Prunella looks at Queen Vic

For an entire generation Prunella Scales will always be associated with the sharp tongued harridan Sybill Fawlty. Just the sound of her voice snapping out the name “Basil” will have the most fearless male diving for cover.

By Andrew Clarke

For an entire generation Prunella Scales will always be associated with the sharp tongued harridan Sybill Fawlty. Just the sound of her voice snapping out the name “Basil” will have the most fearless male diving for cover. And who can forget her braying laugh?

And yet when you speak to her as herself, Prunella Scales comes across as one of the most laid back, relaxed people you are ever likely to meet. She chats away quite happily talking about her life, her career and more unusually about the life of Queen Victoria.

It turns out that Prunella Scales is probably one of the most knowledgeable people about the life and times of Queen Victoria in the country - having viewed and read her letters and diaries.

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In between theatre and television engagements she has spent the last 30 years touring the country presenting a unique evening of words, music and song written by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

“It's an extraordinary event,” she says with a laugh: “It's been amazingly popular and we've travelled all over the world doing the show. There have been many other films, plays and television programmes about Queen Victoria but this is Queen Victoria in her own words. This is her view of the world - which is utterly fascinating. She was a very well read, very modern woman and it's quite extraordinary what a grip she had on life in the 19th century.”

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Prunella is accompanied on stage by pianist Richard Burnett and tenor Ian Partridge who perform favourite pieces recommended by Victoria to her courtiers during her-time and pieces of music written by Prince Albert, who turned out to be a very talented composer.

“We are very lucky because every word I utter in this show was written by Queen Victoria herself. She had a tremendously long reign and she was a tremendous letter writer and diarist. She recorded everything. Not many people know that during her lifetime she even had a book published which not only have I been privileged to read but have now been able to acquire a rare first edition copy for my own collection.”

Prunella admits that during the last 30 years she has become fascinated by Victoria and her world. During the show she goes from Victoria as a young Queen - a modern, vibrant monarch who is completely in love with her German husband, Prince Albert - a young woman who was impetuous and loved dancing and opera to a very old lady living out her last days at Osbourne House and witnessing the start of a new century.

She said that one of the reasons that Victoria has remained such a popular figure is that she remained a very surprising and contradictory person. The mythical figure of the old disapproving monarch who went around telling everyone that she was not amused is not someone Prunella recognises from her writing.

“She was such a lively interested person. She had an amazing understanding of the world in which she lived.”

After her death Princess Beatrice edited three volumes of her mother's journals which Prunella said were amazingly frank. “You would have thought that perhaps in that day and age, the Queen's writings and opinions may have been censored but it doesn't appear so. They quite risqué in places, so I believe that these are indeed the full versions of the Queen's own thoughts.”

It is on these journals that Prunella has based her show. The evening starts with the young Queen's views on her own coronation and she works her way through her life, noting the birth of the modern world along the way.

The programme provides audiences with glimpses of every stage of Victoria's varied life from mother, Queen, matron and Empress as well as her relationships with Prince Albert, John Brown and Disraeli.

The show was put together at the behest of family friend Richard Burnett's wife Katrina Hendrey after Prunella mentioned during dinner one evening that she wanted to put together an evening's entertainment which she could tour round theatres.

“I originally wanted to do something about Mary Shelley but Katrina said 'Have you seen Queen Victoria's journals, there's a tremendous show in those. So she took me along to see them and I was just bowled over. They were tremendous and so between us we put this show together.”

She said the evening recognises the passionate romance between Victoria and Albert - illustrated by the fact that the couple had nine children aged under 15. “They were the golden royal couple of Europe. They adored dances and these were regular events at the Palace and at their other royal homes.”

Apart from her fascination with Queen Victoria Prunella Scales said that she enjoyed doing the show simply because it gave her a chance to portray someone moving from the age of 18 to 81. “As an actress it's a tremendous challenge. When I perform as Queen Victoria, I don't do the full dressing up with a wig and full costume, I just do my hair differently and wear something that suggests Victoria because I want the freedom to suggest Victoria at different ages.

“That's the beauty of theatre because once you have the audience with you, you can suggest all sorts of things and the audience comes along with you and does half the work for you because they are involved in the experience you are creating.

“I have played Queen Victoria on television in a documentary we did two years ago for the BBC called Looking For Victoria and in that I did have to have the full costume, wigs and make-up because you don't have that connection, that intimacy on television.”

But Prunella says she doesn't dislike working on television. “I have been very lucky in my career and I seem to have had a crack at all of the various mediums. I enjoy working in all the various forms. I love radio for instance. I think the sets are better on radio as are the landscapes. I am very grateful to radio because I've had some of my biggest successes on radio. After Henry started on radio and I am still doing Ladies of Letters for Radio 4. I also love the theatre, I really enjoy working with an audience but then again I think television is terribly exciting.”

Prunella said that once her dreams of being a dancer were dashed, there was no doubt that she was going to end up an actress.

“My mother was an actress, Catherine Scales, but I suppose I had quite a bookish, sheltered childhood. I was born in the 1930s and we didn't have television, so we had to make our own entertainment. We lived in a remote farmhouse in Surrey and I suppose I lost myself in books and dreamt I was the heroine of the adventures and it developed from there.

“I remember being taken to the theatre to see Hansel and Gretel at Sadler's Wells and I immediately set my sights on being a dancer. I wanted to be a ballet dancer but it became clear that I wasn't going to make it as a ballet dancer so I said: “Oh well I will be an actress.”

Prunella trained at the Old Vic Theatre School where her contemporaries were Joan Plowright, Colin Jeavons and Keith Michell, before moving to New York for a brief period to study at the Herbert Berghof Studios.

Then it was back to Britain where she threw herself into repertory - the classic training ground for young actors. She also joined the cast of Coronation Street playing Eileen Hughes, before in 1963, teamed up with Richard Briers in a sitcom called Marriage Lines. The show was designed as a vehicle for Richard Briers but it made Prunella into a household name.

Prunella played Kate Starling, a newly-wed, who is getting fed-up with being a housewife.

It was an incredibly popular series, tapping into the liberating feel of the 1960s and it mirrored her own experiences at the time. Just as the series got under way she married Timothy West and then three years later became pregnant in the series to mask her own pregnancy with son Sam, who is now a highly successful actor in his own right.

Yet her popularity as Kate has been totally eclipsed by her performance as the shrewish wife of Torquay hotelier Basil Fawlty in the classic BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers. As Sybil is so far away from Prunella's own character, has this ghastly woman been a millstone around her neck?

Prunella is horrified at the suggestion: “Oh no. I love Sybil. It's wonderful to be associated with something that has been so successful and so well loved. The scripts were superb - John and Connie (Connie Booth, Cleese's wife and collaborator at the time) put so much work into them and I think we did just the right number. I don't watch them all the time but when I do catch an episode, I am amazed at how good they are. They don't seem to have aged as many sitcoms from that era have done.”

But Prunella's own favourite programme remains After Henry - a long running series she did for ITV. “I think Sarah France is much more like me than Sybil ever was. She was much softer, much more vague, her life was a series of potential disasters which have to be negotiated.

“It was a lovely series which started on radio and then transferred very successfully across to television. Sybil was much more brittle. She was a lot of fun to play simply because we had so little in common. I was able to let myself go. I think she and Basil were perfect match for one another.”

An Evening With Queen Victoria is at the Chelmsford Civic Theatre tomorrow night at 7.45pm with Prunella Scales, Richard Burnett and Ian Patridge. Tickets can be booked on 01245 606505.

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