The road less travelled

I’m sat with Timothy West and Prunella Scales on a drizzly Saturday morning, enjoying a cup of tea in the drawing room of their south London home. We’re meeting at the weekend because – rather aptly – West is currently on the road with Ronald Harwood’s The Handyman, and Saturday morning is the only spare moment he can snatch before the show moves on to its next tour date.

The couple, married since 1963, will be jointly recognised this weekend with The Stage award for outstanding contribution to British theatre at the Theatre Awards UK. Over both of their long and varied careers, they have been utterly dedicated to British theatre, but especially theatre outside London.

Between them, West and Scales have performed at the vast majority of theatres across the British Isles – from Orkney to Plymouth. “I think we’ve ticked most of them off over the years,” says West. “Although we haven’t done anything in the Scilly Isles.”

Both were born into acting families, while one of their own children, Samuel West, has, very successfully, also followed in the family trade.

“Tim’s parents were both actors,” says Scales. “And my mother had been an actress but gave it up upon her marriage. So our poor children have two parents, three grand­parents and two great grandparents in the business.

“When I first started, I kept very schtum about my mum being an actress, because you were meant to be this raw, working-class person like Albert Finney, with no theatrical links at all.”

But for West especially, touring was in his blood – he was a “touring baby”, born in Bradford as that was where his father, Lockwood West, was playing at the time.

“I very much still enjoy life on the road,” he says. “I love playing to the people in the evening that you see in Sainsbury’s in the morning. You feel part of a community. I personally feel a lift of the spirits every Monday when I’m in a different place, a different theatre. Pru has had to be dragged into this world by force, but she quite enjoys it when she gets there.”

“Tim is a touring freak – he loves to travel,” adds Scales. “I don’t like opening the front door to get the milk in, but I totally, totally believe in the whole philosophy of touring.”

That philosophy is based on the idea that theatre should be taken to an audience, rather than waiting for them to come to it. “My parents spent most of their lives either touring or in weekly rep, so I still think of myself and actors generally as essentially strolling players who ought to move around,” says West.

When the pair started out in the 1950s, they both worked their way up in the repertory system, taking positions as acting assistant stage managers and moving first to company roles and then to star parts in theatres across the country.

“Repertory was a brilliant way of learning the job,” says Scales. “Audiences teach you such a lot. It’s a great misfortune for young actors nowadays not to have that sort of experience”.

[pullquote]“The thing I miss is that when we go on tour with a show like this, it’s what has come to be known in the profession as the ‘Harvey Nichols tour’ – you go to comfortable places, not too far away... I long for the rugged, northern, bigger theatres that we always used to go to with drama[/pullquote]

West fears younger performers are being put off touring by agents who encourage them to hold out for television jobs, with regional theatres – and audiences – missing out as a result.

“It’s very hard to convince [younger actors’] agents to allow them to tour,” he says. “It does make a difference – younger actors who have some kind of presence in current television do make a difference to a show’s box office. People sometimes sniff and say, ‘why do we have to have TV acts in order to sell?’ – but [the fact they’ve been on TV] doesn’t mean they can’t do it, sometimes they’re absolutely brilliant. I’m sure some would welcome the chance to go and play Macbeth in Northampton, but their agents are advising them not to.”

Scales might be familiar to millions for her turn as Sybil in Fawlty Towers, but her stage career has encompassed Shakespeare, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Oscar Wilde and her long-running, one-woman show An Evening with Queen Victoria. Most recently, she appeared in the West End adaptation of Nina Bawden’s novel Carrie’s War, in 2009.

West, meanwhile, is perhaps best known for his Shakespeare performances on the stage, having played Lear three times and Macbeth and Falstaff twice. But he has also taken parts in plays by Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, and is an avid supporter of new writing.

Both are keen to underline the versatility that the repertory system can give to actors, and are concerned about a growing tendency to cast people to type.

“We grew up in the school where acting was pretending to be other people, and you yourself were the least important person in the world,” says Scales. “It’s something we don’t celebrate [any more] and I don’t quite understand it, I’m afraid.”

West, who is in Malvern this week with The Handyman, is also concerned that the market for touring drama in the UK is shrinking. He recalls a time when large-scale Shakespeare productions would tour the length and breadth of the UK.

“The thing I miss is that when we go on tour with a show like this, it’s what has come to be known in the profession as the ‘Harvey Nichols tour’ – you go to comfortable places, not too far away, such as Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, Guildford, Richmond, Bath. All lovely theatres, but I long for the rugged, northern, bigger theatres that we always used to go to with drama – Newcastle, Liverpool Empire, the Leeds Grand – all these wonderful theatres that were a joy to play. But now those theatres only host opera, musicals, one-nighters and stand-up comedy.”

Another part of the industry close to the couple’s hearts is the training of young actors. They co-authored a book, So You Want to be an Actor?, while West is president of LAMDA and Scales takes classes at the Actors Centre in the West End.

They are both concerned, though, that the rising cost of drama tuition is likely to narrow down the pool from which future generations of actors are drawn.

“We’re going to get only the actors who can afford it going to drama school,” says Scales.

“It’s going to have a selective effect,” adds West. “We’re already beginning to feel it at LAMDA when we do a north country play – nobody there is from [anywhere] north of Coventry. This is silly.

“Another thing that upsets me is how drama graduates get taken up in their graduation year. At LAMDA we do a two-year postgraduate course, where some of our finest actors come from, but the agents and the casting directors are not so ready to pick people up ‘if they are already 24’. That is worrying.”

As for themselves, they’re not ready to hang up their acting boots yet. Scales is keen to play some of the older women in Shakespeare’s plays, while West has a specific role he’d like to revisit.

“I wouldn’t mind doing Prospero again,” he says. “I haven’t played the part since 1967. Most of the parts I would have liked to play I’m too old for now. But I’d like to think there’s a part for me that hasn’t been written yet.”

The Theatre Awards UK, organised by the Theatrical Management Association and sponsored by The Stage, takes place on Sunday, October 28