People We Love: Sheila Hancock

Lucy Cavendish / 23 January 2018

One of our best-loved actresses - and radio quiz regular - took to the stage in 2018 as Maude in Harold and Maude, and starred in the film Edie.

A new play and a film – no plans to slow down then?

Everyone asks me how I keep my energy up but really I don’t feel that old at all. I’m doing books and films and plays, and it doesn’t feel that different from how it’s always been. My son-in-law says to me ‘It’s what you do’ and he’s right. I work as an actor and writer because that’s what I do. I used to have to work to earn money and even though I don’t necessarily need to now, I don’t feel inclined to stop.

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Are younger men ever interested in you, like your character in Edie?

Edie [a woman who decides to walk up a Scottish mountain to try to overcome a lifetime of bitterness] has a relationship with a younger man and I must say I got very close to the actor who played my love interest, as it were. We had a lovely relationship. I can honestly say I think relationships can work across generations because I don’t see that age is part of it.

Did you ever think you’d be starring in a film in your eighties?

Absolutely not but I have loved doing Edie. It was the best of times. I was surrounded by young people and it was a joyous experience. And I actually climbed that mountain. I couldn’t believe I’d achieved it. I think doing challenges inspires people. I’d never done a challenge like that and it was great. It stopped me from being trapped. I also found out I love the country, even though I’m a city girl. Scotland blew my mind.

If you hang out with young people, you think like a young person.

So you don’t see it as ‘them’ and ‘us’?

I think it’s silly to drive a wedge between generations. I love being with young people. If you hang out with young people, you think like a young person. When I am with youngsters I don’t feel different to them at all.

What lessons have you learned in your life?

I think I now know a lot more about what’s important. Before, I used to think success and being respected and esteemed was important, but now I don’t care. It used to matter to me terribly that I was never on those Best Actor lists. But I realised that didn’t mean anything to the man on the street. I get stopped all the time with people telling me they’ve enjoyed seeing me in Dr Who or something.

If you are working class, you’re always working class even when you have money. I think integrity is the most important thing and to try to have the courage to hang on and keep going. I look back and I’m not ashamed of very much.

What sort of grandparent are you?

I think I’m a good granny. I like being with my grandchildren because we do interesting things. We go to exhibitions and political meetings. I like the fact that they think I am wise. I’m not, of course. But I like the fact that they think I am.

I’m mad on weight-lifting

How do you keep fit?

I’m mad on weight-lifting. I had to do a fitness routine for the film and I got really into going to the gym. I love it. I can lift things into overhead cabin lockers now.

What gets your goat?

I find it really difficult when people treat me as if I’m old. They say things like, ‘Can you manage the stairs?’ and I think it’s so rude! I’m totally able-bodied, thank you.

Do you still get people writing to you after they’ve lost a loved one because of your memoir The Two of Us [about Sheila’s marriage to Morse actor John Thaw]?

I’ve lived a long life and seen many things and I can tell you grief is a killer. After John died, I really felt like half a person and that’s why I wrote my memoir about it. So many people still write to me about losing loved ones and I answer as many letters as possible. It’s important and I don’t mind that at all.

How did you get over your grief?

I realised that it is a ghastly process. People get bored of you and then you are stuck with it and still in agony many years later. I just wrote memoirs and that helped. I also tell people that life changes. You have to re-shape your life. Those that suffer are the ones that can’t do that.

Read more about dealing with the different stages of grief

Do you find it painful to write your memoirs?

I have no memories of the past so, yes, it’s very hard. I vaguely remember giving birth and that’s about it, but now I keep on having flashbacks. I was evacuated to Dorset in the war and I was very unhappy. But the other day I remembered this pool I used to swim in under the stars and it was such bliss in all the horror. That moment of ecstasy came flooding back and I don’t really know why.

Are you happy being single?

After John, I found out I was better on my own. I like the freedom and I see people all the time so I don’t get lonely. I know that’s hard for people to hear. People still weep on my shoulder about John’s death. They feel they knew him and they miss him, but I am OK about it all now.

Do you watch Endeavour? What would John think of Shaun Evans’ portrayal of young Morse?

I think John would love it! I think Shaun is brilliant and I’ve been in Endeavour, so I know I like it. Everyone thinks John was like Morse but he wasn’t at all. He was more like his character in The Sweeney.

Will you get stage fright with Harold and Maude?

Of course I will! I always have done and it doesn’t change, but I am used to it. I did a reading at a carol service and that was difficult enough, but I did do it.

How do you get on with Nicholas Parsons?

I love him. He is a miracle. We’ve worked together for more than 50 years and his brain is as sharp as a knife and he still manages those difficult personalities on Just a Minute.

I do have a sense that time is running out and that gives me a feeling of panic.

You are 85: how do you see your future?

I do have a sense that time is running out and that gives me a feeling of panic. I belong to a book club and they say things like, ‘Here’s to the next ten years’ and I’m like ‘I don’t think so.’ I hate that because I don’t want it all to end but I think it makes me get on with life while I still can.

Do you still hold Quaker beliefs?

Yes, absolutely. I just believe very simply that I will be ashes and will be in the ground and that feels absolutely right. Quakers don’t have marked graves, but if my kids want a big funeral and all that, then that’s fine. As I say to them, I won’t be here to know. We scattered some of John’s ashes in France where we used to live and a flower grew there and I feel good about that.

What hopes do you have for the future?

I think we’ve been damaged by Brexit and it’s heart breaking but I think maybe there will be a political revolution and that’s exciting. It’s all up for grabs for the generations coming behind it. It’s just a shame I won’t be there to see it.

Edie is out on digital HD now, and on DVD and Blu-ray

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