appreciate solitude as opposed to loneliness
The actress Sheila Hancock is taller than you expect, with a strikingly stylish haircut. At 76, the Olivier award-winner is enjoying a remarkable second act. On my route to see her at the London Palladium every bus stop on Oxford Street is advertising her new musical, Sister Act (she plays a Mother Superior in a convent shaken up by an in-disguise disco diva). In July the paperback edition of her bestselling memoir, Just Me, will appear, chronicling her adjustment to widowhood after the death of her actor husband John Thaw. She has just taken part in a new BBC Two series, My Life in Verse, in which she reads Shakespeare with inner-city kids.
“Maybe it’s because I’m freer to take things up now,” she observes. She does not look close to her age, with her clear skin and wide blue eyes. “I can travel, I can go away, I don’t have to say to somebody, ‘Will you be working then, do you want me to be at home?’ I’m making it sound like I was subservient to John — I wasn’t. But he wasn’t that sociable. And I was happy with him, so I didn’t want anyone else particularly.”
Does all the work wear her out? “No. Nerves-wise, I find it hard. And, physically, we’re doing really long hours. Today I’m working from half-past one to half-past ten, so it’s quite gruelling. But I’m incredibly lucky, I really am. I like the fact that this is a musical about sisterhood, because I’m an old-fashioned feminist, and I very much like the idea of women helping women. And I like that it’s about a group of women being very powerful. What’s more, the work I’m doing is very varied, which is smashing. I so enjoyed my poetry programme!” Thaw loved poetry, too, and gave her a book of Yeats poems with the inscription “I love these poems almost as much as you.” “Yes, he was tremendously romantic . . . when he was behaving,” Hancock says drily. “When he wasn’t, he was pretty awful. But then, aren’t we all? So it’s a new departure completely. I’d love to do more things like travel programmes; they don’t ask older women to do those sorts of things — they don’t even ask them to do the news after a certain age.”
Hancock lives in Hammersmith, West London, in a house that she bought knowing that the star of Inspector Morse would have hated it. Thaw liked silence and solitude; she actually enjoys the droning of the planes. Silence makes her fidgety, she says. It is seven years since his death and she has grown used to being on her own. Yet Just Me, the successor to what she calls her “grief book”, The Two of Us, is still steeped in the sadness of the recently widowed: the painfulness of learning to eat in a hotel restaurant alone, the invisibility of the single woman to the eye of the professional waiter, the feelings of detachment in the midst of three loving daughters and their partners and seven children.
“It’s just a case of — John used to have this phrase — I have no choice. When he had the cancer I’d say, ‘You’re being really brave.’ ‘I have no choice,’ he’d say. I think there are periods in your life, it’s not necessarily to do with loss, or you lose your job, and the choice you have is to survive well or badly; that is your choice. I’ve learnt to enjoy myself on my own, I’ve learnt to appreciate solitude as opposed to loneliness.”
She smiles. “But I’m shocked by how little I learn in life, and how easily I revert to being the same stupid person! All I’ve learnt is survival, really.” I mention how sad I found Just Me. “Well, the last book was really grief-stricken,” she replies, “but I’ve had loads of letters from people saying, ‘I’m absolutely determined I’m going to change. I’ve been miserable but since reading your book I’m going away on holiday.’ And when the hardback came out I did an interview for Woman’s Hour and when I came out I saw a young woman with tears running down her face. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ She said, ‘I’m bloody determined to change my life. I’m in a dead-end job and I’ve got a broken relationship that I weep in the pillow over — thank you.’ So I hope it makes people think that anything is possible.”
She adds: “I talk in the book about an episode I had in Venice. Because John and I had gone to Venice and had a blissful time, it was one of our get-togethers after we’d broken up, which happened on a regular basis, and it was carnival time, so it was all very mysterious and wonderful. And I’m a guidebook freak, I have to see everything, and one day we’d had a particularly heavy day and ended up at the Basilica in St Mark’s Square.” Hancock wanted to go inside and up the stairs to look at the originals of the famous horse statues outside. “John said, ‘No! That’s it! It’s coffee in St Mark’s Square, I’ve got foot rot — can’t do it.’ So we had a coffee. And on this second trip, on my own, I went up the staircase. And of course there were these amazing horses and I wept and thought, ‘He’s not going to see that.’ And I went and lay in bed for a couple of days.” She shrugs. “And then I got up, and it was fine.”
She made no secret of the tempestuous relationship she had with Thaw. He was a drinker, like Hancock’s father, who was a publican, and her first husband, Alec Ross, also an actor, whom she met in rep at 19 and who died young, also of cancer. Thaw and she spent years parting and reuniting; their kids became wearily resigned to it — they had a daughter each when they met and a third together. “I think people give up on marriage too easily, I really do,” she remarks of this. “To give up at the first fence is silly, because sometimes you can get through that, and you get closer, without a shadow of a doubt. You end up with something that you would not reach any other way. I can’t explain it: there’s a profundity in the relationship, an absolute safety, in the end, because you’ve been through all these things and you so belong to one another, you so can’t be with anybody else. I mean, in our case I could so easily have given up, because it was tough, and I did keep going, and coming back, and so did he. But we couldn’t live without each other: it was simple as that. We really needed one another.” She grins. “I’m not pretending it was a healthy relationship — what is? But my first husband was the same, and my dad was the same. Those are the sort of men I’m attracted to. Face it. Deal with it. It’s not good trying to look for a man you’re going to feel cosy and cared for by if it’s not in your personality.”
Their last eight years seem to have been the most peaceful, when Thaw gave up booze. But there is no hint of self-pity in her, or underlying sadness. She talks cheerfully about the novel she is about to write and her upbringing in the Carpenter’s Arms, a “spit-and-sawdust” pub near a winkle and shrimp barrow on King’s Cross Road. It was wartime evacuation to Berkshire aged 7 that seems to have planted her lifelong feeling of insecurity. Has it got better over the years? “No,” she says. “Honestly, it hasn’t.”
How does she spend her spare time? She goes to a Quaker meeting on Sunday, and for a treat to Paris, or a classical concert. She has recently discovered the new Kings Place concert hall. She might have lunch with her family at a pub or High Road House, the Chiswick outpost of Soho House.
“I have to take care of my health to keep working,” she adds. “I do Pilates, and I do a bit of yoga and walk whenever I can, and I swim.” She says that she is a terrible cook and exists on takeaways. But her guilty pleasure is chocolate. “Easter is a disaster for me — when the children were young I used to eat their eggs. I don’t even like chocolate, but I gorge on it if it’s in the house!”
Sister Act is now running at the Palladium, London W1 (www.london-palladium.co.uk)