Royal return for a versatile actor

Rachel BullerFor more than five decades Timothy West has been wowing audiences with his powerful performances on the stage and small screen. He spoke to RACHEL BULLER about his new play 'Quartet' and his love of slowly meandering along the nation's waterways.Rachel Buller

Over the years it seems there are few things that actor Timothy West hasn't turned his hand to.

From the classics of Shakespeare and Dickens to cult 1980s comedy Brass and acclaimed film Endgame in which he plays South African president PW Botha, he has one of the most recognisable faces on television and stage.

Now, his latest role sees him swap the reality of his hectic life to embrace the fictitious world of slow-paced retirement in the black comedy 'Quartet'.

Speaking the day before rehearsals are due to begin, West is clearly looking forward to starting work on the production which comes to Norwich Theatre Royal next week.

The play, written by Oscar-winning playwright Ronald Harwood, boasts an all-star cast including Michael Jayston, Susannah York and Gwen Taylor.

'Quartet is a story is about four retired opera singers in a retirement home for musicians. Initially we are just three and then a fourth lady comes along who unfortunately is not very welcome as she was married briefly to the tenor. It creates a bad atmosphere and we strive to continue on and rectify the situation, but really it is a play about how you cope with retirement and growing old, the realisation of aging.'

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But far from being a depressing topic, West insists it is anything but.

'It is actually a very funny play and there is lots of humour in it. But it also very moving and it does have a darker side.'

The actor has a very close affinity with Norfolk and is president of The Playhouse in Norwich having supported the project from the beginning.

'It is doing very well, it really is a smashing place,' he says with some pride. He is a keen supporter of venues like the Playhouse and is heavily involved with education within the arts, currently sitting as president of the London Academy of Dramatic Art.

'We must support new talent. It is essential. I think it is as hard for those wanting to get into the business as it ever was but I do think there are more opportunities now, there are more things an actor can do than when me and my wife were starting out. You do have to be equipped for all eventualities, that's the most important thing we can teach them. You can't just say I want to work in movies or in a soap. You have to be prepared to do anything and do it well so that someone notices you, whatever the role.'

Born in 1934 in Bradford, he was a reluctant actor in the early days, a conscious decision not to follow in the footsteps of his parents - his father was Lockwood West - and grandfather who were all actors.

'Indirectly I guess I got into acting because of my family. I pretended for a long time I didn't want to do it probably because they did. I worked for a while in a furniture sales office and then at EMI as a recording engineer. But I gradually began doing more and more with the amateur theatre companies and eventually my boss suggested I would be better off being paid for something I actually enjoyed doing and was good at.'

His wife is, of course, actress Prunella Scales, most famous for her role as John Cleese's long suffering wife Sybil in cult comedy Fawlty Towers.

The couple have been together for more than 50 years and are clearly still a very supportive partnership.

'We've been able to sort of subsidise one another a little bit over the years so we have been able to choose roles a little more carefully.

'I did a TV series which paid okay so it meant Pru could afford to do a little play in Nottingham which she was desperate to do, and of course when she was doing Fawlty Towers I was able to go off and do something I actually wanted to do. Generally most of the really challenging and worthwhile jobs pay peanuts,' he laughs.

Unlike his character in Quartet, retirement does not appear to be on the cards, and he admits they have very little time for relaxing.

'We have had a narrow boat for 30 years and we get on that as much as we can. It lives wherever we leave it really, at the moment it is on the Grand Union canal near Milton Keynes. It is a wonderful way to travel. Life at four miles an hour is terribly good.

'Our current one is 60ft but it is very easy to navigate,' he says. 'Once you get the hang of it.'

t Quartet runs August 9-14, Monday to Saturday. For tickets see the box office on 01603 630000 or

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