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Interview: Timothy West actor

15 March 2011

‘There are horrendous cuts being made, particularly in regional theatre’

I’ve just finished a marathon reading of the King James Bible at the Bath Literary Festival, with 350 readers doing about 20 minutes each. They started on Tuesday afternoon, and I finished the last two chapters at one minute past six on Saturday as the bells started to ring. It was a very remarkable feat, and more people turned up to hear it, especially at three o’clock in the morning, than I thought possible.

The biblical Word is a set of precepts, it seems to me, and when you’re acting, it’s the text, the written word, which is given to us. It’s our first responsibility, and it’s the director’s first responsibility, not so much to make his mark on a piece of work, but to get the actors to deliver the text in the most exciting way.

Most good playwrights write with respect for the music of text. It should have poetic, musical appeal, as, obviously, classical verse drama has, but that’s also true for modern writers such as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, or Harold Pinter.

Asking me what my favourite roles have been is a bit like asking me if I prefer the Beethoven quartets or strawberry jam. Some parts are just tremendous fun because the audience lap it up and you feel good, and you get it right, and a lot of personal satisfaction accrues from that. But some plays you enjoy because you like the people in them, or you’ve had fun, or been to nice places.

And then some are challenging. I’ve played Lear three times, and it’s an uphill struggle, but it’s tremendously satisfying. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word . . . but it involves you. On the other hand, I did play Sir Thomas Beecham once, and the audience all laughed and enjoyed it, and people who had worked with him came backstage afterwards and opened a bottle of wine and told me their stories about him.

Oh yes, I’ve played clergymen several times. A lot in rep, of course, and in the odd television series. They tend to be rather two-dimensional characters, and it’s not really fair; but I did play Sydney Smith, Dean of St Paul’s, in a little three-handed play which toured all over the place — a lovely man; and Cardinal Wolsey, who was rather dif­ferent; and, of course, Bishop Cauchon in a version of Saint Joan.

Next Saturday, I’m performing in The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, a piece written by Peter Wadsworth [details below], and it’s a personal view of Christ’s last journey, to go with improvised music by Jean-Baptiste Dupont. Of course, because it’s improvised, I haven’t heard it; so I can’t do any work on the text to make it sympathetic to the music, but I think it will be very exciting, very moving. I’ve done readings to go with Haydn’s The Seven Last Words from the Cross, but there you choose your own words to go with the music.

Arts funding is always at the bottom of the Government’s shopping list, and at the top of its chopping list. There are horrendous cuts being made, particularly affecting regional theatre. They don’t understand that some of these cuts are really terminal to some theatre companies. If you can’t produce exciting, challenging plays because you have no funding, you do boring old favourites with dull casts and directors, and you lose your audiences and then, of course, you deserve to lose your subsidy. It’s a vicious circle.

It shouldn’t be difficult for the Government to recognise what a contribution the arts make, espe­cially financially. They, at least, are in a strong position to understand that. But our spiritual well-being is worth something, isn’t it?

The Church should realise that we are talking about the same sorts of things, most of the time. My regular place of worship is Southwark Cathedral, which is quite genned up about the arts. But it’s not just the performing arts: I think church music brings a lot of people into appreci­ating all good music. Perhaps event­ually the Government, too?

I’m sort of politically active. I think the Big Society means: “We’re not going to pay for it; so it’s over to you.” The concept is all very well and good in theory, and I’ve seen it work. When people are confronted with some­thing that needs support and preservation, they all dig into their pockets and contribute a fiver. But it does depend on people having an understanding of the need, and a geographical appre­cia­tion of the thing being funded.

There’s a nice little theatre in Henley-on-Thames, built in 1810, and an appeal produced lots of £5s and £10s from the local people, who are quite well-heeled. But a library threatened with complete closure in a distant part of the borough of Wandsworth isn’t getting any support because people don’t know that area.

We were told about SOS Children’s Villages by Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, because they were sup­porting a child there. We were going to India anyway; so we went to look at one in Bangalore, and it was wonder­ful. We adopted a boy there. He wasn’t very bright — the school kept writing to us and saying he was awfully good at football — but he did leave and get a job. After that we decided it would be better to sponsor a school than an individual child.

I have a daughter by my first wife, and two sons with Prue [Prunella Scales], and we all get on well. And I have five grandchildren.

We don’t think of ourselves as a dynasty. We think of ourselves as a family business, generally pooling sympathy, resources — money, sometimes.

When Prue and I started on the stage, we had to keep very quiet about coming from theatrical families. Both my parents and one grandparent were in the theatre, and Prue’s mother. You had to pretend to be the son of a “real” person like a doctor or a miner, or else they would think you were rather artificial. Now they’ve rather reversed all that. Everyone I work with now is the granddaughter or son of someone I worked with years ago.

I think I probably did want to be an actor when I was a child, but I pretended I didn’t. My father was very keen that I would get a “proper” job; so I did get a nice job as a recording engineer with EMI for three years. But I was involved in so much amateur theatre that my boss asked me if it wouldn’t be better if I spent my professional life doing what I was so obviously really thinking about all the time. No, I didn’t have any formal training.

In those days, there were regional reps all over the country which you could join at the very bottom level. It was weekly rep; so you did 45 different plays a year and addressed a whole variety of styles, texts, manners — even regional accents — which is far more than even the best drama school can offer — though, of course, they offer things we didn’t have.

I’m a bit of a Pangloss — “every­thing is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” Of course, I regret some things, but I find that if you do something you regret, something pushes you in a different direction.

How would I like to be remem­bered? I was stumped by this question. I think I’d carve “He tried to get it right” on my tombstone. I’ve failed in many areas — but I did try.

There are people I admire over a historical distance. Samuel Johnson is one. Many of them I’ve had a go at portraying. Johnson was wonderfully clever and sympathetic, as well as having awful sadnesses, loneliness, and grief, which he could articulate terribly clearly. More recent people? I admired Peter Ustinov hugely, though I knew him only slightly.

I could go a long way through the Old Testament without stopping, and I think Deuteronomy could go, really. I’m a New Testament man.

I covet the sound of silence most. It’s in very short supply in the world today. You can only get it in certain places. Or if you seek it out. Or choose not to have the noise. Piped music makes me absolutely furious.

I’m happiest, very boringly, at home: in the garden on a nice day, with the prospect of work coming up.

To me, prayer is really for putting things in perspective and finding greater values. You think there’s some­thing you want, but when you pray, you realise that there is some­thing much more important than that. I pray, obviously, for the well­-being of family and friends, and for people I know who are sick or in trouble.

Whom would I like to be locked in a church with? No problem at all: John Betjeman. I’ve never been locked in a church with him, but I’ve visited lots of churches with him, and he was always instructive and entertaining. Yes, lovely. A treat!

Timothy West was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. He is performing with Jean-Baptiste Dupont at the International Organ Festival tomorrow, 19 March, in St Albans Cathedral.


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