Prunella shows no signs of a slowdown
Queen Victoria was famously “not amused”. Prunella Scales has been amusing us for decades. The two come together gloriously tonight with the return of Prunella’s popular one-woman show, An Evening With Queen Victoria, to Norwich Playhouse.
Take two women who are both household names, whose careers have spanned generations, often in the public eye, both with landmark moments we can all recall… both the proud possessors of a rather grim reputation.
One – Queen Victoria – was famously “not amused”. But the other – Prunella Scales – has been amusing us for decades.
The two come together gloriously tonight, Saturday July 2, with the return of Prunella's popular one-woman show, An Evening With Queen Victoria, to Norwich Playhouse.
The show, which also features tenor Ian Partridge and pianist Richard Burnett, has now been filling seats for more than 20 years, and Prunella, who celebrated her birthday earlier this month (she's over 70), shows no sign of slowing down.
“It's been amazingly successful,” she said. “We've performed it all over the world – in Canada, Australia, New Zealand. We're off to Colorado in July.”
The inspiration sprang from Prunella's own interest in Victoria.
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“I first read her journals way back in 1974. I was amazed by them then. People think of her as this grumpy old dowager who was 'not amused' and retired to Balmoral. But she was an extraordinary woman, and her husband was a remarkable man. If not for him, the monarchy would not have survived. He was the driving force behind The Great Exhibition, for example, and he was also a musician.”
The famous “we are not amused” remark is said to have been used by Victoria whenever a conversation turned ribald.
Prunella's own 'grim' reputation, of course, springs from her classic portrayal of the fierce, long-suffering Sybil Fawlty, standing up to Basil as he teetered on the edge of madness in the classic John Cleese comedy Fawlty Towers.
More recently, she appeared as a slightly dotty shopper in a series of Tesco adverts alongside Jane Horrocks… although no more of those are planned. But the classically-trained actress has a long string of film and theatre appearances to her credit.
The show is accompanied and illuminated by music which Victoria would have enjoyed – some of it unknown today and, interestingly, including compositions by Prince Albert.
“Some years after I read the journals,” said Prunella, “Katrina Hendrey, who compiled the show, wanted to write a programme for the three of us because we had done some work together, and I said 'Do you know Queen Victoria's journals?' They absolutely blew her mind.
“My husband was running the Old Vic at the time, and we did the show one evening there. Since then, it has just been incredible.”
The choice of the Norwich Playhouse is also fitting. Prunella was an early campaigner and patron of the theatre when it was established – largely through the efforts of the late Henry Burke – as a repertory theatre and her husband, the actor and director Timothy West, also a patron, appeared in the opening production, Jumpers.
“The Playhouse is a lovely venue,” she said, “And it's so appropriate for Norwich to have a smaller theatre which is doing different things.”
Prunella, who lives in London when she is not touring, has many links with the region – being awarded an honorary degree by the UEA in 1996 and, with her husband, jointly acting as narrators for the King's Lynn Pageant in 1997.
The fascination of Victoria for Prunella is that she was many women wrapped up in one.
She came to the throne in 1837 – sitting at the head of a still-powerful empire – at an age, just 18, when many of today's teenagers would still be sitting A-levels. And fortunately she'd already got the diary habit.
“The journals cover the whole period of her life, from the age of 13 to the day before she died,” she said.
As impetuous teenager, wife and mother, Victoria experienced the greatest days of the industrial revolution. She was close to the great men of her age, notably her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, and later Benjamin Disraeli.
But, personally, she was widowed tragically young, losing her beloved Prince Albert. It is because of her long struggle to cope with grief that many pictures show her dressed in black.
“Early on in her widowhood, she retired from public life,” said Prunella. “She had 40 years of widowhood to endure, which she did not do very heroically to begin with. Eventually, she did become very popular again with the public, but that took a long time.”
Part of that difficult period was shown in the 1997 film Mrs Brown, depicting the scandal surrounding her relationship with John Brown, a royal servant.
Persuaded back into the limelight, Victoria was again a national celebrity by the time she died in 1901, and the founder of a dynasty. In an age when monarchy was still widespread, her nine children married into many of the royal families of Europe.
She – like Prunella Scales – was acknowledged as a national treasure. t
t An Evening With Queen Victoria is at the Norwich Playhouse at 7.30pm tonight, Saturday July 2. Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions). Call 01603 598598 for details.