The Big Interview: Timothy West

The impish grin makes his eyes disappear into deep crevasses in his face as Mr West says: “Call me Tim, unless you’re cross with me”.

His is a familiar, unmistakably square-hewn appearance. You look at the jaw and the brows etched into a very useful arch that can serve to underline expressions of surprise, scepticism or low cunning, and echoes of some of his stage and screen characters come to mind.

Ah yes, that face and voice have lent themselves to a string of historical characters on stage and screen, from Stalin to Churchill, Dr Johnson to Sir Thomas Beecham, the suspected serial killer Dr John Bodkin Adams and King Edward VII. He has played the great stage roles including King Lear, Claudius, Enobarbus, Prospero, Shylock, Falstaff and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

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He is loved by the RSC and the National, and outside his professional life, is a champion of Britain’s seaside piers and inland waterways, a canal boat owner who (with his actor wife Prunella Scales, best known as Sybil in Fawlty Towers) roams far and wide. He is also a great supporter of the Labour Party and President of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda).

He has played many dozens of roles on radio and audio books. He did a brilliant turn as Sir Leicester Dedlock in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House, and his film credits include Day of the Jackal, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Joseph Andrews.

But the role that first brought Tim West to the attention of a mass audience was his wonderful portrayal of hard-faced Yorkshire industrialist Bradley Hardacre in three seasons of Brass, between 1982 and 1990, which was described as “northern satirical soap meets Dallas”.

Scanning the sheaf of densely-packed pages that list West’s professional credits, it’s apparent that, unlike actors with matinee idol looks or those who hold out in the hope/expectation of always being the star, he has worked pretty much consistently throughout the last 50-odd years. It’s bewildering how he has fitted it all in.

Apart from the early years of apprenticeship in repertory, he has invariably landed meaty roles that furthered his craft in some sense, and satisfied what he calls a desire to follow a “zig-zag” route, stepping sideways to try new things, rather than a steady, predictable and single-minded upward trajectory in pursuit of success in one field.

He modestly says he “has various bits and bobs on the go” and pauses for a moment to bemoan a certain discrimination he’s experiencing about the fact that his voice is that of a well-spoken 77-year-old.

“Radio producers are starting to say that the voice is a little bit ‘old’, and a problem my son (the actor/director Sam West, who was briefly artistic director of Sheffield Crucible) have is that they want a rather ‘matey-er’ style, with the glottal stops, and feel we are being a bit patronising in the way we speak.

“But the point of being a decent actor is that you know how to disguise your natural voice. Anyone who has worked in rep doing 42 plays a year, as I did, pretty much has to learn how to do every style, period and regional dialect.”

But perhaps we’re getting off on the wrong foot here, as Tim West doesn’t really seem the moaning type. He’s cheerful, thoughtful, engaging company but yes, he does have strong feelings about the teaching of English and drama, and some young actors’ poor (or non-existent) grasp of Shakespeare.

He proudly calls himself a Yorkshireman, having been born in Bradford in 1934, the son of actors Olive and Lockwood West. His father was appearing in rep at the city’s Prince’s Theatre for a month when his firstborn arrived.

Lockwood had entered acting at 23, having previously worked in the offices of Doncaster Collieries. Tim and his younger sister Pat had to move schools regularly due to their father’s peripatetic profession. His parents struggled to get money together to put a deposit on a property, and although their son showed leanings towards acting early on, the idea was discouraged.

“It wasn’t sold to me as a noble profession. Mum gave up the stage after my sister was born, and dad was reasonably successful in the West End and in the odd film, but they felt it was not a great situation to bring children up in. So for a long time I thought I should do something else, even though I was in every drama society within reach.”

The aspiring thesp first sold office furniture, then moved on to work as a trainee sound engineer with EMI, which suited his great love of music. But he spent hours when he should have been working learning lines from scripts kept tucked beneath the desk. One day the boss told him he felt it was time West pursued what he so obviously really wanted to do.

“My father wasn’t too pleased at first, but once he saw that I was making a life in the theatre and doing all right, he was proud,” says Tim.

His career started as a student assistant stage manager in rep at £1/10s a week, doing everything from selling tickets to playing a non-speaking policeman or gardener. Several years in repertory, first in Wimbledon, then Newquay, Hull, Worthing and Salisbury eventually led to a West End break in the farce Caught Napping, in 1959.

Another important breakthrough came when he was cast by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Afore Night Come by David Rudkin, a piece of critically acclaimed experimental theatre about psychotic pear pickers, which opened at the Arts Theatre in 1962.

Suddenly he was, as he puts it, on the map. It wasn’t long before he and other stage actors were also in demand to record plays for TV, on Sundays when theatres were dark.

But the wide range of skills drummed into young actors back then is redundant today, he says in a matter-of-fact tone. “That kind of versatility doesn’t stand you in very good stead on TV. What casting directors want you to be is exactly whatever they last saw you in, otherwise it confuses them.

“They don’t listen to audiences, who genuinely get bored with seeing the same actors doing exactly the same kind of role repeatedly – for instance, a particular kind of Cockney. The other thing is that if you work in the theatre a lot, as I do, then the television people have lost you. They never go to the theatre, so many think you’re dead or retired.”

That said, and notwithstanding that he says his age means he is probably doomed from here on in to small parts in TV as “an elderly knife attack victims or a senile hospital patient”, Tim West will be on our screens next spring as Lord Pirrie, boss of Harland and Wolf, the Belfast company which built the doomed liner, in the four-part drama Titanic.

He and others also have a plan afoot to tour with Ronald Harwood’s The Handyman, the story of a 76-year-old exiled Ukrainian who is accused of war crimes. It seems ironic that he is considered perfectly capable of rendering an exiled Eastern European but his command of an English accent is criticised.

A treat for West’s Yorkshire fans is in store in the meantime. He is marrying his love of classical music with the famous acting skills in a tour of the semi-staged production Intimate Letters, which is at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre for one night only next week (Nov 30).

He portrays Leos Janacek, the Czech composer who, in 1927 wrote a passionate second string quartet called Intimate Letters, inspired by the billets doux he wrote to a married woman 40 years his junior.

Kamila Stosslova was unmoved by the composer’s impassioned letters and fearful for her own reputation. She rarely replied, but Janacek wouldn’t be the first artist to be stirred up into creative froth by unrequited love.

Paul Allen’s script chronicles the creation of the autobiographical quartet, which is played by Ensemble 360.

“In his head Janacek was having romantic affair with the girl,” says West. “He was married and she was married with kids. She knew he was potty about her but didn’t want to encourage him. It’s an extraordinary story, a one-sided and absolutely pointless affair, but it did fill him with enormous creative energy.

“It’s an amazing piece of music, but it does, as some pieces of music do, invite some mind of textual comment for elucidation. I’ve done this sort of thing before ...but this is particularly well written piece by Paul Allen, describing how the composer was so excited by his own feelings that he turned them into music.”

West says he “wasn’t very bright” at school, but adores history and is famous for his forensic research for every part. The family ‘firm’ is good at pitching in together to help with preparation for a new role.

“We don’t like the word ‘dynasty’. It’s a family business, and like any family business it’s a pool of resources, sympathy, encouragement, advice – and money sometimes. We’re all very critical of each other, but helpfully so, I think.

“There are enormous things to be said for theatrical marriages, I think...Unlike being married to a dentist, say), you can come home and say you’ve had an awful day in rehearsal, and she may tell you about the problems she’s had filming something or teaching. We give it an hour, we understand and sympathise with each other, then we get over it and say ‘let’s go out for dinner’.”

Intimate Letters is at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on November 30. Booking 01723 370541, www.sjt.uk.com