There is a wonderful moment in an early 2016 episode of Great Canal Journeys — a surprise hit for Channel 4, which stars veteran British actors Timothy West, now 84, and wife Prunella Scales, 87 — when Pru emerges from a Swedish sauna, all pink-cheeked, tousled-haired and, it appears, completely starkers.
Her husband asks: ‘So, do you feel like a new woman?’ ‘Why, d’you want one?’ she retorts, sparky, glinting and with immaculate timing.
Of course not. He didn’t back then and he doesn’t now. He just would like a few more such magical flashes of his once brilliant, funny and witty wife of 56 years.
It turned out canal boating was perfect for Pru’s condition. ‘You can just keep your mind vacant, enjoy things as they happen. It’s perfect for her,’ Tim said. Viewers have loved the gorgeous views, the nuggets of local canal history and the couple’s openness about Pru’s illness
For while their marriage has been one of the most successful and enduring in British showbusiness, it has been sorely tested in the two decades since Pru — best known as Sybil in Fawlty Towers —was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Now Pru can’t remember the year they were married. Or when their two sons, Sam (also an actor) and Joseph (a translator who lives in France) were born.
She repeats herself and will often ask the same question over and over until Tim gently prompts her to stop.
‘The sad thing is that you just watch the gradual disappearance of the person that you knew and loved and were very close to,’ is how Tim has put it.
Now, he faces another challenge. Given their age, it would make sense to downsize, and he is bracing himself to sell their rambling Victorian home of more than half a century in south-west London.
Today, Pru’s decline is tragically gathering pace and the sale of their home is looming. ‘I’m just beginning to realise ‘Oh we can’t do that’. ‘Oh, I will have to go and help her with this’,’ says Tim
With its William Morris wallpaper, book-lined rooms, collections of plays, prints, family photographs, unusual ornaments, vast battered leather sofa and baby grand piano (bought from Wyndham Theatre’s props department after it appeared in David Pownall’s Master Class, in which Tim played Stalin, back in the Eighties) — the house is an extension of Tim and Pru.
Everywhere are reminders of their long marriage, their illustrious careers and their happy family of three children (Tim has a daughter from his first marriage) and seven grandchildren.
They moved in when Pru was pregnant with Sam and raised both of their boys here, and one of their granddaughters now lives with her two children in their converted basement.
It has certainly focused his thoughts on those who are forced to sell their homes to pay for care home fees for a partner with dementia. ‘I quite see how, in the state social services are in, it’s a solution. But I would hate it,’ he said.
When Pru was diagnosed, instead of letting their lives shrink behind closed doors, they carried on as normal. She continued acting for another decade, but focused more on voiceovers, with barely any script to remember. She is pictured above as Sybil, left, and right in 2017
‘I don’t want to go to my grave thinking: ‘What’s happening to our house?’ I don’t want it going to somebody who’s going to say: ‘Oh, let’s get rid of all this silly Morris wallpaper and we can use that front garden as space for an extra car.’
‘In theory, it’s silly — I know it’s only a house — but it’s part of us.’
More importantly, it is also where Pru is happiest and most herself. ‘Pru loves the house and especially the garden. She wants to stay here until the end,’ he says.
It was Tim who first noticed something was wrong, more than 20 years ago, while watching his wife in a play. ‘I thought: ‘Hmm, it’s not that Pru has forgotten her lines or she’s not saying the lines properly, it’s just that I can’t see her thinking.’ ‘
‘She never delayed her responses but it was just the difference between what she already had been — entirely within her character — and her thinking: ‘Am I going to manage this?’
‘I knew there was something wrong, but for a long time I didn’t realise what it was.’
Alzheimer’s Disease affects every sufferer differently, but common symptoms include short-term memory loss, confusion, irritability, mood swings, language difficulties and long-term memory loss.
When Pru was diagnosed, instead of letting their lives shrink behind closed doors, they carried on as normal. She continued acting for another decade, but focused more on voiceovers, with barely any script to remember.
It was Tim who first noticed something was wrong, more than 20 years ago, while watching his wife in a play. ‘I thought: ‘Hmm, it’s not that Pru has forgotten her lines or she’s not saying the lines properly, it’s just that I can’t see her thinking’
Tim, who over the years seamlessly juggled Shakespeare with TV and film, veered more towards TV roles with set filming times.
