomplice Georgie. Beneath a veneer of politeness and etiquette, the two women become archrivals for control of Tilling’s social scene, with garden parties, bridge or musical evenings and afternoon teas as their battleground.
From the queen of Tilling, Scales has more recently played two real-life Queens, Victoria and Elizabeth II, in, respectively, Looking for Victoria (ITV, 2003) and Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution (BBC, 1991), in which she delivered an uncannily convincing portrayal of Her current Majesty. There were echoes of Tilling, too, in her witty rivalry with Patricia Routledge in the successful radio series Ladies of Letters (later transferred to television with different actors), just one highlight of a long radio career.
But closer to Scales’ own mild-mannered, softly-spoken persona was Sarah France, heroine of the bittersweet After Henry (ITV, 1988-92). The fortysomething Sarah, recently widowed and sandwiched domestically between a manipulative, gossipy mother and a teenage daughter alternately demanding support and independence, gave Scales her longest sitcom role.
Alongside such showcase roles, she has undertaken an astonishing range of character parts: with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a starry spoof The Hound of the Baskervilles (d. Paul Morrissey, 1977); as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982) for the BBC TV Shakespeare cycle; the kindly but verbose Miss Bates in Emma (ITV, 1997); and the indomitable Dottie in a series of Tesco commercials. Latterly, she has turned her hand to directing and holding masterclasses in comic acting, as well as continuing to act in the theatre. Married since 1963 to distinguished actor Timothy West and mother of successful actor/director Samuel West, she has, like several actors of her generation, found herself part of a thespian dynasty.
Photo © Rann Chandric