Sheila Hancock: ‘Don’t let them tell you you’re old’

·14 min read

When Sheila Hancock first sat down to begin writing her new memoir in 2016, the volume in question was intended to be an inspiriting book on the subject of old age. Its pages would, she hoped, describe fulfilment and contentment as well as how best to keep your aching back straight (believe me when I tell you that her spine would induce awe in even the sternest pilates teacher). “People are always stopping me in the street,” she says. “‘You’re a legend!’ they tell me. ‘It’s wonderful, the way you keep going!’ I thought: maybe I can write something helpful about how life can be quite lovely even at my age [she is now 89]. But then… life turned awful. There was Brexit, Covid and rheumatoid arthritis, and my daughter had cancer. I thought: no, I can’t write something lovely. I’m too angry for that.”

Isn’t it possible, though, that this worked out for the best? That her anger is far more inspirational than an account of her gym regime might have been? Some women still feel they need permission to be cross. Looking a bit relieved, Hancock slowly nods her head. “Oh, I do agree – and the wonderful thing about getting older is that you can be a bit cantankerous and odd. I’m not as craven as I used to be. My generation put up with absurd things; we were utterly servile.”

Then again, even if she did feel – impossible as this is to imagine – that all was now right with the world, the fact is she’s no longer quite so physically perky as she once was, the old Sheila having fallen victim, like so many of us, to an excess of Zoom calls: “The lockdowns possibly hastened being old. I did age. I wasn’t as frivolous or as bouncy when I came out.” In her book, which is called, for the absence of doubt, Old Rage, and takes the form of a diary, she mercilessly describes her lockdown look: too-big tracksuit bottoms rolled at the waist, and a hairband to control her out-of-control thatch. “I look like a disturbing, ancient child,” she writes. And, yes, it is also proving hard to get back in the groove, fashion-wise. “One of the reasons I was late to meet you is that I can’t dress any more,” she says, exasperatedly (our conversation takes place in the London studio where she is to have her photograph taken). “Normally, I’d have made an effort, tried to look glam and all that.”

I’m buggered if I’m staying inside. I’ve wasted two years. I can’t waste another one being cautious

Needless to say, she does look glamorous – and beautiful, too. I’ve never seen cheekbones like it. But I understand what she means. The pandemic was especially hard for those who live alone, and its after-effects longer-lasting. It’s 20 years now since Hancock’s second husband, John Thaw, died of oesophageal cancer – the same disease that took her first, the actor Alec Ross, 31 years earlier – and I wonder if the isolation born of Covid-19 painfully reinforced the state of widowhood. “Not at all!” she cries. “We would have murdered one another, probably. But I still think about him all the time, of course.” Today is particularly piercing on this score, the death of Denis Waterman, Thaw’s co-star in The Sweeney, having just been announced. He was only 74. “Bless his heart,” says Hancock, softly. “He lived hard, I think.” Thaw was much more like Jack Regan than Inspector Morse, she tells me, and for this reason she has occasionally plucked up the courage to watch The Sweeney since his death. “But something else happened this morning, too: something weird. I went to the cupboard thinking: what am I going to wear for this shoot today? And when I opened it, a leather jacket fell to the ground.”

Whose was it? (I think I know the answer to this question, but her relish is so enjoyable, I want to be the perfect audience.) “During The Sweeney, John began to make a bit of money, and at that time we went to Rome, and we went to Gucci, and we bought this jacket for him. I used to wear it occasionally after he died. It summed up a stage we were at: him being very sexy in leather, us spending money we’d never had before, and me driving him mad with my guidebooks. At the hotel, he had his feet in the bidet the whole time. It was a wonderful period for us, and I looked at the jacket and I thought: love him.” Apparently, the jacket in question has pulled this kind of uncanny trick before. “I lost it once. I told myself: this is meant; John is gone, just accept it. But six months later I went to a place where I used to get my nails done, and there it was, hanging on the peg, as if to say: how dare you leave me behind? It was the same this morning. It was as if the jacket was saying: don’t you remember all the fun we had?”

