Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
West, Timothy (1934-)

Actor, Presenter

Main image of West, Timothy (1934-)

Over a four-decade-plus career, Timothy West has established himself as one of Britain's most versatile and dependable actors. He is perhaps best known on the screen for his work as a character actor, though it is his stage performances, especially in Shakespeare, which have most strikingly showcased his talent.

He was born on 20th October 1934 in Bradford, the son of the actor Lockwood West. After attending Bristol Grammar School, where his contemporaries included Julian Glover and Dave 'Darth Vader' Prowse, he began his career as an assistant stage manager at the Wimbledon Theatre, and devoted most of his time and energy to the stage. His early screen credits include a small role as Charles Hayter in the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion (1960) and an even briefer appearance as Matrevis in Marlowe's Edward II, the play-within-a-film in the John le Carré adaptation The Deadly Affair (d. Sidney Lumet, 1966). He returned to le Carré later in the decade when he played the cameo part of Taylor in The Looking Glass War (d. Frank Pierson, 1969).

Throughout this time, the theatre remained his first commitment, and it comes as little surprise that two of his most striking performances, as Bolingbroke in Richard II (BBC, 1970) and as Mortimer in Edward II (BBC, 1970), in both cases opposite Ian McKellen, were derived from roles he had already played to great acclaim on the stage. Many of his film performances in the early part of the 1970s were cameos in expensive 'prestige' films, such as his appearance as Dr Botkin in Franklin J Schaffner's Russian Revolution epic Nicholas and Alexandra (US, 1971), or his unlikely casting as a member of the French intelligence service in the Frederick Forsyth adaptation The Day of the Jackal (UK/ France, d. Fred Zinnemann, 1973).

However, in the mid-1970s, his film and television career took off with his first major starring role as Edward VII in the BBC's acclaimed mini-series Edward the King (1975), building on his established persona of efficiency and solidity but adding an unexpected joie de vivre. The cameos continued, but the parts grew in importance and interest, such as his appearance as Mr Tow-wowse in Tony Richardson's underrated Joseph Andrews (1977), the detective trying to track down Agatha Christie in Agatha (d. Michael Apted, 1979) and, perhaps inevitably given his strong physical resemblance, Winston Churchill in Churchill and the Generals (BBC, 1979), the Australian mini-series The Last Bastion (1984), and the TV movie Hiroshima (Canada/Japan, 1995).

His range and versatility were demonstrated in more artistic projects: Trevor Nunn's adaptation of Hedda Gabler (US, 1975), in which he played against type as the Machiavellian Judge Brack; the pompous, greedy humbug Bounderby in Granada's adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times (ITV, 1977); a memorably scheming Cardinal Wolsey in the BBC Television Shakespeare's Henry VIII (1979);the put-upon mill owner Bradley Hardacre in Brass (ITV, 1983), a return to his Northern roots. Although much of his energy in the 1980s went into his role as Artistic Director of the Old Vic (including the notorious Peter O'Toole Macbeth), he still managed to appear in some atypical roles, such as Dr Rance in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw (BBC, 1987), or as a deluded, accidentally cannibalistic doctor, in Consuming Passions (d. Giles Foster, 1988). However, while the small 'character' parts continued, often of jovial or comic characters, West proved his range with such figures as a racist South African policeman Captain De Wet in Richard Attenborough's Cry Freedom (1987), or, more surprisingly, as Mikhail Gorbachev in the Cold War drama Breakthrough at Reykjavik (ITV, 1987).

In the 1990s, his reputation firmly established as one of the great post-war theatre actors, West was seldom seen on cinema screens, though he lent his vocal talents to an animated version of The Tempest (BBC, 1992) and played leading roles in the television series Framed (ITV, 1992) and Smokescreen (1994). He was a hilarious cross between Rupert Murdoch and Lord Beaverbrook in the Malcolm Bradbury adaptation Cuts (ITV, 1996), and, towards the end of the decade, appeared in such large-budget spectaculars as Luc Besson's The Messenger (France, 1999) and Ever After (USA, 1998). He seemed more engaged in his portrayal of Gloucester in King Lear (BBC, 1998), reprising his stage role opposite Ian Holm's Lear. More recently, he has appeared in small roles in such films as Iris (UK/ US, d. Richard Eyre, 2001) and as a prototypical 'Q' figure in the television drama Colditz (ITV, 2005).

He is married to the actress Prunella Scales, with whom he has often appeared on stage, and their son Samuel is an acclaimed actor-director, often playing a younger version of his father in their joint appearances. Timothy West's autobiography, A Moment Before The End Of The Play, was published in 2001.

Alexander Larman

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Hard Times (1977)Hard Times (1977)

Acclaimed adaptation of Dickens' Northern industrial melodrama

Thumbnail image of Henry VIII (1979)Henry VIII (1979)

Adaptation of Shakespeare's late play, filmed in various stately homes

Thumbnail image of Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)Monocled Mutineer, The (1986)

Alan Bleasdale's controversial drama based on a real WWI mutiny

Related collections

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Scales, Prunella (1933-)Scales, Prunella (1933-)