Award-winning actor Prunella Scales talks to Yang-May Ooi about South London, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and family life, exclusively for the Dulwich Picture Gallery Friends online magazine.
As a student training at the short-lived Old Vic Theatre School, Prunella Scales lived for a time in Tulse Hill. She would come down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery regularly to look at the paintings as part of her professional theatre training, encouraged by one of her teachers, Litz Pisk. “You can learn so much from these wonderful paintings,” Prunella told me on the phone. “It’s not just about the costumes. You can get a feel for the different periods and there’s a parallel between the clothes and historical context of the time.”
“In medieval clothing, the hennin headdresses and lines of the gowns, like the gothic architecture of that era were about that society’s aspirations towards God. During the Renaissance, the clothing was wider and broader, reflecting the broadening of horizons and the exploration of the world. In Victorian times, which was a period of restriction for women, the upper clothing pinched the woman tightly while the lower part of the body, the child-bearing aspect, were emphasized. And the Edwardian age was an age of hypocrisy – you can see it in the buttoned up top of the collar while the curves of the bust and posterior were accentuated.”
Whether or not the Dulwich Picture Gallery might have played a part – albeit tangentially – in the success of Prunella’s programme, “An Evening with Queen Victoria”, Prunella’s fondness for the Gallery remains today. For her, it is an “excellent gallery where the permanent collection is very re-visitable” and she always tries to see all the seasonal exhibitions if she can.
Her son Samuel West went to Alleyn’s School and she would often share the school run into Dulwich with other parents in her neighbourhood. They would also use public transport, getting the bus from Clapham. These days, with the children grown up, she and husband Timothy West, an award winning actor in his own right, often use the tube, travelling for free with the OAP “creeps’ card”, as she calls it.
“People say to me that you don’t often find famous actors taking the tube. But I think public transport in London is great. If you’re worried about being recognised, you can always put on sunglasses and a headscarf.”
It always seems so glamorous from the outside when we look at the lives of famous actors. We tend not to think about how difficult and uncertain a career in the performing arts can be. Prunella told me that the toughest part of a life in drama is being out of work. Most actors, especially women actors, are lucky to work 13 weeks out of a year – there are just not enough roles to go round.
“I’m lucky to be working more often than that, but it means I’m taking parts away from other actresses. It’s a terrible thing. Funding of the performing arts in the UK is less per capita than any other country in Europe – and here we are with arguably the richest literary and dramatic heritage in the world and there are not enough performing arts events for British-based actors. Timothy and I used to tour the world for the British Council in full cast Shakespeare plays and if we wanted to take the children with us we could just afford it, though it would cost nearly all our savings.”
She would never encourage anyone into a career in the performing arts. When her son, Samuel, told her he wanted to be a professor of chemistry, she couldn’t believe her luck. However, later, when he was doing his ‘O’ levels, he confessed he wanted to be an actor, and Prunella went to speak with his form master to ask what fall-back Samuel could have other than bricklaying (the answer: IT). As it turned out, Samuel has been pretty successful as an actor and director so you won’t be seeing him laying bricks anytime soon.
For Prunella, good writing is the key factor in any production she chooses to be involved in, whether for theatre, TV, film or radio. Good direction and costumes as well as an excellent cast all help create good drama. But it’s always the writing she looks at when considering any project. She’s a great fan of radio drama, too – the special effects are cheap but very powerful as it’s all in the listener’s imagination: for example, on her 50th birthday she played a 7 year old child in a radio play. “I couldn’t do that on the silver screen without a lot of CGI effects.”
Coming from a family of actors going back several generations, they all make sure they see each other’s shows and yes, they discuss each other’s acting. “The first thing you have to say after a show is “Well done!” she explained. “Then it’s the “Darling, you know the bit where…..” conversation. We can’t help it!” Prunella is currently working on “Gertrude” one of a series of “clever monologues” by Benedick West and a play by Arnold Wesker.