Sheila Hancock is still living adventurously

PUBLISHED: 15:32 28 August 2013 | UPDATED: 15:32 28 August 2013




AT the age of 80, Sheila Hancock is about to embark on one of her most exuberant stage roles – playing an out-and-out villainess and head of a dysfunctional family of gangsters in the new West End comedy, Barking in Essex.

She’s relishing the prospect of playing Essex matriarch Emmie Packer – all fur coats, big hair and leopard-print tops. ‘She is a thoroughly awful woman, and I liked the idea of that,’ Sheila tells me. ‘She is completely, totally evil, but hopefully funny with it. She’s so extreme!’

Algie Packer is about to be released from jail and is coming home to collect his booty – £3.5 million in untraceable notes. ‘But the family’s made off with the loot – well me, mainly,’ says Sheila, ‘and Algie’s coming out thinking that lovely mum has kept it all safe for him. But he’s a real villain – a really scary character and what ensues is how they cover up the fact they’ve committed this heinous crime. I think it’s going to be a really good, fun evening.’

Barking in Essex is the last stage play ever written by screenwriter Clive Exton, who died in 2007 having penned such TV classics as Jeeves and Wooster and Poirot. The play at the Wyndhams Theatre features a glittering cast including Essex comedian Lee Evans and Upstairs Downstairs’ Keeley Hawes. I asked Sheila what had attracted her to the comedy?

‘I suppose it’s partly because it’s unlike any other play I’d ever read,’ she replies. ‘It’s a gothic farce and it’s bizarre – a totally unpredictable piece of writing. I think it will surprise people.’

The language, she freely admits, may shock the faint-hearted. ‘The use of four-letter words is extraordinary,’ she says. ‘It’s an amazing use of language which I think verges on the poetic.’ Sheila has no problem with it. ‘I don’t understand the thing we have about bad language in this country because it’s all part of our Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. It seems to me rather foolish – but then I do swear a great deal myself!’

She has no fear that she will find the role tiring, having recently starred as mother superior in the West End musical Sister Act. ‘Sister Act ran for 18 months, so no, I don’t get tired.’

Since losing her beloved husband John Thaw, of Inspector Morse fame, to throat cancer in 2002, Sheila has emerged from an intense period of depression full of life and vigour, eager to try out a variety of new experiences. As well as taking part in stage productions ranging from Pinter’s The Birthday Party to Cabaret (which won her an Olivier award), she also acted as a judge in BBC1’s Over the Rainbow.

She has written two memoirs – The Two of Us and Just Me – the first charting the tempestuous, passionate relationship she had with John, whose alcoholism could make him moody and volatile, and the second describing how she dealt with her grief and gradually learnt to face the world anew. She has just finished her first novel, about a schoolteacher who served in the Resistance during the war. It’s taken her three years to write. ‘It runs from the end of the war up until 9/11. It has quite a complicated social history, so it involved a lot of research. I’m only semi-educated and I found it difficult as it’s such a different technique to writing a memoir. So it’s been a learning process, but I’ve enjoyed the whole thing.’

Sheila was born in 1933, the daughter of a publican who, like both her husbands, had a drink problem. Her early years were spent living above her parents’ spit-and-sawdust pub in King’s Cross. ‘It was wonderful,’ she recalls fondly. ‘It was a working-class pub with local characters – plus wrestlers, as there was a ring nearby. There were a lot of fights and there would be Salvation Army people and people selling winkles and shrimps from barrows. It was an exciting life.’

Later, the family moved to Kent, where her father worked in a factory and her mother in a shop. After war was declared when Sheila was six, she was evacuated, first to Berkshire and later to Somerset. She hated it. ‘It was horrid. As a tiny child, it’s horrible to be taken away from your parents and billeted on people you don’t know. And I thought my parents were going to die, which is why they eventually brought me back, because I preferred to die with my parents than be orphaned without ever having seen them.’

As it turned out, she ended up being sent away while there were no raids, returning home just in time for the Blitz. ‘So we had the worst of both worlds – we caught all the bombings at the same time as being wrenched away from our parents.’

She’s convinced the terror of wartime instilled a deep fear that remains with her to this day. ‘I think I learnt to be fearful,’ she says. ‘The underlying theme in my life is fear – my natural first reaction is always one of slight fear.’

But it also gave her an enduring love of excitement and danger. ‘It was exciting at the same time. We lived in air raid shelters, we had to go to school in a crocodile with our gas masks and helmets, and we’d come out of the shelter and there would be rubble everywhere, and we’d collect shrapnel and bullets. It wasn’t a normal childhood.’

