The actress talks to Zoë McIntyre about her long attachment to France, travelling its waterways and reading Marcel Proust
Why did you and your husband, the actor Timothy West, celebrate your golden wedding anniversary on the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy?
We’ve had a narrowboat on the British canals for about 40 years. Tim is an adventurer and we didn’t know the French canals very well, so we seized the opportunity. It was a lovely holiday. [The trip was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year].
Which other French canals have you explored?
We’ve been on the Lot and the Petit Rhône. We also had a holiday on the Canal du Midi, although we weren’t manning the boat; it was a rather luxurious hotel-barge, which made it a different holiday altogether.
What do you like about boating in France?
It’s a different experience – the British canals are narrow and the birdlife and plants differ from what you see in France. The French canals are much broader and the weather is usually better, so you get to see a lot more sun! Tim is a great wine buff, so he likes to try different wines too.
Do you explore inland France much?
Our son Joe’s wife is French, so we now have three half-French grandchildren: Clement, Felix and Mathilde. They live in eastern France near the Swiss border and we like to visit them as often as possible.
Do you have a favourite place in France?
I love Paris. Tim and I spent part of our honeymoon there – on Île Saint-Louis. But it’s such a huge country there are many places I don’t know. Every trip is a new exploration.
How did you learn to speak French?
My school teacher was from France and spoke classical French so I had a chance to pick up a proper accent. At 14, I played Monsieur Jourdain in my school production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. My friend Eunisse, who was playing Madame Jourdain, had a very English accent: “Qu’est-ce que c’est donc, mon mari, que cet équipage-là? ” [Scales imitates her friend’s accent]. And my reply [in fluent French] was: “Il n’y a que des sots et des sottes, ma femme, qui se railleront de moi.” Because of that, I still remember a whole page of Molière!
Would you consider acting in French now?
It would be terribly difficult for me to play a French part in the same methodical way that I’d play an English one, as I don’t have the heritage or experience. But if a French director asked me to, I would jump at the chance.
What aspects of French culture interest you most?
I’ve read quite a lot of [Marcel] Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in French. It’s very good for your French, but I wanted to read it all and I read faster in English. It’s unfair to Proust to read him in English, because the French is so special.
Do you like French films?
Very much. I grew up during and just after the war when there were just a few black and white French films with English subtitles. I very much liked the actor Pierre Fresnay when I was a younger – all his films are wonderful.
What were your first experiences of France?
My mother’s au pair was from Rennes, in Brittany, and my first experience was being a bridesmaid at a regional wedding there. Then, long before I met Tim, I had a French boyfriend, Bernard, who lived in Paris and whom I very nearly married. When he moved to Japan we lost contact. About ten years later I met Tim and we’ve been married ever since.
Would you have liked to live to France?
Bernard was a lovely man but marrying him would have meant five years in Japan and the rest of my life in Paris. I realised I couldn’t marry a Frenchman because of the sort of resources you need as an actress. I grew up all over England; North Devon, London, Yorkshire, and to be able to take on those dialects is important for an actor. If I had become a French actor I would have been constantly battling with the language, however good my accent was.