Dame Sheila Hancock DBE is one of the most renowned actors in the country. Across film, television, and theatre, she has achieved stellar success. Her stage career is particularly notable, with her Broadway debut earning her a Tony nomination – along with six Olivier nominations and one win.
On-stage, she is known for starring in the original Broadway production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, the original West End casts of Annie, Sweeney Todd, and Sister Act, the original London cast of Grey Gardens, and the 2007 West End revival of Cabaret – for which she won her Olivier.
On-screen, she is known for The Rag Trade, EastEnders, Bedtime, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Delicious, A Discovery of Witches, and Unforgotten.
This event was hosted by journalist Alex Clark. Clark is a skilled interviewer. She steered the conversation in directions she knew the audience would appreciate but always let Hancock shine (not that Hancock needs permission to shine; she does so naturally).
The two ladies came onstage to Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, and Hancock even gave us a little shimmy. Clark was a little shocked, for Hancock had not done this during the rehearsal. Hancock told us that Simone is her favourite singer, and she cannot resist dancing whenever she hears that song.
The conversation began with a discussion of Manchester. Hancock told us that her late husband, John Thaw, was from Manchester – and whilst he did not like it very much (for he had a difficult time here), she loves the city and has played here many times.
Much like the in conversation between Joan Collins’ (also a Dame and a DBE) and Christopher Biggins earlier this year, Hancock gave us an insight into her relationships with fellow stars – namely, Harold Pinter. Hancock is a very sassy lady, unafraid to arouse a little controversy. She told us that Pinter was not a very good actor early on in his career.
The pair lost contact when he went on to become a hugely successful playwright, screenwriter, and director – but he later reached out to her and asked her to star in his revival of The Birthday Party (which Hancock told us was originally a flop, though one journalist called it a “work of genius”). Hearing such first-hand accounts is truly a privilege.
Whilst one might imagine the elegant Hancock to come from money, she actually grew up with very little, and she had to work to neutralise her accent – though the cockney still occasionally creeps through. Hancock has always stayed true to her roots and has spent her entire career caring deeply about working-class issues. She is not at all materialistic, and she devoted a section of the chat to scathing Monaco – along with its “race thing” (the Grand Prix)!
She also had plenty to say about our terribly Tory Prime Ministers and even offered hilarious impressions of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss (though she never even mentioned Truss’ name, treating her like Voldemort). Her impression of Truss entertained the audience.
Hancock channelled her rage throughout the event. After all, her latest book (her fifth overall) is called Old Rage. She admits to being full of rage – she always has been, as a child of the War, but things have gotten worse for her since Brexit and the pandemic. Hancock jokes that she has turned into her friend and former colleague Judith, a zealous leftist who forced her to participate in politics – even joining picket lines. She said she knows that her friends occasionally have coffee without her – presumably, to save themselves from her rage!
Hancock spoke candidly about a great number of things, including ageing, suffering from illnesses, and being unable to cook (which she also blames on the war, for rationing meant her mother could not teach her how to cook).
Whilst Hancock has had a hugely successful career, her life is not without regrets. Perhaps her biggest regret is having not gone to university. Whilst she has written five books, she did not write her first until she was 80, but she thinks she would have written her first sooner had she gone to university. She admits to feeling honoured when she was made Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth – for it finally gave her a connection to university. Clark joked that whilst Hancock might not have gone to university, she has not done too bad for herself!
On the topic of Hancock being a hugely successful actor, she has also had her struggles. Whilst she got into RADA, she did not do too well there – especially because she was a plain-looking, working-class girl with an cockney accent. She did not manage to get an agent at the end of her time there, and she found herself working in repertory at a theatre in Oldham – but not the Coliseum, she told us. Rather, she worked at a now-closed theatre where people had to hold up umbrellas when it rained because there were holes in the roof! Hancock sure has come quite far…
Hancock told us that, as a working-class actress, she had to star in some pretty rubbish films and plays to make money. She told us about one of the worst films she ever starred in. She could not remember the name so she asked the audience for help. “St Trinians,” said some members of the audience. Indeed, Hancock starred in The Wildcats of St Trinian’s – an awful movie.
