Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • TIMOTHY WEST • 2003

A Proper Actor

 Timothy West in the foyer of the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames [Wikimedia]

Timothy West in the foyer of the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames [Wikimedia]

What do we mean by ‘a proper actor’? I know what I mean and its quintessence is Timothy West, a truly ensemble strolling player. His love for and support of theatre is a lesson to us all.

Meeting him shortly before rehearsals for the transfer of English Touring Theatre’s exquisite production of King Lear to the Old Vic, I was struck by the presence of a man who seems totally at home with his place in the world, whether it’s Bradford, where he was born, The Cut in Waterloo, Dublin or his own comfortable, book-strewn home in south-west London, which he shares with his wife Prunella Scales — another ‘proper actor’. West does not need fame to feed an ego.

Our twenty-first century Lear was born in Bradford purely because it happened to be where his father, the actor Lockwood West, was playing at the time. Being born ‘in harness’ had a considerable influence on him. ‘I’ve always had the wanderlust, he says, ‘but I suppose, professionally, it also means that I think that touring seems to be the situation in which I feel most useful, anyway, and happiest.’

Happiness and having fun is as important to West as the detailed work he puts into exploring a character. To hear that a performer of his standing is so keen on taking theatre round the country is reassuring. ‘I find it astonishing that so many actors — younger actors, mostly, or perhaps it’s their agents — say, “I don’t tour”. To me it’s like hearing a musician saying, “I don’t play in E flat.” It seems cutting off a terribly useful limb of your own and also your audiences. And why would one assume that audiences would want to come 100 miles to see you? You’ve got to go and see them for a first time.’

For a while, he did not admit to anyone that he wanted to act. The delay provided him with useful material. ‘My parents were rather keen that I should do a proper job and for a time I tried. But I think it was always there. And I don’t regret coming to it later than I would have done if I’d thought about it immediately from school, because I think the more you learn about other people who aren’t related or concerned with the theatre, the better it is for you. I mean, when you go into the profession, you’re not going to play other actors, are you, you’re going to play people, politicians and crooks and greengrocers.’

Actors are well-known for praying that their offspring will choose not to follow in family footsteps. West’s parents were not exactly horrified but they ‘heaved a sort of sigh,’ he says. ‘And later they began to be quite keen, I think, because at least it gave us something to talk about! They were very hard-working actors, my father in particular. My mother stopped acting regularly when my sister was born five years after me. But my father seemed very much involved in all sorts of things.’

As the offspring of actors, we agree that it is impossible to know whether we would have gone into the business if our childhoods had not been so imbued with it. ‘The other thing about my generation, who came from theatrical families,’ adds West, ‘was that it was something you didn’t talk about because it was unfashionable. If you wanted to get on in the 50s, the late 50s, it was better to have a father who was a miner or a doctor, a trade union politician — but “actors!” Whereas now, you know, every second person you meet is the son or daughter or grandchild.’

And, of course, his eldest son Samuel followed him into the business. The two have appeared on stage together, most memorably as Falstaff and Prince Hal. But he and his wife decided, not so long ago, that they would never again appear together as a husband and wife. ‘I think as much for the audience’s sake as our own,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy, I think, if you are a married couple and you play a married couple — or a couple, anyway — who are involved with each other, it does so easily look like “a vehicle” which you’ve chosen for yourselves. Whereas, in most cases, and certainly in all our cases, it’s never been like that. The temptation to do that is now extraordinary. Nowadays, we get rung up with them saying, “What play would you like to do together?” And we say “fuck off!” you know. “Could you just send us a play and one or other of us might like to do it. Probably not both.” “Have you got a play?” they say. “Don’t ask us to choose your repertoire.” ‘

But as he says, that’s the way it seems to go now. ‘We both feel very strongly that it’s… if you’re playing a jolly comedy, okay, that’s fine and everybody feels happy and satisfied but if you’re doing a play where there’s any kind of friction or any doubt of the outcome of the relationship, it’s cheating the audience because they can sit back and say, “Oh, it’s alright, they’re married really.” And that’s not doing the playwright or the production a service.’

Did he have a clear idea, when he started out, of the kind of career he was looking for? ‘I suppose I wanted two things, really. I wanted to be able to do a great variety of things and I so much didn’t want to be typecast that I thought it was important to go on trying to surprise people. That’s why I don’t think I’ve had what I understand most people to mean by “career” — that you set your heart on a particular goal and you say, well, the way to do that is to do that and this is the path I’ll stick to and I’ll pursue it and I’ll tick off the milestones and I’ll eventually get there. I’ve never done that, nor has it really appealed to me. I’ve done a lot of side-stepping but in the process I think I’ve learnt a lot, probably got better at what I do, and — have more fun which is important.’ That word ‘fun’ again. 