Thaw is always popping up unexpectedly on the telly. Does this make her luckier than most widows, or less? She’s not sure. “I don’t know how I feel about it. I wish he was here. But thinking about those days… I could have had more fun. I was always phoning John up, and saying: where are you? Why was I so worried if he was late back? I should have gone to the pub and joined him. Why didn’t I enjoy things more? Why was I so tight-arsed? It’s like my so-called career. The last night of Sweeney Todd… [Hancock played Mrs Lovett in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical in 1980] I’m ashamed I didn’t enjoy it: the audience going wild; me having to tell them to shut up, because I couldn’t hear the band, and I needed to make my pies in time to it. Everyone shouting my name! I was probably scared, disappointed it was considered a flop; feeling I hadn’t done good service to it because I’d suffered terrible stage fright. But these people were pouring love at me!” She shakes her head. “For God’s sake, woman!”

But regret won’t do. Back to old age, and how to survive it. “People don’t prepare enough for retirement,” she says. “Everything just stops, overnight. I get lots of letters, and it’s amazing how many people become lonely after they retire.” For actors, however, retirement is rarely on the cards: most want (and need) to keep working, and Hancock is no exception. As recently as 2016, not only was she on stage at the Southwark Playhouse every night for weeks, appearing in Grey Gardens, a musical about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric relatives; she also played a grieving widow in Edie, a film for which she was required to climb remote Suilven in the Scottish Highlands. Hancock, who kept wondering why the producers hadn’t cast Judi Dench until she found herself lying in a freezing cold sleeping bag 2,000 feet up on the side of a mountain, believes she is the oldest person ever to have done this – though as she admits in Old Rage, the short flight in the helicopter that retrieved her from the summit was, in the end, far more terrifying than the climb.

Sheila Hancock as Mrs Lovett and Denis Quilley as the demon barber in Sweeney Todd, 1980.
‘Why didn’t I enjoy things more?’: Hancock as Mrs Lovett, with Denis Quilley as the demon barber, in Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1980. Photograph: Gary Stone/Getty Images

“I do feel that work keeps me going,” she says. “But I also wish that wasn’t the case. I wish I wasn’t obsessionally work-oriented; that I didn’t feel guilty when I don’t work, or that my life is over. If I have a day in my diary when nothing’s happening, I’ll think ‘Oh, lovely’ until I wake up. Then I feel frightened.” Hancock is on the extremely vulnerable list, and is supposed still to be shielding, reducing her risk of contracting coronavirus as much as possible. But she has decided that life is too short. “I haven’t got that many years to go, and I’m buggered if I’m staying inside. I’ve wasted two years. I can’t waste another one being cautious.” Is she working? “I’m doing telly next. It’s a crime thing. But it’s all coming back very slowly.”

How does she do it, though? I mean, keep going physically? In 2019 she was starring with James Nesbitt in Tim Firth’s musical comedy This Is My Family in Chichester when she fell in the bathroom of her digs, and had to have 10 stitches in her head. The director took one look at her and announced the day’s performance would have to be cancelled. But Hancock was adamant: the sold-out show would go on. At the matinee, she performed with blood dripping down her forehead from beneath her wig. Hancock rolls her eyes. “Ridiculous behaviour,” she says. “But look, I’ve always been ill. I had cancer as a middle-aged woman, and now I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis. I don’t feel well at this moment, do you know what I mean? I am fit, but I work at it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not natural. I’m still recovering from a broken wrist, and I have a fracture in my back, too.” After both these injuries, she was told by doctors that her movement would be permanently impeded. “But thanks to the physio at Charing Cross hospital, I can still do weights, and I can still drive. Don’t let them tell you you’re old. ‘You’ve had a fall,’ people say, as if that’s it.” Does being part of a theatre company help? All those young people. She can be a bit vampiric, can’t she, feeding on their energy? “Ha, yes! One’s certainly a vampire!”

Hancock in Edie, 2017.
Hancock in Edie, 2017. Photograph: Pascoe Morrissey/AP

When Hancock laughs, she jangles slightly. Around her neck is a chain, on which there are five rings: her wedding ring, those of both husbands, and of her parents. She looks so youthful and hip in her soft, grey clothes and her Apple watch. But these bands of gold stand as a reminder that she was born into a world that barely anyone remembers now. She grew up in sooty old King’s Cross. Her father was a publican, and her mother worked in a department store, initially in the glove department; her older sister, Billie, whose last illness is recorded in Old Rage, played the music halls until they closed. At Rada, where Hancock trained to be an actor, she and Shani Wallis (best known for playing Nancy in the 1968 film of Oliver!) were the only working-class students. She laughs. “I spent all my time with a tooth prop in my mouth, a device that was supposed to help with your vowels. But it’s awful, really. My working-class pretensions are totally phoney now.” She has a second home in France, after all, even if she is about to sell it.

