'The Prayer Book provides a script for English life'
Once described as ‘someone to be careful of’, actress Prunella Scales is robust in her defence of The Book Of Common Prayer
Many things are said to happen when an actress meets a bishop, and when Prunella Scales CBE joined forces with Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of The 1662 Book Of Common Prayer, what happened was very special.
When over 400 people, including the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, thronged St Paul’s Cathedral for a celebratory Evensong early in May, Prunella’s love and regard for The Book Of Common Prayer was evident in the reading she gave. The directions in the Prayer Book instruct the reader: ‘Then shall be read distinctly with an audible voice… as he may be heard of all such as are present.’
The actress, famous for her role as Sybil in Fawlty Towers, more serious work with Alan Bennett and the neverto- be-forgotten Dotty in the Tesco adverts, did not disappoint.
A long-time member of The Prayer Book Society, Prunella is robust in her defence of a prayer book that some deride as old-fashioned and incomprehensible. ‘Whatever the English speaker’s faith is,’ Prunella states, ‘if they don’t understand The Book Of Common Prayer then they are not going to understand English literature.’
Evacuated to Devon during the war, Prunella learnt her catechism in a local dialect. She is still word-perfect and can produce the responses in a delicious Devonshire burr:
‘First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh…’
‘You see, I think the Prayer Book provides a script for English life. For over 300 years it provided our lines for when we married, baptised a child or buried someone we loved,’ Prunella explains. ‘And I think we dismiss it as old-fashioned at our peril. Whether we believe or not, The Book Of Common Prayer gives everyone a chance to take part in a beautifully written play.’
Prunella was once introduced by John Betjeman to a fellow poet as ‘someone to be careful of, you know, she’s frightfully left wing and middle stump’. Prunella’s commitment to the spreading of wealth can perhaps best be seen in the way she chose to spend some of her earnings from the adverts she made for Tesco: she financed her husband Timothy and son Samuel West in their Arts Council-funded tour of Henry IV Parts I and II. ‘I told critical socialist chums that it’s my method of obliging industry to fund the Arts,’ she explains.
‘Middle stump’ refers to Prunella’s Anglican faith. ‘Neither too high, nor too low but “just right”, like Goldilocks’s porridge,’ she explains. With her actor’s recall of most of The Book Of Common Prayer, she can find comfort in Cranmer’s words whenever she needs to. Not surprisingly, given her long-standing marriage to actor Timothy West (since 1963), Prunella is very fond of the marriage service in the 350-year-old book.
‘I do find the marriage ceremony particularly moving,’ she says. ‘Cranmer was a married priest, even though he had to keep his wife hidden. I think you can tell from the marriage vows he wrote, that he understood what married love is all about. “I take thee to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.” It’s that word “cherish”, isn’t it?’ Prunella remarks, ‘I can’t think of a better word to describe the relationship between a husband and wife.’
It is the language of the book that Prunella insists should be taught in every school in England. ‘Every child should have access to the beauty of the Prayer Book,’ says Prunella. ‘Everyone needs to experience and understand “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” It doesn’t matter what religion they have, this is the language that inspired Shakespeare and is essential to an understanding of English literature.’
Prunella admits that she is weary of being seen by the public as a comic actress. She is an accomplished Shakespearean actress and has appeared in many different roles, from Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, to the chippy little clippie Eileen Hughes in two very early episodes of Coronation Street. Whatever role Prunella takes, she works with rigour, discipline and a pure focus, perhaps inspired by the Prayer Book’s exhortation ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’.
She also uses her more popular roles as a bridge to more serious plays for the audience that loves her. ‘It makes me so angry that there is a tranche of perception of the media which separates sitcoms from the classics,’ Prunella told Teresa Ransom, her authorised biographer. ‘Or Shakespeare from enjoyable situation comedy. It’s absolute rubbish. I want the people who have enjoyed seeing me in Fawlty Towers, or Marriage Lines, to come and see me in some Chekhov, and both laugh and cry.’
Prunella’s fondness and advocacy of The Book Of Common Prayer is another example of her passionate belief in access to beauty and art for all. During the celebrations at St Paul’s Cathedral, Prunella nodded vigorously when Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, sermonised: ‘The Prayer Book offers a simple and moderate system for a whole life from baptism to last rites and seeks in its rubrics and ceremonies to embrace the whole person and not just the cerebellum. In more recent times, both the Bible and the Prayer Book have been more and more edited out of public discourse and increasingly also expelled from school.’
‘I just want everyone to experience The Book Of Common Prayer,’ Prunella says. ‘It really would be a shame if we lost it; there would be “no health in us”, as the book itself says.’
Royal Devotion: Monarchy And The Book Of Common Prayer exhibition is at Lambeth Palace Library until 14 July. For details: 0844-847 1698, www.lambethpalacelibrary.org
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