He has done three productions of King Lear in his time, two of them playing the lead. The first was for the Prospect Theatre Company in 1971, the second in Dublin just over a decade ago. ‘I think it’s an unusual part,’ he says, ‘in that you can keep going back to it and the more you’ve thought about it, the more you’ve uncovered. I think if I was attacking it for the first time now, I would be very frightened. But I think I’ve made enough discoveries and perhaps made enough decisions about it, and now that I’m about the right age — I don’t think he’s any older than me; I think if he’s decrepit, if he’s of real retirement age, then the fact that he retires and his children are nasty to him is just a tragedy of ingratitude and it’s about much more than that, isn’t it? He’s committed the great Shakespearean sin of abdicating from power when he’s still capable of wielding it. He wants to go on being treated like a king; he just doesn’t want to do the work. And therefore, it’s about the disruption of the state and to his family.’

The capacity to observe others is vital for an actor and West loves observing people. ‘Fifty of them can be an amalgam that suddenly gives you the shape and the look and the sound and the feel of the person perhaps.’ This attention to detail pays dividends on stage at the Old Vic where his Lear is at once potent and frail, humorous and tragic, selfish and generous. The slightest lowering of an eyelid or lift of the mouth, the unexpected inflection — all of this and more has you not only enthralled but able to understand exactly what this king is thinking and feeling. My late mother, a manic-depressive, once said — mid-mania — ‘I’m not mad. My mind is simply disarranged’. West illuminates this beautifully by tapping into the sanity within Lear’s madness.

And his fellow strolling players are giving no less luminous performances, making the whole a production that engrosses from first to last. Students of acting, and Shakespeare (particularly the reluctant ones) will find the clarity of director Stephen Unwin’s staging a revelation. English teachers take note!

West and I go on to discuss the current state of education in this country which worries most of us, or should do, and is certainly a subject close to West’s heart. He often talks to schools, and the day before we meet had visited one. Staff tell him that they ‘don’t do’ music or history or they ‘won’t do’ languages ‘because everybody speaks English really’. ‘There’s a lot of that, it would surprise you,’ West tells me. ‘Even in really rather good schools. Talk to them about science or computer engineering, then they’re spot on.’

When I ask him what he thinks might help potential audiences to recognize how much enjoyment they could get from a visit to the theatre, it is education to which he turns. ‘And it’s not educating people in different subjects, it’s educating people to think more broadly about what might be important and what might satisfy students. Education is becoming, for one reason or another — none of them good, I think — more and more to do with focusing people on a particular route to eventually making a career and making money. And it’s not what education used to be about. And it’s certainly not what university education is supposed to be about. But sending or trying to send fifty percent of young people to university to study a very narrow band of subjects with the determination to get on better than the boy or girl next to you, doesn’t seem, to me, what life is about.’

Nor does it to me. Students may know about science or computers but they are not informed about anything else. ‘And,’ says West, ‘they’re not really interested in anything else because of this word “irrelevant”. Irrelevant I translate as ‘too much trouble’. As President of LAMDA, he gets to see first-hand how this lack affects the ability of drama students to take advantage of their training. ‘It’s a good school,’ he says, ‘and we turn out good people. But for the life of me I can’t think why we have to take three years to train somebody to be an actor. And I actually said this the other day to the principal, Peter James, and he said, ‘Well, yes, of course we should, it’s just that in the first year we have to do all the work which is not done in secondary education.’

He goes on to explain how bad the situation is. ‘You can say to them, “Place in chronological order the following playwrights: Dryden, Aeschylus, Harold Pinter, Oscar Wilde.” They can have a good idea about Aeschylus but not be sure about the others. If asked to compare these playwrights with the painters, composers or novelists of the time, it is beyond them. ‘”Have you ever read any novels of any century, Georgian playwrights Sheridan and Goldsmith?” Not a clue. And history — I saw you make a face when I mentioned history — we live in a country where history is visible, isn’t it, all the time. You can point to that house and say, “When was that built and who do you think lived there and what did he do there? And what did he read, what literature, what music did they listen to? How did he get to work? What did they do? Was there a war on? Were they well, were they ill?” All these things.’ In a wider world, this lack of knowledge can be very dangerous. ‘It is dangerous,’ says West, ‘because history does teach us an awful lot.’