Sheila was educated first at a convent and later at Dartford Grammar School. She was bright and her teachers were keen for her to try for a scholarship to university. But the world of academia was unknown to her. ‘I wish now I’d taken the opportunity to go, but it was beyond my comprehension back then.’ The world of theatre, however, was less of a mystery to her, as her elder sister was a variety artiste. Sheila won a scholarship to study drama at RADA.

RADA proved to be a culture shock for a working class girl. ‘It was all Lady this and Lord that. Everybody paid fees apart from a few of us on scholarships. It was more like a finishing school really.’

She later married the actor Alec Ross, who died of oesophageal cancer in 1971. After his death, she and John started their intense relationship and the two married in 1973.

Their 28-year marriage proved to be stormy, obsessive and passionate. John was scarred by his difficult childhood. He had grown up in a rough area of Manchester and was abandoned by his mother at the age of seven. Drink was his antidote to pain and anger. The pair rowed and split up many times, but always reunited. Sheila admits that his unpredictable temperament was partly what attracted her to him. ‘My father was a drinker, as was my first husband, so there might be something in me that is drawn to that kind of man,’ she says. ‘I don’t go in for contentment. I much prefer colour and excitement and with none of those three men was I ever bored for one minute!’

When Sheila was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980s, John left her. ‘He couldn’t handle it,’ she says. ‘It brought back all those deep-seated fears of abandonment. His mum had left him, his first marriage had broken up and he couldn’t bear for anyone else to leave him. He just could not face another knock.’

Yet when John was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer – ironically after he had given up drinking – she nursed him devotedly. It was an agonisingly painful time for her, and she could not bear the thought of living without him. When he died, her grief was overwhelming and she sunk into a deep depression. It took her a long time to recover, but gradually, she re-emerged, rediscovering her own sense of identity and re-establishing her place in the world as a widow. She wrote The Two Of Us – an acclaimed memoir that told both her life story and John’s.

‘I wanted people to know John – to know what an amazing thing it was that he achieved so much, given his background,’ she says.

John hated his late mother with a passion, unable to forgive her for deserting him. Sheila set about tracing her story, trying to fathom her reasons for abandoning John and his brother. ‘I hope I’ve written with some sympathy and understanding as to why a woman in that period would have done that,’ she says. ‘I wanted John, wherever he was, to know that it wasn’t a thing she’d done cruelly. I also wanted to lay that ghost for my daughters. We’d all learnt to hate this woman because in our mind she was responsible for the way John had problems in his life. And I just wanted to say, hold on a minute, this relative of yours was not as bad as we think she was. It was a fascinating bit of research and I ended up liking her enormously.’

Sheila has always been a staunch feminist, and has stayed loyal to her parents’ left-wing politics – despite her frustrations with Labour, particularly over Iraq. ‘I was born and bred working class Labour and, however stupid and awful they are, I could never vote Tory. There are certain things in life you’re prejudiced about, and that’s my prejudice.’

Despite her early Catholic education, Sheila has been a practising Quaker for more than 20 years. ‘I was deeply religious for a time when I was young, and then I lost my faith completely when my first cousin and mother died in quick succession. But when I became ill with breast cancer, I felt a vacuum – I needed a spiritual side to my life. I couldn’t look at the ordinary church because of its attitude to women and then somebody suggested I go to a Quaker meeting. I just immediately felt at home. They have a very admirable history of being always slightly outside the rules – slightly anarchic.’

A Quaker tenet is to ‘live adventurously’ and that is what Sheila has been doing in recent years – travelling widely, learning new skills and rising to all kinds of new challenges. ‘It’s a good way to live,’ she says. ‘I have no family to worry about, so I can do my own thing and the more new things I do, the more I enjoy it.’

She has always been crippled by stage fright, but she is even learning to master that. ‘I use a hypnotist now and I don’t get it so badly. Also, I’m older and I think, “Oh, for God’s sake, it’s only a play”. I don’t get quite so terrified as I used to.’

I ask her how she thinks John would feel about the rich and varied life she now enjoys. ‘I loathe it when people die and we say, “Oh, he’d have been so happy you’re doing this”,’ she replies. ‘The thing with John was I never knew how he’d react. He’d constantly surprise me. So now he’s dead, I can’t say how he’d feel. He could be livid, thinking, “Why the hell aren’t you crying and breaking your heart?” I’ve no idea – it would be presumptuous of me to say. I’d like to think he’d be pleased. I knew he loved me and I certainly don’t think he’d have wanted me to be distressed.’

Despite being 80, she has no thoughts of retirement so long as her health holds up. ‘I’m a very active person. I’m not good at putting my feet up doing nothing. I’ll love doing Barking in Essex. I think it will be one of those plays where people will come not knowing what to expect, and go away thinking, “Good God, what was that?”’ It sounds like the perfect vehicle for Sheila Hancock.

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