Two actors best known at the time for their television comedy performances opened in a new play at the Lyric Hammersmith on 12 March 1980. Leonard Rossiter and Prunella Scales were directed by Michael Blakemore in Michael Frayn’s philosophical comedy Make And Break.
Playwright, novelist and former journalist Frayn had already had West End success with plays Clouds (1976) and Donkeys’ Years (1977), when Make And Break had its 1980 premiere. The play was a portrayal of a work-obsessed businessman, played by Rossiter, who lets his work rule his every waking moment, to the detriment of his family and personal life. Scales played his loyal secretary.
Though both experienced stage actors, Rossiter and Scales were best known at the time for the iconic television programmes that had made them household names during the 1970s. Rossiter starred in ITV sitcom Rising Damp from 1974-78, alongside Frances de la Tour, Richard Beckinsale and Don Warrington, recreating his role as miserly landlord Rigsby from Eric Chappell’s original 1971 stage play entitled The Banana Box. Then between 1976 and 1979 Rossiter played the eponymous lead in David Nobbs’s comedy The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin.
For Scales, it was only five years after she had starred as John Cleese’s wife Sybil Fawlty in the hugely loved sitcom Fawlty Towers. Though her subsequent career has included numerous roles on television and stage, it is this role in the 12-episode programme that she is still best remembered for.
Make Or Break transferred to the Haymarket and went on to win the 1980 Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy of the Year. At the Laurence Olivier Awards that year, Scales was nominated in the category of Actress of the Year in a Supporting Role, and the play received a nomination for Comedy of the Year, losing out to Educating Rita.
Two years later Frayn won his second Laurence Olivier Award (the first was for Donkeys’ Years in 1976) for Noises Off, which also received a Tony Award in 1984. He went on to enjoy success with Benefactors (1984), Copenhagen (1998) and Democracy (2003). Donkeys’ Years was revived at the Comedy in 2006, receiving a Best Revival nomination at the 2007 Laurence Olivier Awards.
Scales went on to achieve more success in the West End with An Evening With Queen Victoria, Quatermaine’s Terms and Happy Days. Her most recent stage roles include A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, A Woman Of No Importance and Gertrude’s Secret. Rossiter died of a heart attack on 5 October 1984 during a performance of Joe Orton’s Loot at the Lyric theatre, in which he was playing Inspector Truscott alongside David John and Neil Pearson. He was 57. Earlier that year he had received a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Comedy Performance of the Year.