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Nick Smurthwaite interviews Timothy West

Timothy West Interview
by Nick Smurthwaite

The last time Timothy West appeared in a work by Ronald Harwood it was as Mikhail Gorbachev in a TV drama-documentary, Breakthrough at Reykjavik, about the 1986 arms control summit in which the US president Ronald Reagan squared up to the then Russian president.

This time, in the title role of Harwood’s The Handyman, the much-respected British character actor takes on the guise of Romka, an elderly Ukranian-born odd job man living modestly in the Home Counties who appears to have led a blameless life. It soon becomes evident, however, that he has an extremely murky past.

'It is a hugely interesting play,' West enthuses. 'Initially you’re not sure if this man is a war criminal or not. You are fed arguments from different people all of which have a degree of validity.

'He is portrayed as a godsend to a respectable middle class family in Sussex he works for. The police only catch up with him because of a change in the law in 1996 which meant people resident here could be prosecuted in the UK for crimes they had committed overseas.

'Each member of the family has a different take on his arrest and whether or not he is innocent. It becomes a question of what to do about him if he is guilty. Because it all happened so long ago should we let bygones be bygones?'

At the age of 77, having done everything from King Lear on stage to playing Edward VII in a TV series, wasn’t he just a little daunted by the prospect of playing the title role in a major UK stage tour?

'Quite the reverse,' he says, 'I’m not sure why but I do still prefer to be in the centre of things. Learning a role with an Ukrainian accent comes less naturally to me, but I’ve had a lot of help from my wonderful voice coach, Charmian Hoare. I’ve also been listening to those Ukrainian meerkats in the TV commercial with renewed interest.'

Neither is Timothy West put off by the prospect of touring, describing himself as a 'touring freak.'

He says, 'Actors like me who worked in weekly rep in their early days, sometimes doing 45 plays a year, are accustomed to the sort of commitment touring requires. I’m very familiar with all the theatres we’re visiting with this tour although I have never actually acted at the Cheltenham Everyman.

'I get out and about, explore the local countryside. I love the fact that you’re playing to the same people in the evening who you’ve seen in Sainsbury’s in the morning. There is always a strong sense of community that you don’t get in the West End. It is also gratifying to be offering a West End-standard show to an audience for a third of the ticket price.

'I won’t deny that it’s harder work now. I make sure I’m back in time to have a half hour snooze at my hotel before the show and get myself in the right frame of mind. If I hadn’t toured as much as I have I’d never have got to play half the wonderful roles that came my way. A few days on Holby City isn’t half as appealing as a juicy part in a new play by Ronnie Harwood.'

Timothy West’s 56 years as an actor began with a variety of roles in weekly rep in Salisbury but it wasn’t long before he graduated to the West End, playing a bookmaker’s runner in the farce Caught Napping in 1959.

'My character was called Talky precisely because he did not talk,' writes West in his very funny 2002 autobiography, A Moment Towards the End of the Play. 'I was dressed in a beige teddy boy jacket, drainpipe trousers and a string tie with a toggle, and I lacquered my hair into a heavy overhanging frontal curl which I think was the final cause of nearly all of it dropping out.'

What distinguishes West above all else is his extraordinary versatility. As well as being an accomplished classical actor, he has been equally at home with comedy roles (Bradley Hardacre in the TV series Brass, Dr Rance in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw), contemporary drama and indeed as a producer and theatre administrator with the Prospect Theatre Company and at the Forum Theatre, Billingham.

He is also famous for being the husband of Prunella Scales – they celebrate their golden wedding anniversary next year – and the father of Samuel West who, like his father, has combined a life of acting and theatre administration very successfully. They have appeared a number of times together, including the 2001 film Iris, about Iris Murdoch, in which they played the same character at different ages.

These days Timothy West thinks of himself as mostly a stage actor as the TV roles are less forthcoming than they used to be. 'All the casting directors are very young now and I imagine they think I’m dead,' he jokes.

What about TV commercials?

'No, I’ve never done that. If you’re associated with a particular product or commercial, you can get stuck with that and people imagine you’re not available for serious acting. I’ve got fussier as I’ve got older. I’ve always been attracted by the quality of a play, or the writing, rather than the nature of the role I’m offered. I’d rather play a small role in a really good play than a stonking great part in a play I consider to be unworthy.'

Does he consult his wife about the roles he is offered?

'Oh yes, always, and I talk to Sam as well. We’re a family business really, a mutual reservoir of encouragement, criticism and sympathy. I always ask Pru to read the script and tell me what she thinks, and I do the same for her.'

If the work dried up tomorrow, West says it wouldn’t be the end of his world. 'I’m interested in so many other things. I love going to the theatre and to concerts. I love my narrow boat, exploring the inland waterways. I’m very active in all kinds of directions.'

Does he have any professional ambitions left?

'I’m too old for all the parts I’d like to play, but I wouldn’t mind doing Prospero again, and I’ve never played Polonius which I know I’d enjoy. There is probably a play that hasn’t been written yet with a wonderful part for me in it, preferably by someone who is aware that I’m still alive. I’m rather looking forward to that.'

As a younger actor did he imagine that he’d still be going strong in his late seventies?

'No, not at all. I could never see beyond the next job. Actors always think whatever they are doing at any particular time will be the last thing they ever do. My father (the actor Lockwood West) worked into his eighties and he was exactly the same. If the phone didn’t ring he was in the gutter and would never work again. I expect I’ll keep going until Pru tells me it’s time to give up.'

Timothy West plays Romka in The Handyman, coming to Richmond Theatre from Mon 15 – Sat 20 Oct.

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