Sheila Hancock (85): 'I enjoyed the feeling of my body becoming young again'
Sheila Hancock plays an octogenarian who embarks on a mission to climb a Scottish mountain in her new film, Edie. She tells Laura Harding about taking on a physical role at 85, the challenges facing older actresses and why she lives life without regrets
SHEILA Hancock is happy to be alive. Not just in real life, although that is certainly true, but also on screen.
After years of portraying older women who meet a tragic and painful end, she has finally played a part that does not end with her shuffling off this mortal coil.
It's not always easy to be an actress of a certain age – Hancock is 85 – but even grimmer when every script you read reminds you of your own fragile mortality.
"When you get to my age, the first thing you do is look at the end, and usually I either die or I go senile," she says ruefully. "It's very seldom that I get parts where they end on a positive note, or even a half-positive note, or even continue to exist. They have to be tragic.
"I'm doing a series in the autumn and I got the breakdown and she gets breast cancer – of course she gets breast cancer! And of course she's going to die in agony!
"So it was really wonderful to do a part I know the audiences come out of [the cinema] feeling inspired by. It's great to be inspired by old age, I think."
The part in question is the title role in Edie, a moving and charming story about an octogenarian who embarks on a mission to embrace her new freedom and climb a Scottish mountain following the death of her overbearing husband.
She has had her sights set on Suilven, a distinctive peak near Lochinver in the north west of Scotland, since she was a girl, when she planned to scale the mountain with her father, before her stifling marriage put paid to their relationship.
The part required Hancock to walk in Edie's shoes, quite literally, and climb the daunting mountain.
"I couldn't understand why I was being offered this part until I realised that they actually wanted me to climb the mountain," she laughs. "And though there are a lot of old actors, there's not all of them that could climb the mountain and remember the lines and all that. So that's why I got it, and I was very lucky."
But it didn't always feel that way. In fact there were times when the challenge felt impossibly tough, especially when filming for 16 hours a day in ice-cold weather.
"The whole thing was pretty scary," she admits. "I did spend quite a lot of time terrified."
Describing one of her worst moments, she says: "I'd done a really big emotional scene and I was absolutely exhausted and they had told me that there was a path that I had to go across, and there was a sheer drop either side.
"It wasn't very far, they said. And, of course, in my weakened state, we went around the corner and there was this path and I promise you, it was only tiny with sheer drops either side and it went for miles, it seemed to me."
It was too much for Hancock, who felt she could not manage it.
"I whimpered a lot," she says, until motivation came from an unexpected place. There was this bloke who was leading me, showing me where to put my feet, and he said, 'I'll go a quarter of the way across and then if you make it, I'll give you a Jelly Baby'."
She starts to chuckle at the memory. "He kept me going with Jelly Babies. It gave me a sort of boost. And eventually, I was sprinting across."
Indeed Hancock's own physical fitness in the film is inspiring to see, and something she found very satisfying.
"I did three months going to the gym every other day, and I did Nordic walking, and I did a bit of climbing and things before we started. I learnt to row in the week before we started filming and I quite enjoyed the feeling of my body becoming young again, which is what it had to do.
"An old lady can't bend her knees in the way that I had to. So that was good. It's all gone now," she adds. "I can barely move now. But it was a great thing."
Best known by modern audiences for her long-running roles in New Tricks and Bedtime, Hancock first became famous in the 1960s for films like Carry On Cleo and Take A Girl Like You. She has seen things change a lot for actresses since then but stresses there is still a long way to go.
"I'm a feminist from way back," she says proudly. "I'm part of the 60s movement. And we made huge changes then – massive, massive changes, from when I started in this profession when people like me were only allowed to play dizzy blondes and maid parts, because I had an accent, and also because I wasn't very glamorously beautiful.
"And now, that's all gone, that's changed. You can be tall now. You couldn't be tall when I was young. And you had to be 'nice', you couldn't be unpleasant.
"And I've done two roles this year – one in the theatre and this film – that are very positive images of older women, and that young people hugely enjoy, which is wonderful."
While there has been great sadness in her life – she lost both her husbands to oesophageal cancer – it is important to her to live a life without regrets.
"I don't allow myself regret, because it is a totally useless emotion. What can you do about it?
"Unless you can make amends – and if you can make amends, then do it, and then forget it."
That said, Hancock admits there is something she wishes she'd done differently: "I regret bitterly that I didn't go to university. That's one of my biggest regrets. Because I didn't know what university was – I came from a working-class background and girls from my background just didn't do that.
"Since then, I've had daughters [Melanie with her first husband Alec Ross, Joanna with her second husband John Thaw, and Thaw's daughter Abigail, from his first marriage] and granddaughters, and I spend more time at their universities than they do.
"So, there are major things like that which would have probably changed what I did with my life. But I don't regret them. I've had a good life, I've been very lucky."
:: Edie is in cinemas now.