Prunella Scales

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For the band, see Prunella Scales (band).
Prunella Scales
Prunella Scales in 2010.JPG
Scales in 2010
Born Prunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth
(1932-06-22) 22 June 1932 (age 82)
Sutton Abinger, Surrey, England
Occupation Actress
Years active 1952-present
Spouse(s) Timothy West (1963–present)
Children Samuel West
Joe West
Julie West (step-daughter)

Prunella Scales, CBE (born Prunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth; 22 June 1932) is an English actress best known for her role as Basil Fawlty's wife Sybil in the BBC comedy Fawlty Towers and her BAFTA award-nominated role as Queen Elizabeth II in A Question of Attribution (Screen One, BBC 1991) by Alan Bennett.[1]

Early life[edit]

Scales was born in Sutton Abinger, Surrey, the daughter of Catherine (née Scales), an actress, and John Richardson Illingworth, a cotton salesman.[2][3] She attended Moira House Girls School, Eastbourne.[4]


Throughout her career, Scales has often been cast in comic roles. Her early work included the second UK adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1952), Hobson's Choice (1954), Room at the Top (1959) and Waltz of the Toreadors (1962).

Her career break came with the early 1960s sitcom Marriage Lines starring opposite Richard Briers. In addition to Fawlty Towers, she has had roles in BBC Radio 4 sitcoms, and comedy series including After Henry, Smelling of Roses and Ladies of Letters; on television she starred in the London Weekend Television/Channel 4 series Mapp & Lucia based on the novels by E. F. Benson. She played Queen Elizabeth II in Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution. In 1973, Scales was cast with Ronnie Barker in One Man's Meat which formed part of Barker's Seven of One series, also for the BBC. Her later film appearances include Escape from the Dark (1976), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), The Boys From Brazil (1978), The Wicked Lady (1983), The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987), Stiff Upper Lips (1997), and Howards End (1992). For the BBC Television Shakespeare production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1982) she played Mistress Page and the Theatre Night series (BBC) she appeared with her husband Timothy West in the Joe Orton farce What the Butler Saw (1987) playing Mrs Prentice. The cast of the Orton play also included Dinsdale Landen and Tessa Peake-Jones.

For ten years, Prunella appeared with Jane Horrocks in advertisements for UK supermarket chain Tesco. In 1996, Scales starred in the television film, Lord of Misrule, alongside Richard Wilson, Emily Mortimer and Stephen Moyer. The film was directed by Guy Jenkins and filming took place in Fowey in Cornwall. In 1997, Scales starred in Chris Barfoot's science-fiction film short Phoenix which was first aired in 1999 by NBC Universal's Sci Fi Channel.[5] Scales played 'The Client', an evil government minister funding inter-genetic time travel experiments.

In 2003, she appeared as Hilda, "she who must be obeyed", wife of Horace Rumpole in four BBC Radio 4 plays, with Timothy West playing her fictional husband. Prunella Scales and West toured Australia at the same time in different productions. Scales appeared in a one-woman show called "An Evening with Queen Victoria", which also featured the tenor Ian Partridge singing songs written by Prince Albert.

Also in 2003, she went to the opera and voiced the role of Magpie, the eponymous thief in a recording of Gioachino Rossini's opera semi-seria in two acts, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) in which a servant girl is condemned to death for the theft of a silver spoon snatched by a magpie presumably decorating its nest to lure a mate. Scales’ part in the melodrama is tiny but delightful. She neither sang nor spoke; she merely cawed. The rarely staged opera was performed in English for the Peter Moores Foundation series of opera in English, recorded by Chandos Records Ltd., and released on a 2-disc set of CDs under the catalog number CHAN 3097(2). Numerous fine vocal soloists and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir joined Scales and the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of maestro David Parry in a romp of this work of which only the overture ever appears in the concert house, the rest of the opera being largely neglected.

In 2006, she appeared alongside Academy Award winners Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell in the mini-series The Shell Seekers.

On 16 November 2007, Scales appeared in Children in Need, reprising her role as Sybil Fawlty, the new manager who wants to take over Hotel Babylon. She appeared in the audio play The Youth of Old Age, produced in 2008 by the Wireless Theatre Company, and available to download free of charge on their website.[6] She appeared in a production of Carrie's War, the Nina Bawden novel, at the Apollo Theatre in 2009.[7]

John Cleese said in an 8 May 2009 interview that the role of Sybil Fawlty was originally offered to Bridget Turner, who turned down the part, claiming "it wasn't right for her".[8]

She starred in the 2011 British live-action 3D family comedy film Horrid Henry: The Movie as the titular character's Great Aunt Greta.

Prunella Scales has a new short audio story, 'Dandruff Hits the Turtleneck', written by John Mayfield and available for download at

She starred in a Virgin Short "Stranger Danger" alongside Roderick Cowie.

She most recently made a guest appearance in the popular BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure as Wendy Crieff, the mother of Captain Martin Crieff.

Alongside West, she has appeared in two series of Great Canal Journeys for Channel 4 in 2014 and 2015.

Other activities[edit]

Scales appeared on a Labour party political broadcast during the 2005 and 2010 UK general election campaign. She also supports the SOS Children's Villages charity.[9]

Her biography, Prunella, written by Teresa Ransom, was published by John Murray in 2005.[10] She is a patron of the Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham.[11] In 2005, she named the P&O cruise ship, Artemis.[12]

Scales is an ambassador of SOS Children's Villages, an international orphan charity providing homes and mothers for orphaned and abandoned children. She supports the charity's annual World Orphan Week campaign, which takes place each February.[13]

Prunella is married to Timothy West, and has two sons; the elder is actor and director Samuel West. She also has a stepdaughter, Juliet. She has been known for her photographic memory[dubious ] and also speaks French.[14]

In March 2014 her husband told The Guardian that Scales was living with Alzheimer's disease.[15] She and Timothy West discussed practical measures in a radio programme about age and dementia on BBC Radio 4 in December, 2014.[16]


External links[edit]

Preceded by
Jonathan Dimbleby
President of the CPRE
Succeeded by
Sir Max Hastings