Until, in 2013, everything changed when they set out on a nostalgic canal trip to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary, retracing the routes of past family holidays they’d taken with their sons.
But instead of the boys, they had a film crew in tow, and Great Canal Journeys was born. ‘We thought it would be seen by some old ladies on a wet Tuesday afternoon, but somehow it caught on,’ Tim told the Sunday Times yesterday.
It was an astounding success —ten series stretching over more than 30 episodes and one of Channel 4’s top-five-watched programmes. They started on the Kennet and Avon canal but were soon happily chugging up canals in India, Venice and Vietnam at 4 mph.
It turned out canal boating was perfect for Pru’s condition. ‘You can just keep your mind vacant, enjoy things as they happen. It’s perfect for her,’ Tim said. Viewers have loved the gorgeous views, the nuggets of local canal history and the couple’s openness about Pru’s illness.
But they were mainly drawn to the pair’s warmth, their gentle bickering, kindness, mutual frustrations, Tim’s patience (and occasional blasts of impatience) and their extraordinary love and strength — battling bravely on in the face of utter heartbreak after 56 years of marriage.
Tim and Pru married in 1963 after meeting as stars of the period TV drama She Died Young.
Both have had extraordinary acting careers and they have supported each other equally. Latterly, the balance has become skewed, but still they embrace life. ‘We still like going to the theatre and concerts, and you’ve got to go on doing that, because either that, or you sit watching daytime television,’ said Tim.
While once they’d have chatted all the way home, dissecting every performance — they now travel home in silence, their once joyful banter gobbled up by Pru’s illness.
Also gone is her memory, her spark and much of her wit, leaving Tim having to look ever harder for glimpses of the love of his life.
‘It’s hard. We used to spark off each other, but now Pru’s hearing has got very selective,’ he told the Sunday Times. They’ve invested in endless high-tech hearing devices, but he suspects the problem is more her not being able to answer, rather than not hearing.
‘So we can’t talk about things,’ he says. ‘I miss it, and it’s not good for me either — my own reasoning is getting less good.’
Now Pru can’t remember the year they were married. Or when their two sons, Sam (also an actor) and Joseph (a translator who lives in France) were born. She repeats herself and will often ask the same question over and over until Tim gently prompts her to stop
When in 2015, he appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories to talk about living with Pru’s dementia, she was in the audience. But 20 minutes later, she had no recollection of the show at all.
Tim cares for Pru himself with the help of a live-in housekeeper and fills the gaping emotional hole with work. ‘Work is so important. You need other people to talk to.’
He has just finished working on remakes of three 1969 episodes of Dads’ Army with Kevin McNally as Captain Mainwaring and Robert Bathurst as Sergeant Wilson. Tim plays Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley).
And filming is due to start soon on the latest series of the BBC drama Last Tango In Halifax — about love in later life — in which he plays the brother of Sir Derek Jacobi’s character, Alan.
Gone, sadly, are the days when Pru could go with him when he works. She hasn’t travelled with him for years because she finds it too confusing when he’s not there.
They still holiday together. Earlier this summer they went on a Baltic cruise where they were feted by fans of their TV programme. But there will be no more canal boating.
‘Pru is finding it hard work — it’s too much for both of us,’ says Tim, ‘and the whole idea is the journeys shouldn’t feel like hard work.’
Today, Pru’s decline is tragically gathering pace and the sale of their home is looming. ‘I’m just beginning to realise ‘Oh we can’t do that’. ‘Oh, I will have to go and help her with this’,’ says Tim.
In 2013, long after her diagnosis, Pru said in an interview: ‘I’m famous for playing unfortunate wives, but I’ve been a very lucky wife. We’ve both been incredibly lucky.’
They have also been incredibly brave; refusing to be cowed by her illness, and showing people how to live in the moment.
In the penultimate ever episode of Great Canal Journeys, broadcast in June, they are seen drifting down Vietnam’s Thu Bon river, releasing lanterns in memory of their parents, and Pru turns to Tim.
‘Thank you for a lovely life,’ she says. ‘Oh, it’s a pleasure,’ he replies, voice thick with emotion and his eyes brimming. ‘So have I had a lovely life.’
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