British Actor

Prunella Scales is an established star of British situation comedy, although she has also won praise in a wide range of other productions, including straight drama both for television and the stage. Television viewers are most likely to associate her, however, with the classic John Cleese comedy Fawlty Towers, in which she played the unflappable Sybil to Cleese's appallingly inept hotelier Basil Fawlty.

As Sybil Fawlty, the archetypal gossipy and battle-hardened nagging wife who in her husband's eyes was more of a hindrance than a help (though in truth she spent much of her time smoothing, with carefully rounded vowels, the ruffled feathers of guests her husband had offended), Scales was deemed perfect. Employing all the skills she had acquired from her early experience in repertory theater and subsequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other leading troupes, she easily countered the manic ranting of her screen husband, ensuring that life--such as it was--could carry on at Fawlty Towers. When not seeing to her monstrous coiffure, her Sybil took desultory pleasure in providing her husband with new irritations, usually guaranteed to send him into paroxysms of helpless rage. As a mark of the degree to which the performances of Scales and Cleese were essential to the success of the series--widely judged a classic of television comedy--an attempt to make a U.S. version under the title Amanda's, with a cast headed by Bea Arthur of Golden Girls fame, was a total failure (even though, in desperation, some episodes were duplicated word for word).

Scales had previously cut her teeth as a television performer playing bus conductress Eileen Hughes in Coronation Street and also as co-star of the series Marriage Lines, a relatively conventional husband-and-wife situation comedy in which she was paired with Richard Briers. As Kate Starling in the latter production she charted the up and downs experienced by typical newly-weds in the 1960s, wrestling with a range of more or less mundane financial and domestic problems (later complicated by the arrival of their baby).

In the wake of the huge success of Fawlty Towers, Scales enjoyed further acclaim from critics and audiences alike in the role of the widowed Sarah in Simon Brett's After Henry, a compassionate and often hilarious comedy that was equally successful first as a series for radio and subsequently on television. When not contemplating the future course of her life as the widowed mother of a teenage daughter, she indulged in entertaining sparring with "mother", played by the redoubtable Joan Sanderson.

Other highlights of Scales's career in relatively recent years have included her performance as Elizabeth Mapp in the television version of E. F. Benson's Edwardian Mapp and Lucia stories, in which she was cast opposite the equally distinguished Geraldine McEwan. Another triumph was her enthralling impersonation of Queen Elizabeth II in a much-acclaimed television version of Alan Bennett's celebrated play A Question of Attribution, which concerned the relationship between the monarch and her art adviser Anthony Blunt, who was fated to be exposed as a spy for Communist Russia. On the stage, meanwhile, she added another monarch to her list of credits when she impersonated Queen Victoria in her own one-woman show.

Considered one of the most technically proficient actresses of stage and screen of her generation, as well as an accomplished occasional director, Scales has continued to divide her time between television and the theater throughout her career, sometimes appearing in partnership with her real-life husband actor Timothy West. In 1996, in recognition of her skills, she was invited to share some of her secrets concerning acting as part of a short series of master classes on the art of comedy performance.

-David Pickering

Prunella Scales
Photo courtesy of Prunella Scales

PRUNELLA SCALES (Prunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth). Born in Sutton Abinger, Surrey, England, 22 June 1932. Attended Moira House, Eastbourne; trained for stage at the Old Vic Theatre School, London, and the Herbert Berghof Studio, New York. Married: Timothy West in 1963; children: Samuel and Joseph. Started in repertory theater in Huddersfield, Salisbury, Oxford, Bristol Old Vic and elsewhere; performed in theater seasons at Stratford-upon-Avon and Chichester Festival Theatre, 1967-68; also acted on London stage; had greatest success on television as Sybil in Fawlty Towers, 1975; subsequently appeared in numerous sitcoms and plays; also teaches and directs theater. Companion of the British Empire, 1992. Address: Jeremy Conway, 18-21 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6HP, England.


1963-66 Marriage Lines
1975, 1979 Fawlty Towers
1985-86 Mapp and Lucia
1988, 1990 After Henry
1994 The Rector's Wife
1995 Searching


1953 Laxdale Hall
1954 What Every Woman Wants
1954 The Crowded Day
1959 Room at the Top
1962 Waltz of the Toreadors
1976 Escape from the Dark
1977 The Apple Cart
1979 Doris and Doreen
1982 A Wife Like the Moon
1982 Grand Duo
1982 Outside Edge
1983 The Merry Wives of Windsor
1985 Absurd Person Singular
1987 The Index Has Gone Fishing
1987 What the Butler Saw
1991 A Question of Attribution
1994 Fair Game
1995 Signs and Wonders


Hobson's Choice, 1953; The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1978; The Boys from Brazil, 1978; The Wicked Lady, 1982; Wagner, 1983; The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, 1987; Consuming Passions, 1988; A Chorus of Disapproval, 1989; Howards End, 1992; Second Best; Wolf; An Awfully Big Adventure.


After Henry.

STAGE (selection)

The Promise, 1967; Hay Fever, 1968; It's a Two-Foot-Six-Inches-Above-the-Ground-World, 1970; The Wolf, 1975; Breezeblock Park, 1978; Make and Break, 1980; An Evening with Queen Victoria, 1980; The Merchant of Venice, 1981; Quartermaine's Terms, 1981; Big in Brazil, 1984; When We Are Married, 1986; Single Spies, 1988; The School for Scandal, 1990; Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1991; Mother Tongue, 1992; Happy Days, 1993; The Matchmaker, 1993.