Prunella Scales

Prunella Margaret Rumney West Scales[1][2] 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.[3]

Prunella Scales

Scales pictured in 2010
Prunella Margaret Rumney Illingworth

(1932-06-22) 22 June 1932
EducationMoira House Girls School, Eastbourne
Years active1952–present
TelevisionFawlty Towers
Great Canal Journeys' A Question of Attribution
Timothy West (m. 1963)
Children2, including Samuel West

Early life

Scales was born in Sutton Abinger, Surrey, the daughter of Catherine (née Scales), an actress, and John Richardson Illingworth, a cotton salesman.[4][5] She attended Moira House Girls School, Eastbourne.[6] She had a younger brother, Timothy ("Timmo") Illingworth (1934–2017).[7]

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 (then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria).


Scales started her career in 1951 as an assistant stage manager at the Bristol Old Vic. Throughout her career she has often been cast in comic roles. Her early work included the (now believed to be lost) second UK adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1952), Laxdale Hall (1953), 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.[8]

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,[9] Scales appeared as "Dotty", together with Jane Horrocks as her character's daughter, in advertisements for UK supermarket chain Tesco.[10] 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. Also in 1996, she appeared as Miss Bates in Jane Austen's Emma. 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.[11] Scales played 'The Client', an evil government minister funding inter-genetic time travel experiments. The same year she played 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. The same year she appeared as Eleanor Dunsall in Midsomer Murders Beyond the Grave. In 2001 she appeared in 2 episodes of Silent Witness, “Faith” as Mrs Parker. 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. Scales has performed “An Evening with Queen Victoria” more than 400 times, in theatres around the world, over the course of 30 years.[12]

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.[13] She appeared in a production of Carrie's War, the Nina Bawden novel, at the Apollo Theatre in 2009.[14] 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".[15]

She starred in the 2011 British live-action 3D family comedy film Horrid Henry: The Movie as the titular character's Great Aunt Greta.[8]

Scales appeared in a short audio story, Dandruff Hits the Turtleneck, written by John Mayfield, and available for download.[16]

She starred in a Virgin Short "Stranger Danger" alongside Roderick Cowie in 2012.[17] 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 appeared in Great Canal Journeys for Channel 4 from 2014 to 2019. 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".[18] "An emotional but unrooted glimpse of life with dementia" was Christopher Howse's characterization in October 2018, writing for The Telegraph.[19] Reviewing the last episode for The Guardian, Jack Seale wrote in October 2019 "Since the first instalment in 2014, the series has charted the long, slow goodbye that is living with dementia, cherishing every moment of precious normality and celebrating how an immersion in nature is the surest way to bring the old Pru back."[20]

Personal life

Scales is married to the actor Timothy West, with whom she has two sons; the elder is actor and director Samuel West. Their younger son Joseph participated in two episodes of Great Canal Journeys filmed in France. Scales also has a step-daughter, Juliet, by West's first marriage.

Her biography, Prunella, written by Teresa Ransom, was published by UK publishing imprint John Murray in 2005.[21]

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

Scales was an ambassador of SOS Children's Villages charity.[22] 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.[23]

Scales is a patron of the Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham.[24]

In 2005, she named the P&O cruise ship, Artemis.[25]

Later life

In March 2014, her husband told The Guardian that Scales was living with Alzheimer's disease.[26] The couple discussed practical measures in a radio programme about age and dementia on BBC Radio 4 in December 2014.[27] In June 2018, her husband characterised her short-term memory as "no good at all", and admitted her condition "slowed them down", but "not so it closes up opportunities."[28]


  1. The International Who's Who, 1997–98, Europa Publications p. 1332
  2. The International Who's Who of Women 2002, 3rd edition, ed. Elizabeth Sleeman, Europa Publications, 2001, p. 510
  3. "1992 BAFTA Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  4. "Prunella Scales Biography (1932–)". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  5. "Image: British TV stalwart Best [...]". 28 July 2012. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  6. "Home". Moira House. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  7. Great Canal Journeys, series 8, episode Marne–Rhine Canal, timestamp approx 46:45
  8. "Happy 80th Birthday, Prunella Scales! – Anglophenia – BBC America". BBC America.
  11. "Phoenix". SPIKE. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  12. "An Evening with Queen Victoria".
  13. "The Youth of Old Age". Wireless Theatre Company. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  14. "Scales joins Carrie's War in West End". 6 March 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  15. "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.
  16. Dandruff Hits The Turtleneck Audiobook. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  17. "Credits". 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  18. 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.
  19. Howse, Christopher (7 October 2018). "Great Canal Journeys series 9 episode 1 review: an emotional but unrooted glimpse of life with dementia" via
  21. Ransom, Teresa (2005). Prunella: The Authorised Biography of Prunella Scales. London, UK: John Murray. ISBN 9780719556975.
  22. "Our friends". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  23. "SOS Children: Sponsor a child with our charity". Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  24. "Patrons". The Lace Market Theatre. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  25. "Artemis". P&O Cruises. Archived from the original on 5 May 2008.
  26. Association, Press (4 March 2014). "Prunella Scales suffering from 'a sort of mild Alzheimer's'". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  27. "Suppose I Lose It". BBC Radio 4. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  28. "Alzeheimer's won't stop Timothy West and Pruenella Scales from seeing the world". Stuff. 8 June 2018. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
Preceded by
Jonathan Dimbleby
President of the
Campaign to Protect Rural England

Succeeded by
Sir Max Hastings
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