If we do not learn from the past, how can we put our present into context and, as actors, how can we bring all that is needed to the interpretation of different people from different ages? West has often thought that training for the theatre should be more like studying architecture. ‘In an architectural course you do five years theoretical work and then you do a year’s professional practice and are attached to an architectural practice.’ He himself did not go to drama school but he stresses that today’s aspiring actors are facing a very different profession. 

‘Nowadays I think it’s essential to go but in our day we had the alternative of going to a rep to learn. They called us students and stage managers, making the teas, sweeping the stage, begging for props at the station, going round begging someone to lend their grandfather clock. Marking out the set, doing the sound, calling the artistes, helping to paint the scenery, helping out at the box office in the lunch hour. It was a lot of work but my God, you learnt how theatre worked and, of course, you also played very old butlers or whatever.’

The current generation of actors will have little idea of the work involved during the heyday of the old repertory system, particularly in weekly rep. ‘You’d be doing 48 plays a year,’ says West. ‘Well, you cut your teeth on a lot of different authors — you probably did a Shakespeare, or a bit of Chekhov, Molière, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Terence Rattigan, and Agatha Christie quite a lot! You did learn an awful lot about different texts and however good a drama school is, and however much it concentrates on performance, which some of them do more than others, you wouldn’t cover anything like that in a year or even three years.’

Our conversation turns to television and the quality or otherwise of so-called ‘soap actors’. ‘Well, I think the thing is that they are different now because they’re being bred in a different way,’ he says. ‘They are there because they look right and they sound right — naturalistic filming, that’s what they want…when they’ve done that, they’re out. What are they good for, really?’ As he says, they are unable to sustain a part that requires more than the odd emotional change of gear.

‘What I complain about,’ says West, ‘and what is so unfair to everybody is that if the person who has been chosen to play a lead in a soap, decides “well, I’ve done that and it was nice and I’ve made my name and made a lot of money and I’m a bit famous, now I’d like to do some real acting — Nick Hytner, can I come and see you at the National Theatre?” he’s going to say, “Well, I’m sorry. You’re lovely, but if you’ve been chosen to play Sergeant Jenkins or Staff Nurse Robertson simply because you have no capacity for the theatre, you’re not of a lot of interest to me.” So it’s doing nobody any good. It’s not doing the actor any good, it’s not doing the directors any good, it’s not doing the audience good.’

The ‘breeding’ of ‘soap actors’ is only one of many changes in the business since actors of West’s generation first trod the boards. ‘I hardly do any television now because, well, partly because they don’t know who I am — all the directors I ever worked for have all died or gone mad! But the whole system just doesn’t take into account people like me.’

I remark on the fact that we see the same faces — Michelle Collins, Sarah Lancashire, Robson Green — time and again, and suggest this is because so many of the casting directors are too young to have a broad enough knowledge of good, available actors. West says that the sticking point is not always the casting departments. ‘Sometimes a casting director will come up with quite an intelligent idea and the director will agree and even the producer will agree but then they take it upstairs and it’s “couldn’t you get Robson Green? Don’t think this is going to get the green light”.’

It is a sad fact that today’s television drama is, for the most part, so formulaic. Only occasionally are we presented with something like the thought-provoking and hysterically funny Tomorrow La Scala, a play shown on BBC 2 a month or so back, about a troupe of performers rehearsing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with the inmates of a high-security prison. The writing and the playing provoked laughter and tears, fear and joy in glorious measure. One such a week is surely not too much to ask?

West sighs. ‘Having to sit through genre drama every night where you know that the policeman is going to catch the robber, the detective is going to solve the crime, the fireman’s going to put the fire out — you know how it’s going to happen. You know the characters, you know his mates or her mates and the environment, you know everything about them. The single play was where you were introduced to a set of new characters and a new environment where you didn’t know the story and didn’t know the outcome.’

He says it is impossible to ‘pre-sell the single play today’ or market it in order to guarantee a proper audience response. ‘I know lots of people who’ve written very good single plays. And there are good writers around. And they take it to the television executive and they say, “Yeah, lovely, John, lovely story, terrific, very exciting, excellent, very good play. Um, the thing is, we don’t actually do 90-minute plays any more. Could you do it as a four-parter so that he doesn’t die and they don’t get married and bring in some new people — and get Robson Green?” And the thing that emerges is the familiar, padded out piece of predictable nonsense. These things are being written but in the days when we used to watch The Wednesday Play or Play for Today or Armchair Theatre, there was a big thing on the cover of the Radio Times and you thought, “Well, I’ll stay in for that.” Those days have gone, apparently, you can’t do that.’

