While Dame Sheila Hancock still has a zest for life and relishes being a working actress, she concedes that her body is beginning to fail her.
The star has owned a home in Luberon, France, for the past 30 years, but says when she visited for the first time after the pandemic, something had changed.
“The last time I went after lockdown, I realised I’ve aged,” she says. “Driving down to get there, I found it nerve-wracking for the first time in my life. I also had to climb over [the edge of] the bath to have a shower – silly things like that.
“I used to go over several times a year and that’s not the case now. It takes too long to go by train. I have got to give it up and it is breaking my heart.”
The 90-year-old recently starred opposite Sanjeev Bhaskar in Unforgotten, and will soon be appearing alongside Timothy Spall in BBC One’s The Sixth Commandment – a true drama based on murderer Ben Field.
Sheila has confronted the stigma around ageing in many of her screen roles, including Jimmy McGovern’s Moving On, where she played a widow whose children wouldn’t accept her new partner, and in 2017’s Edie, a film about an 83-year-old who decides to climb a mountain.
“Old age has got a lot to do with letting things go, letting friends go,” she admits. “That is difficult when you have to let go of a way of life. All sorts of things go. But you can adapt and you can prepare for old age.”
She adds, “I have got funny handles stuck on the wall. I don’t need them yet, but I may need them to get me up the stairs. Also, you have to think, ‘Will I have to go into a home?’ You have to – otherwise I will get dumped somewhere horrible. So I advise people of my age to prepare.”
The Isle of Wight-born star has experienced her fair share of health scares.
“I have rheumatoid arthritis, which is a bit annoying as your body suddenly turns against you, which does not surprise me,” she says. “My body has spent its life turning against me. I had pneumonia three weeks ago – I woke up spitting up blood and I had emergency scans and lots of antibiotics and carried on.”
Carrying on seems to be something Sheila does well. “I think there is something odd about me actually,” she laughs. “I do recover so well. I think my immune system is good at getting me better. I had coronavirus and for two days I was really ill, and then I was fine. In old age you have to make up your mind that it is not going to get you. You have to keep changing your approach to life.”
Rather than feeling tempted to retire and put her feet up, Sheila believes it’s work itself that keeps her going.
“I think it has something to do with acting,” she explains. “You cannot let people down. I mean, you could be dropping dead and go on a stage and be fine, and then come off and you are dead again. It is a phenomenon.”
She continues, “I was once in a play in Chichester and I fell in the bath. It was a matinee and it was sold
out. I knew if I did not do the play, it would not go ahead. I went on and there was blood dripping.”
Sheila’s determination and refusal to give up is all the more surprising given the many blows life has dealt her.
The actress, who shot to fame in BBC sitcom The Rag Trade in the 60s, lost her first husband, actor Alec Ross, to cancer in 1971. In the late 80s, she fought her own battle with breast cancer while married to her second husband, John Thaw. Tragically, the much-loved star of TV’s Inspector Morse later contracted oesophageal cancer and passed away in 2002. But worse was to come.
In 2017, Sheila was knocked for six when her eldest daughter, Melanie, phoned with the devastating news that she was suffering from stage-three breast cancer. She has previously described how her daughter’s diagnosis made her
“howl with grief”.
With so many setbacks in her life – and such strong views on the state of the world around her – is it any wonder Sheila, who is also mum to actress Joanna Thaw, decided to call her recent autobiography Old Rage?
“It’s difficult not to be angry, isn’t it?” she says. “I have just turned 90. I won’t be here much longer, realistically, and I would like to leave the world a happy place. But there are natural disasters… and then, of course, the ever-lasting worry about the planet. It’s terrifying. And we are not taking it as seriously as we should.
“I changed the title of my book to Old Rage, as first of all my daughter got cancer, I got rheumatoid arthritis, then we had Boris Johnson, then we had Brexit. I was torn, as I do like to see the bright side of everything.”
Sheila is critical of the UK government, saying she feels the creative industries have been stifled in recent years. “How dare they cut arts funding and say children need to do maths. How dare they! We need culture in this country,” she rages. “Arts make life worth living.”
Despite her grievances with the state of the world, Sheila still has a cracking sense of humour. She had audiences in stitches in the 00s with her appearances on TV show Grumpy Old Women and, more recently, shared her opinions on the week’s telly alongside her pal Gyles Brandreth on Gogglebox. Not that her stint on the sofa ended too well.
“I used to love doing it with Gyles, but they sacked me from that. Well, they did not ask me back,” explains Sheila, who says she clashed with producers after complaining about Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. “I think it was because there were a lot of shows with penises in, and because it went down [well] with the audience, they kept showing them to us.
“Eventually I phoned up the lady on the edit and said, ‘I am enjoying the show, but do you think we can have anything other than penises?’ and she was quite angry.”
But Sheila has nothing but praise for today’s quality TV dramas. “TV is extremely good in this country,” she continues. “I loved Happy Valley. When we do it well, we do it bloody well. The writing and the last scene
was unbelievable. I am so proud of my profession when I see work like that.
“Vera is also a wonderful bit of work. She [Brenda Blethyn] is bloody marvellous in that and the show is beautifully lit and shot. Now TV has come into its own and it is one of the most prestigious things to do.”
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