Happy Birthday to actress Prunella Scales, best known for her role as acerbic Sybil Fawlty in the classic comedy “Fawlty Towers”, who turns 88 today.
Born in Surrey on June 22nd, 1932, she is the daughter of cotton salesman John Richardson Illingworth and his wife Catherine, who was an actress. As a child she attended an all-girls school in Eastbourne and her family moved to Devon during World War Two.
Even in childhood she had a strong interest in acting, probably inherited from her mother, and her first job – in 1951 – was as an assistant stage manager at the Bristol Old Vic theatre. It gave her access to the world of theatre, and a chance to observe and learn from some of the greatest actors and actresses of the day.
Gradually she moved from the wings to the stage, first in small supporting roles, but soon graduating to bigger parts as directors noticed her natural talent. She chose to use her mother’s maiden name, Scales, in her professional life. There were early film roles too, including playing alongside Charles Laughton and John Mills in the 1954 hit “Hobson’s Choice”, followed by parts in “Room at the Top” (1959) and “Waltz of the Toreadors” (1962).
It was also around this time that Prunella met and fell in love with fellow up-and-coming actor Timothy West, the couple marrying in 1963 and later having two sons, plus a step-daughter from Timothy’s previous marriage. Their eldest son, Samuel West, has followed in his parents’ footsteps, becoming an acclaimed actor.
Prunella’s first big break came in the early 1960s’ sitcom “Marriage Lines”, starring opposite Richard Briers. By now she had established a strong reputation as a versatile actress, but with a particular aptitude for comedy. More TV work followed, and radio roles too, making the most of her distinctive and characterful voice. But there was stage work too, including a highly-acclaimed starring role as Queen Elizabeth II in Alan Bennett’s “A Question of Attribution”.
Her career-defining role came in 1975, in the first six-episode series of “Fawlty Towers”, a sitcom set in a chaotic Torquay hotel run by the perpetually perplexed, snobbish and often downright rude proprietor Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese. Prunella was cast as his bossy but efficient wife, the only one able to completely intimidate her husband. He lived in fear of her wrath, but behind her back or under his breath describes her variously as “the dragon”, the “toxic midget”, “my little Kommandant” and “the sabre-toothed tart”!
The series was an immediate hit, followed by another six episodes in 1979, and all 12 episodes now regarded as classics of British comedy. Such success can lead to typecasting, but Prunella escaped that trap and continued to appear in a variety of roles on TV, film, radio and occasionally on the stage. In 1987 she appeared with her husband in the Joe Orton farce, “What the Butler Saw”, working with him again in 2003 when they appeared in four BBC Radio 4 “Horace Rumpole” plays, starring as husband and wife.
Most recently, she has appeared in 10 series of “Great Canal Journeys” on Channel 4, together with her husband and, occasionally, their children. Throughout their married life they have taken regular holidays on canal barges, some of which they owned, exploring Britain’s inland waterways. These popular programmes see them revisiting their favourite canals and waterways, initially in Britain but later exploring much farther afield in France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Venice, India, Egypt, Argentina, Canada, Vietnam and Cambodia.
With the couple both now in their eighties, their canal journey programmes also touch on Prunella’s growing difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease, which she made public in 2013. In particular, she struggles with short-term memory loss, and the scenes in which she and her husband try to cope with the changing dynamic of their loving 50-year-plus relationship, are a touching and pivotal part of the programmes. The programmes have earned praise from the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK for their frank and open portrayal of the condition and its impact on everyday life and relationships.
For her services to drama, Prunella was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s 1992 Birthday Honours, her husband having received the same award in 1984. As she turns 88 today, we join with her army of fans in wishing many happy returns to a much-loved actress.