‘I’m not sure,’ I say, ‘how strongly my desire to go into the business would have been or my life expanded by—.’ West interrupts. ‘I know! Because — I’m going back a lot further than you are, obviously, but when we saw things like Last Tram to Lime Street and so on and those plays by Clive Exton and even Harold Pinter and all sorts of people, they were showing you things that we didn’t know about at all, you know, because people didn’t really travel very much in those days, unless they were commercial travellers or whatever, and to find out about how Liverpool really was, was pretty mind-blowing.’

We are coming to the end of the interview and I have yet to ask him about his long association with the Old Vic. West played there when Prospect was the resident company in the early 1980s, and ran it for a short time. I ask him how he feels about the appointment of Kevin Spacey as director. He is full of admiration for the man and the actor (‘a proper actor’) as well as Spacey’s generosity towards British theatre, but he has one or two niggling doubts about the eventual outcome.

‘I think he means what he says,’ West tells me. ‘Whether circumstances will, in fact, allow him to take a whole year off from a movie career to come and direct two productions and be in another, I wonder, because these people in Hollywood, they don’t like it when you’re really top dog and suddenly getting out of the way and are not being available. Other people move up and under you.’

‘It depends,’ I say, ‘on how strongly he feels about theatre as against film.’ West agrees before touching on a mystery that has also been puzzling me. ‘Something that isn’t quite clear to me is that a little while ago Matthew Warchus was advertised as being artistic director and I haven’t seen anything in the press saying that he’s suddenly not. But I think people also should be aware that until the cavalry come over the hill, we are actually trying to keep going. The press — they love reporting that the theatre is on its last legs. Derek Jacobi’s Tempest is playing to about ninety-five percent.  Our bookings are coming on very nicely, thank you. And there are plans for other things in the autumn and so it’s not dead in the water.’

Here, West launches into a spirited endorsement of the theatre. ‘The Vic is still open, it’s a very attractive theatre, it’s got a wonderful foyer and bar space and it’s a nice place to come. It has an excellent and very useful station [Waterloo]! It’s got very good restaurants around which can be useful if you want to come to the Vic, even if it means crossing the Thames, which is no longer a dangerous matter of swimming with the sharks — you can actually get there quite easily. But there are things that need to be done to the theatre. It’s an old theatre and the maintenance is a problem.’

I tell him how horrified I was to discover from an interview with Chief Executive Sally Greene, that the roof of the Old Vic has not been properly repaired since the bomb of 1941. In an echo of that very war, it seems to have been a ‘make-do-and-mend’ philosophy ever since. While West himself was running the theatre, they would not have been able to get by had they not had ‘a very complacent fire officer’.

‘When Ed Mirvisch bought the building in ’82, very, very cheaply, we thought he would attend to all that but again, he thought, well, we’ll get by. Because he wasn’t producing, he was getting shows in and if anything went wrong, it would partly be the responsibility of whatever company was bringing in the show. Not as responsible as you would be if you were running and producing at the same time.’

And what of the Vic’s future? ‘I think Sally Greene feels that all the evidence has shown that the only thing that really works at the Vic is an identifiable philosophy, whether it’s a permanent company or embracing a particular kind of work, with some kinds of directorial continuity. That is what’s always worked and the Peter Hall effort was bringing in audiences very nicely towards the end and if he’d been given the money by the Arts Council, it would undoubtedly have been successful. That is what is needed and if Kevin’s idea is to produce something like that, that would be very, very good indeed.’

I thank him for being a charming interviewee at which point he recounts the tale of an interviewer whose ‘face got very solemn’ and whose ‘voice dropped’ at a certain point. ‘She said, “I’m so sorry to hear about you and Prue.” And I said, ‘What?’ “That you’re no longer together.” I said, “Unless you know something that I don’t…’ “I’m terribly sorry, I’m terribly sorry, I’m simply reading what it says on your CV: ‘was married to Prunella Scales’ — oh — I’m so sorry, they’ve given me your obituary. It’s very good.” I said, “I think I’ll read it later”. A rather more quick-witted interviewer,’ West adds, ‘could have worked from that and just changed all the tenses: “So you’ll die in Wolverhampton, you will die, you are dying in Wolverhampton, you should die in Wolverhampton”.’

One place he is certainly not dying is the Old Vic, and let us hope it is many more years before the obituaries come out for real. After all, he is due to direct in the summer, making it two family members in the director’s chair. His son Sam — ‘we’re being rather nice to him now in case of work’ — is behind the current production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at Bristol and is soon to direct Così Fan Tutte for English National Opera. West senior, meanwhile, is taking on Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore for the Carla Rosa Company in July. Long may the West family flourish.

Sarah Vernon © 2003

Originally published on R&V on 28-03-03

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