Sam West: ‘Mum’s dementia has been hard on my father – he has lost his best friend’
It is one of the saddest family situations: the gradual loss of a cherished parent’s personality to dementia.
Prunella Scales, 89, was originally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2000, but what had long been an open secret in the acting profession was only revealed to the public during her hit Channel 4 series Great Canal Journeys, which began in 2014. When she and her actor husband, Timothy West, embarked on their epic journeys along the world’s manmade waterways, it was, as their son, actor/director Sam West, describes it, “a love story with narrowboats”. The Wests’ affectionate, teasing relationship was there for all to see in what became so much more than an exotic travelogue about their favourite hobby of messing around in boats.
“Dementia has largely taken away my mother’s personality,” says West, “but it has left her in a fairly good mood most of the time. Although she’s quite deaf now, too, which makes conversation difficult, she’s cheery – which we’re all enormously grateful for. But I don’t know if she was necessarily aware of lockdown. That’s hard to say.”
At the start of the pandemic, Prunella recorded a poem for Pandemic Poetry, an online spoken-word jukebox that Sam started in March last year: “She recited The Old Ships by James Elroy Flecker beautifully, in one take, having learned the poem when she was 15.” But, he admits, “she doesn’t have much short-term memory these days. And not much more goes in. She still recognises us and she knows I have two children – and that’s really good.”
Perhaps best known as Sybil Fawlty, the queenly comedy icon in Fawlty Towers, Prunella has had a long and distinguished acting career over more than six decades – and almost as lengthy a marriage to Timothy. The Wests celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary last month and, as well as their regular meet-ups, the whole family will be getting together on Christmas Eve at the Wests’ spacious family home in south-west London.
“We had an 11-person lunch yesterday with four generations and it was delightful, as it always is. Mum’s dementia is quite hard on my father, because he has lost his best friend, and that must be very lonely for him. But he’s still working, which is a great comfort. And he has his granddaughter and his two great-grandsons living in the house with him.”
Prunella and Timothy have a third great-grandchild by their younger son Joe, a teacher and translator who lives in France and who also put in an appearance on Great Canal Journeys when the narrowboat moored near his home. “Joe has a son and now a granddaughter who is a year old, but Dad hasn’t managed to meet her yet because of the difficulty in getting to France,” says Sam. A live-in housekeeper/carer, Gillian, helps to look after Prunella when Timothy is working; most recently, the 87-year-old actor has been filming another series of Suranne Jones’s cross-dressing historical drama Gentleman Jack.
I’m meeting Sam, now 55, to talk about the Christmas special of All Creatures Great & Small, in which he plays head vet Siegfried Farnon with just the right mixture of autocracy and empathy. After years of playing everything from Shakespeare to Stoppard, Chekhov and Merchant/Ivory, he has finally become a household name as a result of this rebooted family favourite on Channel 5.
“I damaged my Achilles tendon filming the cricket match on location in Yorkshire for the second series, and at Ripon Hospital someone said to me: ‘I love your show – it’s happy and sad’, which I thought was the nicest short review ever,” he says.
Based upon James Herriot’s memoirs of his life as a Yorkshire vet, the drama has the kind of gentle communal feel that Sam particularly values – especially since becoming what he describes as a ‘late’ father at the age of 48.
“It could be seen as undramatic – but the great thing about a show set in the late 1930s when there’s not a lot of money around, is that it’s about a community that pulls together to look after its members, sharing its joys and sorrows,” says Sam, who feels that lockdown brought a similar sense of community to our modern age.
“The show hit at exactly the right moment: locked-down audiences were feeling that the journeys they wanted to make were largely spiritual or imaginative because they couldn’t be physical – and we fitted the bill with something that speaks to a simpler and more comprehensible time and which I can watch with my children.
“I can’t watch horrific things on screen any more,” he says. “When I became a father, I shed a layer of skin.” Sam and his playwright partner, Laura Wade, have two daughters of seven and four – whose names he politely declines to mention for privacy’s sake. Laura, 44, made her name with the 2010 play Posh, which was turned into film, The Riot Club, and fictionalised to boisterous goings-on among horribly privileged members of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club – two of whose most famous alumni were at the university at the same time as Sam. Although he never crossed paths with either Boris Johnson or David Cameron, he was at the same college, Lady Margaret Hall, at the same time as another leading Tory: Michael Gove.
“He was an enthusiastic member of my English set,” says Sam, “and he seemed a very decent chap. But it’s extraordinary when you realise that people your age are running the country. That should be banned! Surely the country should be run by people older than us?”
There’s no starry nonsense or huffy sense of hierarchy about Sam, who was once advised by his mother to take up plumbing as a rather more reliable career than acting. “I have always been brought up to think that writers were the real stars, so if either of our children became a writer, I would be enormously proud,” he says. “I’m pleased we had daughters – I’ve tried to do things that make them feel strong. They both have my partner’s surname, and we’re very into unisex clothing for them; I’m not really into a gendered upbringing. Strong is the new pretty, as they say, so I hope that girls’ time has come.
“As a white, middle-class male, I’ve had the run of the green for many centuries. If I’m losing to equally talented women now, it’s about bloody time. There are lots of problems for women, but the world is finally waking up to the potential of half of humanity. Taking the toys from the boys,” he laughs.
It sounds as if he had the most enlightened upbringing from his adored mother; no wonder he feels so tender towards her. “My dad thinks that Great Canal Journeys was a programme about industrial architecture, and it was – up to a point. But it was a love story. So much of the time on TV, people of that age are presented as figures of tragedy or fun – and this was neither.”
Alzheimer’s Society is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Dogs Trust, Maggie’s and The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. To donate, visit telegraph.co.uk/2021appeal or call 0151 284 1927