WE ARE STILL AMUSED
From Sybil Fawlty to Queen Victoria, the past is ever present for Prunella Scales
INTERVIEW with DEBBIE KRUGER
She performed the role she is possibly best known for Sybil in the hilarious British television series Fawlty Towers nearly 30 years ago. There were only 12 episodes, yet the character endures to this day.
She has also embodied the regal persona of Queen Victoria on and off for more than 20 years. Her stage show An Evening With Queen Victoria comes to Melbourne for four performances at the Victorian Arts Centre on November 6 and 7.
Before, between and after Sybil and Victoria have been hundreds of parts, both historical and contemporary. Her first career break was in the long-running British TV soap Coronation Street in 1961. Since then Scales has appeared in many television productions, in feature films including The Boys From Brazil, A Chorus of Disapproval and Howard’s End, and in plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and major West End producers.
She hasn’t a preference for either historical or modern works, but imperious females have certainly figured in her repertoire, and stories from times past are constantly appealing.
“There is this fantastic heritage that the English speaking people have. We are so lucky. We work in the most widely spoken and understood language in the world, with arguably the richest dramatic literature. We should exploit it and explore it and take it abroad,” she says.
Sybil Fawlty, though hardly a historical figure, might well have thought herself regal. The sharp-tongued harridan, married to John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, is one of television’s most memorable shrews. Scales is nothing like Sybil, but doesn’t mind that people still identify her in that way.
“To have a success in a popular television sitcom is a huge piece of good fortune. Because it means that the next thing you do people will take the giant step from the pavement into the building to see what you’re doing. If you’ve done your job right they’ll enjoy it as much as they did the other thing. They won’t come away thinking, “Oh, she wasn’t as funny as she was as Sybil Fawlty. They’ll think, ‘Oh, what an interesting play. I’m so glad we saw it, I wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t seen Fawlty Towers.’ That’s what you hope for.”
If Australian audiences flock to An Evening With Queen Victoria hoping to see Sybil in a robe and crown, they’ll be disappointed. But if they want to see great acting prowess and learn about an often-misunderstood monarch, there will be rich rewards.
“I think in her own way Queen Victoria is just as interesting and entertaining a character as Sybil Fawlty ever was,” Scales says. “She’s probably more touching because she’s a little bit more vulnerable.”
Scales became fascinated with Queen Victoria while on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1970s, performing in The Hollow Crown, which depicted the history of England in the words of the monarchs. “My favourite bit was Queen Victoria’s account of her coronation, because I thought it was very funny and very touching,” says Scales. “I took as background reading her published journals. And I was just fascinated by them. They’re absolutely brilliant, terribly surprising and very intelligent.”
When approached soon after by director Katrina Hendrey to do a solo show about Queen Victoria, Scales suggested incorporating the diaries, which Victoria had written from the age of 13 until her death at 81.
The extracts from Victoria’s journals tell quite a story, and Scales is keen to dispel some common myths. “I think the general feeling about Queen Victoria is that she’s this forbidding old matron who shut herself away in Balmoral after her husband’s death. ‘We are not amused’ is the most famous thing she ever said.
“Actually, she was a very passionate, very vulnerable, intelligent and highly amusable person, throughout her life.”
Scales trained under Uta Hagen at the Herbert Berghof Studios in New York, where the Stanislavsky system, which evolved into the commonly known “method”, was employed. It emphasises an individualised, psychological approach to acting and total immersion in the character.
|Scales is quick to distance her own personality from Victoria, Sybil or any of the roles she has played. “To me the actor is the valve through which the writing is delivered to the people who’ve paid that night. And whatever you can do to facilitate that delivery is what your job as an actor is. I think perhaps some press people have this idea that you use what you’ve got; you indulge that in order to play the part. And I always say the reason I wanted to be an actress was because it gave me a chance to play people who are infinitely more interesting than I am and to say things infinitely more entertaining than anything I could think of myself.”
“I think my desire to be an actress comes from an intense diffidence about myself,” Scales divulges. “I’d so much rather say other people’s lines than my own. The way I was trained was that you are the least important person in the building; what is important is what the writer is trying to say, and you are going to impersonate the characters in order for him to say it.”
Occasionally history and modern day will collide, as happened when Scales played Queen Elizabeth II in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution. “That was enormous fun, because a reigning monarch had never been depicted on stage before. I think we had to get permission from Buckingham Palace. And that was marvellous. It had just been called the “Royal” National Theatre, and there was a sort of gasp when I walked on.
“I had a letter from one of the Queen’s staff who said when I came on he got to his feet automatically. I was terribly flattered.”