In her gut, though, she knows where she belongs: “If I see a gang of kids in the street I’m not a bit frightened. I’m with my people. At Lisson Grove market [near Paddington], the traders are all [she slips into cockney] ‘Allo, Sheila!’ and I just think: I love you.” Class was a bond between her and Thaw, whose father started as a tool-setter. “John was abandoned by his mother, and it dominated his life to a certain extent, certainly his relationships. I think that’s why we clung to one another. I did try to leave [once], but I couldn’t. I loved him so much. It was the same with my first husband. I’ve been incredibly lucky with men, though I’m from a generation where you work at marriage. My mum used to get really worried I wasn’t putting my husband first. I remember getting a letter from her. ‘You should be looking after Alec,’ it said. Little did she know that he couldn’t get work after the war, and I had to keep things going.” She felt guilty all the time. There was always someone, or something, she was neglecting. “But work is deep in my psyche. From my background, I couldn’t conceive of living off someone else. John was earning more than me, but that [money] was his.”

Sheila Hancock and John Thaw with daughters Melanie and Joanna in 1975.
Hancock and John Thaw with daughters Melanie and Joanna in 1975. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

When she and Thaw became a couple – they married in 1973 – they each had a daughter, Abigail and Melanie, by their previous partners; later, they had a daughter together, Joanna. But, again, Hancock was determined to do things differently. “I couldn’t bear the fact he only saw Abigail occasionally under the divorce arrangement. So I met Sally [Alexander, the feminist historian and Thaw’s first wife] and I loved her. It was the best thing for her that he left, because she went to university and became a very reputable scholar. She organised the Miss World protest [in 1970], you know. She threw the flour! She’s a remarkable woman, and we became friends.” There are eight grandchildren, all of whom, at various points during the lockdown, stood on Hancock’s patio and merrily “shouted” at her.

Talking about all this, her life seems wonderfully replete: however complicated, it bulges happily and satisfyingly at the seams, and when she needs a little peace, there is the “gathered stillness” that comes courtesy of her beloved Quaker meetings. But Hancock isn’t so sure. Her career? Her proudest achievement is still the RSC tour she directed in the early 80s – Roger Allam played Mercutio to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Romeo – but she has no sense at all of a trajectory, nor even of much success. In Old Rage, she asserts that The Wildcats of St Trinian’s, in which she starred in 1980, is one of the worst films ever made, and that appearances as Senna Pod in Carry on Cleo and as a version of Margaret Thatcher in a “weird” episode of Doctor Who will “not get me listed on anyone’s roster of great performances”. She also worries, in the book’s opening pages, that she is undeserving of the damehood she was awarded in 2021. “My achievements are risible,” she writes.

Hancock with daughters (left to right) Melanie, Joanna and Abigail at a memorial service for John Thaw at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 2002.
Hancock with daughters (l-r) Melanie, Joanna and Abigail at the memorial service for John Thaw at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 2002. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

This is ridiculous, of course. But perhaps it’s what makes her so lovable, and her books bestsellers. Her confidence is threaded with doubt: people recognise this, and they warm to it. I know that I do, and it happens all over again three days later when I bump into her unexpectedly at the author of the year party at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly. Don’t be daft, I tell her, when she claims not to know why she has been invited – at which point, clasping my hand, she gets on with asking me questions (tonight’s subject: social media trolls). Even among this starry crowd, her national treasure status is palpable; I’m surprised people aren’t elbowing me out of the way to get to her. Glass in hand, she is resplendent: a walking, talking advertisement for a good haircut – this, she insists, is the real secret of eternal youth – and an abiding interest in other people. Old and rage: these are not the first words you think of when you look at her. They’re not even the last.

  • Old Rage by Sheila Hancock is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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