Pub quiz question: what do Ian McKellen, Nigel Havers and Stephanie Beacham have in common with Dustin Hoffman, Alfred Hitchcock, Boy George and the Queen? Guessed it yet? The Coronation Street set. Obviously.
Dustin, George and Her Majesty have all graced the cobbles, while Ian, Nigel and Stephanie have had recent roles in the world’s longest-running TV soap. Indeed, a spell propping up the bar at the Rovers Return is rapidly becoming a must-have on the CV of British acting aristocracy – with Timothy West the latest venerable thespian to make an extended cameo.
“I thought, ‘Well, if it’s good enough for Ian McKellen, it’s good enough for me’,” explains West, 78. We are sipping tea and munching chocolate biscuits in the cluttered front room of the rambling south London home he shares with his wife Prunella Scales – where all their acting awards hang in the toilet.
Of course, Coronation Street has always been a breeding ground for talent – Ben Kingsley and Patrick Stewart cut their teeth there and Scales graced the show in the 1960s, she points out as she pokes her head round the door. “I was in it when it was in black and white,” she trills and disappears. He smiles fondly. “Pru started in around episode four and my last episode was nearer 8,054.”
In the past, once actors made it big, they barely mentioned their soap roots. By contrast, McKellen and Havers were keen to be cast and Joanna Lumley – who, as Elaine Perkins in 1973, turned down Ken Barlow’s proposal – has said she would enjoy a return. Julie Walters has declared she would love a role, while Derek Jacobi confessed he’d always wanted to be in Coronation Street, finally making it as an extra in the Rovers in 2012.
For West, it’s a welcome return to the small screen. Having appeared for almost 50 years in sitcoms such as Brass, Goodnight Sweetheart and Not Going Out, as well as drama adaptations including Bleak House, he’s been off-air since last year’s ITV drama Titanic by Julian Fellowes.
West enjoyed doing Titanic, he insists, but Fellowes “surprised us all by saying he was going to write about the ordinary steerage people. We all thought, ‘Does Julian know any ordinary steerage people?’ I thought he was doing a dangerously daring thing in telling the same story four times over. It’s intriguing in a thriller when you want to know whodunnit but you know they hit an iceberg…”
He doesn’t blame Titanic for his absence from television – instead, he has recently publically accused young casting directors with short memories, who only cast faces currently on telly. Curiously, the call to appear on Corrie came very shortly after he gave that interview.
“My agent said that was a very good thing to say,” West shrugs. “But it wasn’t a clever pitch, I was telling the truth. It’s not so much the age of the casting directors, it’s their memory – the producers are going for known faces in very predictable characters. I think it’s unfair to audiences, who get patronised and don’t see anything new. And it’s extraordinarily unfair to writers to feel that whatever they write, it’s just going to be played the same old way.”
He says all this with genuine anger. West is something of an activist actor – he was born in Bradford and grew up in Bristol in the 1930s and has been vocal about his beliefs ever since, dismissing all three main political parties’ attitudes to the arts, film and even television: “I can’t remember the last arts minister who really knew anything about the arts or cared… it seems to be a sort of parking place for them before they get moved on to something else.”
West’s wrath is strangely powerful. He’s given his support to a campaign to save local shopkeepers from supermarket chains and had a hand in saving the local library, and today is lambasting plans to replace GCSEs with the controversial English Baccalaureate when, spookily, Education Secretary Michael Gove stood up in the House of Commons and announced he was dropping it.
Scales pops back in as he’s in full flow and nods in agreement. The couple married in 1963 after his divorce from his first wife, Jacqueline Boyer, with whom he had a daughter, Juliet. It’s this that gives him a moment of sadness. “We used to see Juliet whenever we could, which wasn’t often enough, and I still feel an awful gap for those missing times,” he says wistfully. “But when Juliet was about nine and she came to stay, she put her arms round Pru and said, ‘You’re my mum’.” He pauses, moved. “She’s been a wonderful daughter and a wonderful sister to the boys and I’m very fond of her kids.”
Juliet’s daughter is currently living in their basement, he says with delight, and the whole family gets together at Christmas every couple of years – including his sons with Scales: Hyde Park on Hudson star Samuel and web designer Joe, who now lives in the south of France. Sam and Tim have appeared together on stage and on screen a few times – and in 2011 performed in a UK Uncut street theatre protest over tax evasion outside British Home Stores in Oxford Street. “The police were wonderful,” West grins. “We were blocking the pavement and you would think we would all get arrested, but the sergeant said, ‘Everybody please move into the road and we’ll divert the buses’.”
In fact it was Tim who got Sam his first break in showbiz – a cameo as a small boy in 1975 TV epic Edward the Seventh in which West starred. As West unpicks his worries over funding cuts to regional theatre – Newcastle’s 100 per cent cut to arts funding, announced in November, especially infuriates him – you wonder if he’d still recommend putting his son on the stage?
“I think so,” he says carefully. “I’d give him the same advice I gave him at the time – which is to spread yourself around. The reason I’ve got quite a long CV is that I like doing different things. Drama students now say they want to make it in films or the Royal Shakespeare Company – they’re doing themselves a colossal disfavour. Once or twice I’ve done myself a political disfavour – made, not enemies, but lost friends in powerful places by refusing to do something that they wanted me to do, because it was rather like the last thing I did. But I don’t regret that. I think it’s turned out for the best in the end.”
He’s had certain key iconic roles that threatened to typecast him – Edward the Seventh, and Bradley in the genre-changing Brass. (He’s keen to point out that the latter – broadcast between 1983 and 1990 – was the first British comedy to reject a laughter track or live audience.) He also claims a standout Churchill in the 80s that caused him more than just artistic suffering.
“The contact lenses were particularly difficult because I was changing brown eyes to blue – which means you have to have a much larger blue iris and you’re looking down a tunnel the whole time. The optician said, ‘Just wear them for an hour a day to begin with, avoid bright lights and cigarette smoke.’ I said, ‘Well, I start filming on Friday, I’ll be working about eight hours a day in studio lighting and smoking a cigar most of the time.’ The optician looked shocked. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well good luck with that’.”
This range means his audience is broad – but sometimes confused as to what they’ve seen him in before. “People often come up and say to me, ‘I know you, what have you been in?’ I name something recent, they say they didn’t watch it. You say something else, they say, ‘No – I was out for that’ and in the end they get angry at you for wasting their time!” He bursts out laughing at the memory.
Coronation Street should broaden that audience, and he’s just been cast in his first sciencefiction film. He’s also pleased at the recent rise in movies starring actors of his generation, such as Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “I do hope they aren’t all going to be about old people’s homes,” he sniffs. “Terence Stamp is about to do another one about an old folks’ home but older people do have lives in other places. It’s a nice thing to see happening and it’s true that a lot of traditional cinema audiences are older, because a lot of younger people watch the DVD or online. But there again, I suspect it’ll all be, ‘What have we got for Judi Dench? What have we got for Penelope Wilton?’” He gives a wicked grin and a theatrical sigh. “I suppose some of us may get a look in…”
Watch Timothy West in Coronation Street on Monday at 7:30pm on ITV