A lifetime of memories: Timothy West reveals how travel helps his wife Prunella Scales cope with dementia.
Award-winning actor Timothy West tells Kerry Harvey about coping with his wife Prunella Scales’ dementia as they travel the world’s waterways together in Great Canal Journeys.
Veteran British actor Timothy West has no plans to sail into the sunset just yet.
For the past four years, the 83 year old and his wife of 55 years, Fawlty Towers star Prunella Scales, 85, have been exploring the world’s canals for the series Great Canal Journeys.
The couple had just returned from filming in Egypt when TV Guide caught up with Timothy West at his home in England.
“When we started off, the idea was to make four programmes about canals that seemed to be interesting with the idea it might go out on the second channel that Channel Four operates for minority viewers,” West says. “Oddly enough, it took off and we can’t stop now. We’ve made 28 programmes over the years.”
Travelling by canal barge and narrow boat, the couple explored the man-made waterways of England and Europe before expanding their horizons to Scandinavia and now – in this latest series – India.
If taking on such a big project at an age when most people are checking into retirement homes isn’t remarkable enough, what makes the pair truly inspirational is that Scales has Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia.
“It has slowed us down but not so it closes up opportunities,” West says. “We both love doing the programmes and it’s very important for her to have things of interest that fascinate her that she likes doing otherwise she would slow up.
“That’s the inevitable thing about that kind of dementia. You could
just settle down and watch daytime television and go to sleep.
“She loves meeting people, seeing places, going back – perhaps in her mind – to things that she remembers about her life.
“Her long-term memory is pretty good – in fact, rather remarkable – whereas the short term is no good at all. She will remember things about her childhood or things that remind her of her early days and that is lovely for her.”
For West, whose acting career spanned everything from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Coronation Street and EastEnders, the series allows him to indulge his love of travelling.
“Prue sometimes complains about being married to a travel freak but I always have loved seeing new places, finding out about new areas and talking to new people,” he says, adding his fascination with canals was first sparked 50 years ago when a friend offered them the use of a narrow boat for a two-week holiday.
“We had the loveliest holiday, I think, of our lives” says West. “That got us interested, fascinated about the whole history and development of canals.”
For centuries, canals played a vital role in moving goods from one part of a country to another. While today they are more often used for recreation, most have fascinating stories to tell and West loves seeking out those tales.
The couple’s experiences in India are no exception.
West takes the helm to explore the remarkable Kerala backwaters, a 1600km network of palm-fringed lakes, rivers banked by rice paddies – and some very familiar-looking British-built canals constructed by spice traders keen to access the ginger, cardamom and black pepper that grow in the region. “Different canals were dug by the Portuguese, by Arab countries, by the Brits, all sorts of different people and the place is still an amalgam of different people which makes it fascinating,” he says. “They all get on extremely well and it has the highest literacy level of anywhere in the world apparently. You’ll bump into somebody you just want to say ‘Hello’ to and ‘Isn’t it a nice day?’ and they’ll come back with Spencer or Dryden or some quote you didn’t know yourself.”
From Kerala, the couple head to the other end of the country to the unknown waters of the Brahmaputra River, a trip that proves their most challenging to date.
“It is a very savage river in that it changes its course all the time, particularly in the monsoon season.
“Every year, there’s considerable loss of life but travelling on it was a very, very extraordinary experience,” West says, admitting this was one time he was happy to surrender control of the wheel.
“In other places, I enjoy learning how to do it. All boats are different but I love all boats. I love everything that’s on the water.”
Prunella Scales and Timothy West