FORTHRIGHT, funny, feisty – and a little furious – are all words which spring to mind when interviewing acclaimed actress Dame Sheila Hancock.
Today, the 89-year-old star of stage and screen doesn’t want to dwell on her painful rheumatoid arthritis or other ailments, or the 20th anniversary of the death of her husband, the actor John Thaw, about whom she wrote in The Two Of Us, her bestselling memoir of their marriage.
Nor does she want to linger on the prospect of turning 90 – there are no big parties planned – although she confronts ageing in her latest book, Old Rage.
It was intended to focus on a serene and fulfilled old age but instead ended up a part political diatribe about her fury and distress at Brexit, with condemnation of the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, intertwined with entertaining, witty anecdotes of her life and career, written in diary form from 2016, but covering many stories over the course of her life.
She’s in the process of selling her house in Provence – the bolthole she and Thaw loved – partly because of Brexit, the arduous queuing at airports, the fact that she cannot get the health care in France that she once could. Leaving the EU is a big source of her fury.
“It wasn’t going to be an angry book,” the award-winning actress reflects. “I thought I’d write a book about being old and that it’s not as bad as people think it is, with a few little tips. But almost as soon as I started, Brexit happened which made me beside myself with rage and grief. Then we went into lockdown and then I got rheumatoid arthritis.”
She also tells in the book of her fear when her eldest daughter, Ellie Jane (from her first marriage to the late actor Alec Ross), was diagnosed at 50 with breast cancer, as Hancock had been in 1988. Typically, the actress did her best not to show her distress in front of her daughter during the treatment, waiting till she arrived home to howl with grief, powerless to make her better.
Today, she remains tight-lipped about her daughter’s recovery, just saying that she is doing very well.
Hancock’s rheumatoid arthritis flared when Ellie Jane was diagnosed, which is common when you have a shock, she says, but the condition is managed through a cocktail of drugs, which has made life much easier.
“But, oh dear, let’s not talk about pain all the time, I do hate it,” she pleads. “It’s not an important part of my life.
“When my girlfriends talk about all the ailments we’ve got, I very often say, ‘Do you remember when we used to talk about sex? And here we are talking about bloody hip replacements!’”
Still as sharp as a pin, Hancock, has directed and acted for the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre as well as acting in a myriad of TV roles over the past six decades, most recently, ITV’s Unforgotten and the Sky comedy drama series Delicious.
She has also weaved her way along our canal system in two series of Great Canal Journeys with Gyles Brandreth but before that in 2016 – when she was 83 – climbed Suilven, a 2,400ft mountain in the Scottish Highlands for the film Edie.
With her ‘still-lethal ambition’, as she calls it, she employed a trainer at her local gym to help her tone up for the mammoth climb, which resulted in lifting weights, speeding on a treadmill and, over three months, developing bulges in her arms and legs that hadn’t been there for years. Regular running through Richmond Park helped, she recalls.
“I just had to get fit if I wanted to play the part,” she shrugs. “It was bloody hard work. It was freezing cold and I can’t think why anybody ever wants to go camping. It was my idea of hell on earth living in a tent on a mountain. It was sometimes very scary because I couldn’t be roped.”
These days, she has an alarm on her watch which alerts her to move regularly every day, and she walks a lot, rarely doing less than 5,000 steps. She’s also at the gym twice a week.
There’s no doubt that Hancock is tough. Age has not dampened her spirit or her desire to work -whether it’s acting or writing.
“Work keeps me going. It’s company, apart from anything else. It keeps my mind alert and it keeps me in touch with youngsters. I need young people in my life.”
She has three daughters, Ellie Jane, Abigail (from Thaw’s first marriage), and Joanna who she had with Thaw, plus eight grandchildren, some of whom live nearby, but says she relies more on her friends than her family.
“They are incredibly busy and I don’t need them all the time, but I couldn’t do without my friends, a lovely moan and a lovely laugh.”
As for work, she turns down a lot. “That’s because there’s so few of us left who can still run around. There aren’t that many 90-year-olds who can play those parts. Some have dropped out or can’t learn the lines so I get a bigger pick than I used to in the old days.”
While the deadpan, acerbic wit is never far from the surface, Hancock seems to harbour a rage at so much around her.
“I don’t think you can grow old without being pretty angry,” she states. “Leadership at the moment is so diabolical and I think we’ve been lied to and I worry about what’s happening to society. That makes me angry because people deserve better.”
She remains a Labour supporter but is no longer a party member.
“I’m not as political as I used to be. I think politics is outdated. The next generation will get rid of party politics. We want people that run the country to make the country better, not because they are toeing some party line.
“I’d like to see a parliament full of people who are experts in their field and care desperately to make the world a better place, instead of just saying that they do and not doing anything about it.”
She talks about industries closing, immigration and refugee crises, the need for a shake-up in the education system and shudders at the thought of young people being exposed on the Internet to what she calls ‘hideous introductions to love’.
Hancock doesn’t do social media because she doesn’t want to read nasty things about herself.
“There are sad people who have nothing better to do than to be angry at everybody and my heart goes out to them because I always visualise that they are stuck in some horrible situation in their life and all they can think of is to be vile and threatening to people that they don’t know.”
She has a strong Quaker ethic and received a damehood in 2021 for services to drama and charity. Thankfully she was able to receive it in person from Prince William, she notes.
Hancock says she didn’t cope with the pandemic very well.
“I considered myself incredibly lucky that I wasn’t in a high rise block with five noisy kids and a grumpy husband who wasn’t able to work. I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining. I’ve got a balcony and could get fresh air, but eventually I started to break rules a bit. I drove into the centre of London when it was empty and I began to have a few adventures.”
But she resented effectively losing two years of her life. “Of course it’s sad for young people but when you’re old it’s almost worse, when you can’t afford to be shut away for a couple of years.”
She broke her wrist three months ago (she was sat on the loo washing her feet in the bidet, when she stood up and lost her balance) and was told by doctors that it would never be fully functional again.
“Well, it is, you see. I’ve worked really hard with a physio who challenged me to get it working again. The consultant was open-mouthed. I was bloody determined.”
Perhaps that sheer iron will is her secret to tackling old age.
“You’ve got to challenge yourself the whole time. If somebody doesn’t want to do that, I totally understand, but it’s not my way.”
Old Rage by Sheila Hancock is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99. Available now