Starring alongside John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty as his long-suffering wife Sybil, British actress Prunella Scales is best-known for her role in the iconic BBC sitcom, Fawlty Towers. The 85-year-old actress has enjoyed a long and successful career on the stage and screen.
In recent years, she has refused to let her diagnosis of dementia affect her quality of life and in May this year, the actress and her 82-year-old husband, fellow actor Timothy West, jetted off to India to film a new TV series, Great Canal Journeys.
Although the couple say Prunella’s dementia has changed their lives, they are grateful that the diagnosis has enabled a treatment plan to be put in place. During an interview with the charity, Age UK, the actress said they had made “adjustments” to their lifestyle, so they could cope with the condition. She also revealed that actors liked to think they could carry on till they dropped – and she was no exception.
Prunella was born in 1932 to salesman John and actress Catherine Illingworth. She followed in her mother’s footsteps by entering the entertainment business, starting her career with a job as assistant stage manager at the Old Vic in Bristol in 1951.
It wasn’t long before she broke into television as an actor, with her first role being in the 1952 version of Pride and Prejudice, in which she played wayward Lydia Bennet. She began using her mother’s maiden name as her stage name.
She got her big break in the early 1960s when she starred in Marriage Lines – a sitcom co-starring Richard Briers. It ran from 1963 to 1966 and revolved around newlyweds George and Kate Starling, with the gentle comedy encompassing ordinary domestic situations.
Prunella went on to star in Fawlty Towers with Cleese from 1975 to 1979. Broadcast on the BBC, only two series were ever filmed but the show was voted number one in the British Film Institute’s 100 greatest British TV programmes. Cleese said the Basil Fawlty character was inspired by a very rude hotelier he met while on the road filming with the Monty Python team.
Played by Scales, Sybil was a perfect foil to Basil’s crazy antics as he epitomised a hugely frustrated, social climbing middle-Englander. Sybil will always be remembered for nonchalantly eating chocolates in bed, gossiping on the phone to her friend and venomously spitting out the word “Basil” when he had upset or annoyed her. It became a cult series and despite Prunella having worked on many more shows since, she will always be remembered for Sybil Fawlty.
In her private life, Prunella married Timothy West in 1963 and their marriage is still going strong 54 years later. The couple have appeared in a number of productions together, including What the Butler Saw in 1987 and BBC Radio 4’s plays based on Rumpole of the Bailey.
It was Timothy who first noticed something was wrong with his wife around 18 years ago. He said he noticed her struggling slightly when she appeared in a play, having to think hard about her lines, which just wasn’t like her. Timothy took his wife for some tests and the doctor diagnosed a vascular condition rather than Alzheimer’s.
They describe Prunella’s dementia as “pretty manageable” due to the early detection and drugs. Timothy said its development had been slow and they believed it was a mild form of dementia.
Timothy says he’s much more patient than he used to be, as Prunella sometimes forgets what she has said and repeats herself several times. He continues to work as an actor and when he’s absent during filming, their housekeeper helps with Prunella’s day-to-day life.
Their first series of Great Canal Journeys was broadcast on More4 in March 2015. The second series, filmed this year for Channel 4, involved Prunella and Timothy exploring India’s Kerala backwaters. The 1,000-mile route of palm-fringed lakes and rivers includes some British-built waterways. It is described as the most challenging trip that Tim and Prunella have undertaken.
The couple travelled the unknown territory of the Brahmaputra river in northeast India. They were determined that Prunella’s illness wouldn’t hold them back following their earlier trips around the UK and Venice. They have now completed filming the series, during which Prunella dusted off her dancing shoes and learned a traditional Kerlan dance, called the Dance of the Enchantress.
Although they have no objection to going public about Prunella’s dementia to raise awareness, she joked how she didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to her condition, as she intended carrying on working as an actress for as long as possible and didn’t want people saying, “Don’t employ Pru – she can’t remember anything!”
Kinderkey’s Stellan complex care system beds can improve comfort and safety for people who are at risk of falling or climbing out of bed, including people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Please contact us for details of our home visits to assess your most suitable option.