“I’m someone who makes mistakes” – Dawn French talks failure
As the taxi driver drops me off at the iron gates of a Victorian house in Wandsworth, south London, he does a double take.
“Are you visiting Sybil?” he asks, referring to the iconic Fawlty Towers character Prunella Scales played alongside John Cleese in the 1970s sitcom.
Clearly the 91-year-old actor is as much-loved today as she was when the comedy first aired on BBC Two nearly 50 years ago. She is one of the most recognised faces on television, along with her husband Timothy West, who turns 89 this month. Two national treasures with one of the longest lasting marriages in the history of British entertainment.
On October 26 they will be raising a glass for their diamond wedding anniversary at the five-bedroom home they have shared since the 1970s. And on their coffee table will be a copy of Tim’s latest book, Pru and Me, which covers their love story from the time they first set eyes on each other in the 1960s – acting together in what Tim describes as “the most awful BBC drama” – until Pru’s 90th birthday last June. “I was rather surprised to be doing another book at our age,” says Tim, sipping a glass of red wine, while his wife is having her hair done for our photoshoot.
Somehow their house is exactly how you would imagine the home of two admired thespians with colourful lives to be. We are in the living room on a big, squishy sofa. To the side is a large, polished table, where numerous dinner parties have been held. The room is packed with art, books and memories. It leads on to a conservatory looking out onto a mature enclosed garden famed for its summer parties. Hannah, their fluffy cream cat, wanders around, unperturbed by us all.
“We didn’t think our lives would still be of a great interest to people, although even in recent years we have done such a lot together,” says Tim, who appeared in the BBC hit Gentleman Jack and whose love affair with canals led to the Channel 4 show Great Canal Journeys.
As if travelling around some of the most extraordinary and remote waterways in the world for the series wasn’t challenging enough for a couple in their eighties, they were doing it while coming to terms with Pru’s diagnosis of vascular dementia, a non-curable type of dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which brings about a decline in thinking skills and short-term memory.
Her diagnosis was in 2013 and during the ten series, which aired from 2014-2019, Pru’s memory worsened.
“I was honest with the viewers about her condition – I wasn’t going to pretend it wasn’t happening,” says Tim. “As a result, a lot of viewers wrote to us to tell us they had similar situations.”
Now, in his new book, Tim has revealed how he and Pru are coping with a disease that means she is very much living in the present moment. If they go to the theatre she will enjoy the play, but later won’t be able to recall the evening at all.
In their garden – Pru’s pride and joy – the couple are cuddled up on an iron bench for our photoshoot, and Pru is planting numerous kisses on Tim for the camera. She still has that old magnetism, and with a beauty that radiates her love of life and for whatever she may be doing – if only to be instantly forgotten a few minutes later. And their packed social life continues to astound their younger friends and family. Indeed, the night after we chat, the couple are off to the BBC Proms where they will meet up with their actor son Samuel West (All Creatures Great and Small) and his wife Laura at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
They also keep in very close contact with the rest of their family – older son Joe, who lives in France, and Tim’s daughter Juliet (from his first marriage to wife Jacqueline), who is a regular visitor, not forgetting their six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Having a full house keeps Pru occupied and happy.
“Pru doesn’t have much awareness of time so when she joins me in the living room, her face lights up as if we’ve been apart for days.”
“There is a live-in housekeeper who looks after the day-to-day running of the house,” says Tim. “And she is quite capable of looking after Pru if I’m away for a bit. And if we are going anywhere special, she makes sure Pru has the right clothes and gets her hair done.”
When I say hello to Pru and explain I’ve just been talking to her husband about his new book, her face breaks out into a smile and she says, “Did he do OK?” Tim has certainly done more than OK in making sure Pru still enjoys life. But he is realistic about their future.
“For someone like Pru with any form of progressive dementia, the prognosis is not that cheerful,” he says. “But she seems to manage incredibly well with things, as I try to, but surely she must sometimes wonder whether she is going to be allowed to end her days in this house that has been so dear to us. Not recognising me hasn’t been a problem but it will come, I’m sure. There’s a lot of time you have to spend making sure Pru knows where she is and where I am. But we share a bed together, we get up, come downstairs, have breakfast and chat.”
One recent conversation over breakfast related to their good friend John Cleese, who is in the process of remaking Fawlty Towers with his daughter Camilla. He will be returning to his role as Basil Fawlty managing a boutique hotel with his daughter and navigating the modern world.
“We are both interested that he feels it’s something you could make again,” says Tim. “But it isn’t going to be the same. It’s not going to have Pru or Andrew Sachs [the couple’s close friend who played waiter Manuel and died of vascular dementia in 2016] in it. I think if it had been me, I’d have said: ‘You’ve done it. It was perfect, people loved it. What else are you going to do?’
“If that’s what John wants to do, fair enough. We are very fond of John and think he’s brilliant. But will we watch it? I don’t know.”
It’s been more than 20 years since Tim realised something was wrong with Pru, when she started to find remembering her lines more of a challenge. Her decline has been slow but has recently become more noticeable.
“Now that her condition has worsened I miss Pru’s companionship as my best friend,” he says. “I miss going to see a play or a concert together and being able to talk about it afterwards because she’s long since forgotten what she has seen. But the main thing is knowing Pru’s happy and loved.”
Tim is honest about the challenges of being his wife’s carer. Pru suffers from hearing loss and he regularly has to remind her to “put her ears in”, referring to her hearing aid. He’ll also often have the same conversation with her over and over again. But he loves being able to spend so much time with her given their careers often kept them apart in the past.
“Now we live life to the full, but stay very much in the moment,” he says. “Pru doesn’t have much awareness of time so when she joins me in the living room, her face lights up as if we’ve been apart for days. The look on her face makes me realise how much I love her.”
“I miss going to see a play or a concert together and being able to talk about it afterwards because she’s long since forgotten what she has seen.”
Keeping family close to them is important. So much so that Juliet’s daughter Kate and her husband and two sons occupied their basement flat for years. They recently moved to South Africa and, while he’ll miss them, Tim does enjoy an incredibly close bond with daughter Juliet, a hairdresser. Yet, as he reveals in the book, it was many years before father and daughter became close, following his divorce in 1961 from Jacqueline. At first Tim kept an emotional distance but in 2001 Juliet wrote to him after she read a passage in an earlier memoir in which he talked about his regrets. The rest is history.
“It’s funny that we both found it easier to write from our hearts rather than say what we mean,” he says.
Letters have also played a huge part in his relationship with Pru. Most of them have been kept and Pru has read out loud all those in the book for the audio version. Writing his memoir has encouraged Tim to look at how their relationship has changed over the years. “Instead of growing apart, which happens to some older couples, we’ve gradually become as one,” he says. “I’m not sure what we will do on our diamond anniversary, but there’ll be friends and laughter.”
And maybe a diamond necklace to celebrate? At least something more expensive than the £8 10s sapphire and diamond ring he bought for their engagement? “Oh, I’ll probably buy her something,” he smiles. “Maybe a bottle of wine.”
Pru and Me – The Amazing Marriage of Prunella Scales and Timothy West (Michael Joseph, £22) is out on September 28.
Timothy will be appearing at Henley Literary Festival, supported
by Saga Exceptional, on October 5, at 3.30pm.
Written by Pam Francis