Eventually, working-class actors were recognised, and Hancock and her contemporaries like Dame Barbara Windsor DBE were soon cast in main roles in positively reviewed movies.
Hancock is still going strong. Back in 2019, she starred in Edie – a film about an 80-something year-old woman who decides to climb Suilven. She immediately fell in love with the script but was surprised that it was offered to her; she wondered why it had not been offered to “Judy [Dench] and Maggie [Smith] and that lot”.
She admitted to not quite being in the same league as said actors. Whilst she might not have achieved quite the same renown as the likes of Dench and Smith, she has still achieved abundant success, yet she remains modest and humble – possibly a result of being a working-class girl trying to make it in an industry that, for quite some time, did not have a place for her.
The talk then took a spiritual shift. Whilst Hancock had previously mentioned being a Quaker, there was now time for her to have a deeper discussion about religion. She lost her mother and her husband in quite close proximity, which ruined her relationship with religion so much so that she became a humanist – but after being diagnosed with cancer, she found religion. Only, she was not sure what religion she wanted to follow, so she asked her friend to point her to a religion. She began experimenting, and whilst she valued the Eastern religions, she felt silly practicing them as a White lady. Eventually, she found the Religious Society of Friends – a progressive branch of Christianity.
With just a few months to go until her 90th birthday, death is often on Hancock’s mind. She said something along the lines of, “I can’t have long left,” or “I can’t have many years left,” with such casual confidence. She said that there are days where she is in pain and feels that she is ready to die – something which is difficult for most people to fathom, and something she never thought until she turned 80, but she no longer fears death.
After the talk, I had the pleasure of talking to Hancock, and I admitted to being taken aback by her comments on death – for I have an immense fear of ageing and dying. I fear losing my youth, my agility, and my life. I constantly yearn for more, but how can I do that when I am dead – and once I’m dead, where do I go?
Hancock seemed genuinely interested in (and saddened by) my (perhaps irrational) fear of death. She asked me where I think it comes from. In all honesty, I’m not too sure, though I suspect some of it comes from seeing my grandmother getting dementia and becoming reliant on others to feed, change, and bathe her. Hancock wisely told me that dementia is often much harder for those around the person with dementia than for the sufferer themselves. She offered me other words of wisdom and even encouraged me to speak to a professional should I continue to struggle with this fear. Her warm words soothed my soul – and now I get to tell people that Sheila Hancock told me to seek help!
I told Hancock that her ethos is similar to that of the late, great Betty White’s – who sadly passed away last New Year’s Eve, just short of her 100th birthday. White told the late Larry King that she looked forward to death – for what comes after death is the one thing we know nothing about.
Speaking of Betty White, my friend Keshy was one of the lucky people chosen to ask Hancock a question in the Q&A segment of the talk. He asked her about The Brighton Belles – the ill-fated British adaptation of The Golden Girls. Hancock was not afraid to tell us that the adaptation failed because it was terrible. She said the comedy did not work in British English; it was designed to be American. Further, the show’s creator wanted Hancock and her co-stars to be nice, unlike their naughty and sexy American counter-parts.
Another audience member asked Hancock if she keeps diaries, for she (a young woman) struggles to remember things that happened recently, let alone decades ago. Hancock admitted to having a terrible memory so she notes things down – but she burned some early diaries because she slated her children in them!
Towards the end of the talk, Hancock’s unashamed opinions offended a few people in the audience when she said she can’t stand Jane Austen! However, she loves the Brontës. Of course, she presented The Brilliant Brontë Sisters – and “Kate, the blessed Kate” sent her an email to say she liked it. I presume she was referring to Kate Bush but Hancock claims to occasionally feel a sort-of presence of her deceased loved ones so maybe she was referring to the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw.
Dame Sheila Hancock DBE is one of the most eloquent, intellectual, and interesting people I have ever had the pleasure of being in the presence of. She is the definition of a ‘national treasure’, and I will be forever honoured to have seen (and met) her at what could very well be one of her final public appearances. Hancock has lived a long, incredible life – a life that we can all learn so much from.