People We Love: Sheila Hancock

Danny Scott / 30 June 2020

One of the nation’s best-known actresses, Sheila Hancock is still busy working at 87. She tells Danny Scott about her new TV series, the frustrations of lockdown and the joy of keeping in touch on Zoom.

How’s life been during lockdown?

Hideous! I’ve been at my flat in London and I miss my family terribly. Especially the grandchildren. This last couple of months have made me realise that I’m a very tactile person. I want to put my arms around people. Don’t get me wrong… I’ve lived on my own since John died [Sheila’s late husband was Inspector Morse actor John Thaw] and I like my own space but, after a couple of days, I need to see my mates.

What’s an average Sheila Hancock day?

Up early and go for a walk about 6am. My flat’s near the Thames and, even at that time, it’s busy with joggers and cyclists. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking. I’m vegan and I’ve found this company called Mindful Foods. They deliver everything you need for a recipe, so you don’t need to go out looking for strange herbs and spices. And then there are my Zoom and Skype calls.

You recently said that Zoom has changed your life

It has! For years, I was quite snotty about all the social media technology stuff… people tweeting and posting bloody pictures. I want to experience life for real, I don’t want to photograph it! But my grandchildren kept badgering me about Zoom and I finally gave in. It’s wonderful. Phone calls are fine but now I can see my grandchildren and my friends. I can see them smile.

Any advice for surviving lots of time alone?

If you haven’t got an iPhone or an iPad, ask your children if there’s an old one lying about. As well as video chats with the people you care about, there’s a whole new world online. You can learn a language, watch concerts and visit art galleries. Just make sure you keep yourself busy and, for god’s sake, don’t be afraid of technology. Modern technology is wonderful. Modern technology has provided the medicines for my arthritis and it will help us fight this horrible virus.

At 87, you seem to be as busy as ever. There’s a new book project and pre-lockdown you were filming the new series of C4’s Great Canal Journeys with Gyles Brandreth.

I’m still working on the book, but, yes, we filmed the first two episodes of the series. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to start work again because, like a lot of over-70s, I’m classed as ‘vulnerable’. It’s a bit silly, really. Risk is part of life. OK, I have arthritis, but I’m fit as a flea. For the film Edie I played a woman who decides to grab hold of life after her controlling husband dies, and I actually climbed Mount Suilven in the Scottish Highlands. If you let me out, I can work and that means I can pay tax. I can contribute to society.

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Does the relaxed pace of life on a canal appeal to you?

Relaxed? Wait till you see the first episode, darling! Gyles and I crashed into everything on the water, and almost killed some swans. We spent a lot of time panicking, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had on any project I’ve worked on.

Could you do lockdown on a canal boat?

Hmm… that might be difficult. It’s comfortable, but very confined. It would have to be on my own or with somebody who makes me laugh a lot, like Gyles.

Are you fed-up with people asking when you’re going to retire?

Well, it’s better than ‘Are you still here? We thought you were dead!’. I’m not ready to retire yet. I’d be worried that my brain and body would go to pot if I wasn’t working.

Do you mind being called a National Treasure?

I’m honoured that anyone would think that, but all I’ve ever tried to do in my life is be honest. They call John a National Treasure, too. He would have hated that. What about all the nurses and teachers and binmen? Aren’t they National Treasures? Isn’t that why we’ve been clapping them?

Will things change when we finally come through this?

They have to. For years now, we’ve been undervaluing the people that really matter. We’ve got all this celebrity nonsense, but we’re forgetting the nurses and the teachers. Instead of clapping them, let’s give them a decent pay rise! Let’s sort out the NHS and the Welfare State. If that means paying more taxes, so be it.

You’ve been very vocal about certain issues over the years. You called Brexit ‘suicidal and stupid’ and said that anyone who’d been to private school didn’t know what it’s like to be poor. Have you ever considered politics?

I wouldn’t be able to toe any party line. I’d piss too many people off. What makes me angry is that when I do or say something controversial, the media tells me to shut up: ‘You silly actress. What do you know?’. Acting is only my job. First and foremost, I am an 87-year-old woman and I have experienced a lot in my lifetime. War, unemployment, debt, bereavement, alcoholism, austerity. I have every right to my opinions.

In the past, you referred to your relationship with John Thaw as ‘obsessive love’. Was it the obsession that allowed you to deal with his alcoholism?

It’s funny, I talk about this in one of the canal programmes. I had an alcoholic father and two alcoholic husbands [Before John, Sheila was married to another actor, Alec Ross. Like Thaw, he too died of oesophageal cancer.] and I loved them profoundly. They were the be-all and end-all of my world. All three of them. When you fall in love like that, it makes all things… acceptable. Not acceptable, but you manage. Some people look for contentment in a marriage. Not me. My relationships have been adventures. With John, every moment was filled with laughter and you never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next.

Home has been London for a long time. Do you miss the countryside?

Unfortunately, I’m too afraid of cows to live in the countryside.

You’ve worked with some incredible names over the years. Care to reveal a few of your favourites?

It’s impossible to pick favourites, but… Ian McKellen, Daniel Day-Lewis. Then there are the comedians. Frankie Howerd, Cyril Fletcher and Kenneth Williams, of course. Kenny and I shared some wonderful times together. We shared sadness, too. I was very fond of him.

What makes you happy?

Seeing how socially committed young people are. They really do care about the planet, they care about people and they care about animals. And, like me, they’re sick to death of the old order.

Your own children are now in their 50s. How has motherhood changed?

I used to tell them off for being naughty, now they tell me off. If I’m going on a discussion programme, I get a phone call. ‘Mum, please don’t offend anyone else’. My grandchildren love it.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?

When I look back, I realise their whole lives were dedicated to their children. Maybe that’s not how things should be, but it was an amazing example of love and self-sacrifice. And they also lived through two world wars! Life threw a lot at them, but they never moaned. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with it.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

I suppose it’s half-empty at the moment. And at 8pm tonight, when I sit down in front of the telly, I’ll finish the other half!

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