Timothy West is a veteran of stage and screen. He talks to Chris Bond about his career, his wife’s illness and why he’s swapped Shakespeare for Albert Square.
THE voice on the other end of the line isn’t the one I was expecting.
“Is Timothy there, please?” I ask, hesitantly. “I’ll just go and fetch him,” replies the familiar voice, which for many people will forever be synonymous with Sybil, the indomitable and long-suffering wife of Basil in Fawlty Towers.
Timothy West is a man in demand right now and not just by me. He turns 80 later this year but rather than sit by the fireplace and reminisce about a career that stretches back nearly 60 years and has seen him work alongside the likes of David Niven, Judi Dench, Denzel Washington and, more recently, Chiwetel Ejiofor, he’s back on our screens in EastEnders playing Danny Dyer’s father, of all things.
He also returns to Yorkshire in July when he appears in The Pity of War at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival. He will read some of Wilfred Owen’s poems accompanied by internationally-renowned pianist Martin Roscoe and acclaimed violinist Matthew Trusler, who will perform sonatas by Elgar, Janácek and Debussy written during the First World War.
This summer marks the centenary of the start of the war, a war that has become synonymous with the likes of Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry captured both the bravery and terror of life on the front line.
“Of all the First World War poets Owen is the one who best describes the day to day life absolutely beautifully,” says West. “Rupert Brooke is a great poet in a different way but Owen is the most significant for me. He doesn’t imbue the poems with jingoistic fervour and he doesn’t shy away from the graphic details.”
Neither men survived the war. Brooke died on a Greek island in 1915 after a mosquito bite turned septic, while Owen died in action just a week before the war ended – his mother received the news of her son’s death on Armistice Day as the church bells rang out in celebration.
“Owen’s poetry is very powerful and it’s also a very good accompaniment to music, so I’m very much looking forward to coming to Harrogate.”
For West it’s a welcome return to a county he has huge affection for. He was born in Bradford although as he explains he very nearly wasn’t. “My dad was an actor and he was working up there in the theatre when I was born. If it had been a week later it would have been Eastbourne.”
Although he now lives in London he still has close ties with Yorkshire. His sister lives here and his son, actor and director Sam West, was artistic director of Sheffield Theatres for a time.
West himself grew up in Bristol and vividly remembers the Luftwaffe attacks during the Second World War. “The city was very badly bombed. They used to target the docks and aviation factory especially on Sunday nights for some reason.
“I remember waking up one morning and thinking what a lovely sunrise because I could see these flickers of pink light. I got up and opened the curtains to get a better view and the pink light was the heat of flames across the city.”
After the war West became interested in acting and performing, although his father did his best to dissuade him from following in his footsteps. “He was a perfectly successful actor but he never made enough money and he told me to get a ‘proper’ job, which I did for a while.”
He worked as a furniture salesman although he admits he didn’t sell much of the stuff and then as a recording engineer with EMI, “I enjoyed that a lot because I’ve always been very fond of music.”
Throughout this period he was involved in various amateur dramatic societies and eventually decided or was encouraged, to be more accurate, to take the plunge and make a living from it.
“My boss sat me down one day and said why didn’t I start looking for acting jobs seeing as I was devoting most of my energy towards it. So he did me a favour really.”
He became assistant stage manager at the Wimbledon Theatre where he started doing weekly rep. “I worked from the bottom up and that’s how I got to learn the ropes.”
It was an invaluable experience. “I saw how everyone worked, the stage painters, the box office, electricians, as well as the actors and directors. It was a very good grounding and it makes you much more sympathetic towards people.”
His first season was in Newquay before he was sent to Hull with the Salisbury Arts Theatre. “If you did well in Hull you were allowed to go to Salisbury afterwards,” he says. However, he doesn’t have warm memories of his time in Hull. “I was there all through the winter and it wasn’t very jolly. I’ve been back since and it’s a totally different place, but at the time it felt very much like you were at the end of the railway line.”
He made his London stage debut in 1959 and went on to spend three years with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s. For West, being part of the RSC was a tremendous honour. “TV wasn’t enormous like it is today and to be a member of the RSC was the pinnacle of any young actor’s achievements.”
He was there when Sir Peter Hall was at the helm. “He made this wonderful decision that the RSC would have two theatres, one in London and one in Stratford. You couldn’t do challenging work without making some reference to modern society but on the other hand you couldn’t do modern work without mastering difficult texts and this worked like a dream.”
During his career he’s played many of the biggest stage roles including King Lear, (three times), Macbeth and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. He’s also appeared in films such as The Day of the Jackal (1973), Cry Freedom (1987) and Endgame (2009), while his TV credits include A Very Peculiar Practice and Brass.
He is regarded as a consummate craftsman and enjoys the different challenges that working in theatre and TV throw up. “I think it’s essential to do a bit of all of them but if I had to go for one I’d plump for the theatre. Mechanical media have their pleasures but with the theatre you’re telling one story to a specific audience that is there in front of you.”
It’s perhaps strange then to find out that he’s joined the cast of EastEnders. West plays Stan Carter, a former Billingsgate fishmonger and father of Mick, played by Danny Dyer, who is landlord of the Queen Vic. “He doesn’t behave very well and he’s not universally loved by his family,” he says of his new character.
West is known for his great Shakespearian roles and some people might question whether working on a TV soap does justice to his acting talents. But he disagrees. “You have to inhabit a character, it doesn’t matter what their history is, you still have to get inside them and get them right.”
He’s been impressed by the quality of the writing and says that just because he’s well known doesn’t mean people will automatically enjoy watching him in EastEnders.
“They’re good stories and they have been nicely written. Hopefully people will like the character but then again they might not and they might start putting things through my letterbox.”
Being in the TV soap will certainly bring him to the attention of a new audience, although it comes at a time of personal anguish for him and his family. Following the recent travel documentary series Great Canal Journeys it was revealed that his wife Prunella Scales was suffering from “a sort of mild Alzheimer’s”.
It’s obviously come as a devastating blow but West feels compelled to speak out about it.
“We’ve had a lot of letters of support and gratitude for talking about it,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who have this problem and they just sit on it.
“But I don’t think it’s fair to family and friends to pretend it’s not happening when it evidently is. There are people who are much worse than poor Pru so we’ll just keep on going.”
Many people would have called time on their careers in the circumstances, but West isn’t one of them.
“We’re all just cab drivers waiting around for our next fare, “he says. “Plus, somebody’s got to play the old buffers and I’m not ready to stop.” “Nor am I,” his wife chips in defiantly.
Timothy West is appearing in The Pity of War accompanied by pianist, Martin Roscoe and violinist Matthew Trusler, who will perform the sonatas of Elgar, Janácek and Debussy written during the Great War, on July 13. The event is part of the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, which takes place between July 10 and 13 at the St George Hotel, Harrogate. For more information: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime or call 01423 562 303.