Prunella Scales

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Prunella Scales
Prunella Scales in 2010.JPG
Scales pictured in 2010
BornPrunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth
(1932-06-22) 22 June 1932 (age 86)
Sutton Abinger, Surrey, England
Other namesPru
EducationMoira House Girls School, Eastbourne
Years active1952–2014
Timothy West (m. 1963)
Children2, Samuel West & Joseph West
Family1 stepdaughter, Juliet

Prunella Margaret Scales CBE (née Illingworth; born 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] She has a younger brother, Tim ("Timmo").

Scales' parents moved their family to Bucks Mill near Bideford in Devon in 1939 at the start of the Second World War. Scales herself (and her brother) were evacuated to Near Sawrey in Cumberland (as the county was known at that time).


Scales started her career in 1951 as an assistant stage manager at the Bristol Old Vic. 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.[5]

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), Howards End (1992) and Wolf (1994). 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.

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.[6] Scales played 'The Client', an evil government minister funding inter-genetic time travel experiments. The same year she played Dr. Minny Stinkler in the comedy film Mad Cows, directed by Sara Sugarman. In 1993 Scales voiced Mrs Tiggy-Winkle in The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends.

In 2000 she appeared in the film The Ghost of Greville Lodge as Sarah. 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. 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 voiced the speaking ("cawing") role of Magpie, the eponymous thief in a recording of Gioachino Rossini's opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie).

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.[7] She appeared in a production of Carrie's War, the Nina Bawden novel, at the Apollo Theatre in 2009.[8] In 2008, she appeared in Agatha Christie's, A Pocket Full of Rye, as Mrs. Mackenzie.

John Cleese said in an interview on 8 May 2009 that the role of Sybil Fawlty was originally offered to Bridget Turner, who turned down the part, claiming "it wasn't right for her".[9]

She starred in the 2011 British live-action 3D family comedy film Horrid Henry: The Movie as the titular character's Great Aunt Greta.[5]

Prunella Scales appeared in a short audio story, Dandruff Hits the Turtleneck, written by John Mayfield, and available for download.[10]

She starred in a Virgin Short "Stranger Danger" alongside Roderick Cowie in 2012.[11] In 2013 she made a guest appearance in the popular BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure as Wendy Crieff, the mother of Captain Martin Crieff.

Alongside husband Timothy West, she has appeared in Great Canal Journeys for Channel 4. Stuart Heritage, writing for The Guardian in November 2016, commented that it "is ultimately a work about a devoted couple facing something huge together. It’s a beautiful, meditative programme".[12]

Personal life[edit]

Scales is married to the actor Timothy West, with whom she has two sons; the elder is actor and director Samuel West. She also has a step daughter, Juliet, by West's first marriage.

Her biography, Prunella, written by Teresa Ransom, was published by John Murray in 2005.[13]

She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1992 Birthday Honours List. Her husband received the same honour in the 1984 Birthday Honours List.

Other activities[edit]

Scales is an ambassador of SOS Children's Villages charity.[14] 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.[15]

Scales is a patron of the Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham.[16]

In 2005, she named the P&O cruise ship, Artemis.[17]

Later life[edit]

In January 2013, Scales told the Daily Mail that her short term memory was fading. In addition, she could not remember the year of birth of her two sons, nor when she and Timothy West married.[18] In March 2014, her husband told The Guardian that Scales was living with Alzheimer's disease.[19] The couple discussed practical measures in a radio programme about age and dementia on BBC Radio 4 in December 2014. In August 2015, it was reported that Scales's condition had worsened considerably to the point that she can barely remember any of her fifty-three years of marriage to West.[20][21]


  1. ^ "1992 BAFTA Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  2. ^ "Prunella Scales Biography (1932-)". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  3. ^ "Image: British TV stalwart Best [...]". 28 July 2012. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  4. ^ "Home". Moira House. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  5. ^ a b "Happy 80th Birthday, Prunella Scales! - Anglophenia - BBC America". BBC America.
  6. ^ "Phoenix". SPIKE. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  7. ^ "The Youth of Old Age". Wireless Theatre Company. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  8. ^ "Scales joins Carrie's War in West End". 6 March 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  9. ^ "Fawlty Towers almost didn't happen for Prunella Scales, according to John Cleese". Daily Mirror. London: Trinity Mirror. 8 May 2009. ISSN 9975-9950. OCLC 223228477. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  10. ^ "Dandruff Hits The Turtleneck Audiobook". 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  11. ^ "Credits". 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  12. ^ Heritage, Stuart (7 November 2016). "'It's like glimpsing an old couple holding hands': why I adore Great Canal Journeys". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 December 2016.
  13. ^ Ransom, Teresa (2005). Prunella: The Authorised Biography of Prunella Scales. London, UK: John Murray. ISBN 9780719556975. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  14. ^ "Our friends". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  15. ^ "SOS Children: Sponsor a child with our charity". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  16. ^ "Patrons". The Lace Market Theatre. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  17. ^ "Artemis". P&O Cruises. Archived from the original on 5 May 2008.
  18. ^ "Richard Briers battling chronic lung disease... as lifelong friend Prunella Scales has shocking confession of her own - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online.
  19. ^ "Prunella Scales suffering from 'a sort of mild Alzheimer's'". The Guardian. 4 March 2014. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  20. ^ "Suppose I Lose It". BBC Radio 4. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  21. ^ "Prunella Scales's dementia is so bad she forgot show she'd just seen". Mail Online. Retrieved 20 February 2018.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Jonathan Dimbleby
President of the
Campaign to Protect Rural England

Succeeded by
Sir Max Hastings