Sheila Hancock

‘Somebody told me I was a national treasure last week,’ laughs Sheila Hancock. ‘I said, “darling, anybody who can teeter across the stage after the age of 70 is deemed a treasure, however vile they are”. It’s automatic language. And it’s nonsense, of course.’

Well, perhaps. But, at 82, the stage and screen star has never been more popular or in-demand. And now she’s taking on a genuinely new challenge, playing her first ‘real life’ role as the American socialite Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale.

The aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Beale and her daughter, also Edith, were the subject of an acclaimed 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens, chronicling their lives as virtual recluses in a 28-room East Hampton mansion so squalid the Health Department ruled it ‘unfit for human habitation’. The film became a cult classic, and the basis for a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical that’s now receiving its European premiere, starring Hancock and Jenna Russell.

‘American aristocracy doesn’t come naturally to me,’ Hancock, the daughter of an Isle of Wight publican, tells Weekend, shortly before beginning rehearsals. ‘Also, playing a real person is not something I’ve ever done, and I don’t quite know how you do it. How do you get into a soul of the person, and not make it just an impersonation?’

Does she see any similarities between her and ‘Big Edie’? Presumably her house is a lot tidier? ‘Not a lot! she says. ‘Thank God I’ve got a lady who comes and tidies up after me. But we have age in common, I suppose. These days, the people I play are usually senile or they die.’

The Grey Gardens story taps into our eternal fascination with faded glamour: ‘It’s this amazing fall of these two women who have led the most extraordinary lives,’ says Hancock. ‘Also, and I suppose this is a modern, feminist view of it, it’s about how women in that society were marriageable commodities, sacrificed for political alliances.’

By a quirk of fate, Jenna Russell made her acting debut as a teenager in Home to Roost, the 80s sitcom starring Hancock’s late husband, John Thaw, and the two women previously worked together in a production of Peter Pan, which proved to be Thaw’s last role. ‘I find there are lots of little links like that,’ muses Hancock, who was awarded the CBE in 2011. ‘You can’t be in the business as long I have without having brushed up against people. But Jenna is marvellous – she carries the show, and I just support her.’

Lately, Hancock feels she has finally started to conquer her lifelong struggle with debilitating stage fright – something she partly attributes to her experiences as a child during the war.

‘Our childhood was fearful,’ she says. ‘I think that makes it really difficult not to approach things fearfully. There were bombs falling, and when I was seven, I had a label on me and was put on a train and billeted with people I’d never met in my life. No wonder we were scared.’

After school in Dartford, Hancock won a scholarship to RADA, in an era when working class drama students were few and far between. ‘It was useless, darling, for me,’ she says. ‘I felt utterly inferior. It was like a finishing school in those days – I just didn’t fit in. I was quite the wrong type for theatre at that time: I was tall, I was pretty plain, I had a cockney accent. In every way I felt inadequate.’

Fortunately, a theatre revolution was around the corner, of which Hancock was at the vanguard. Having got her big break in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, she went on to earn a Tony nomination for her role in the 1965 Broadway production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. By that time, she was already a huge star thanks to her role in the phenomenally popular BBC comedy The Rag Trade – the first of a succession of what she calls ‘dizzy blonde’ parts in sitcoms like Mr Digby Darling and Now Take My Wife.

Fame, she says, was ‘daunting but lovely’. Off-screen, she was married to the actor Alec Ross from 1955 until his death from cancer in 1971. She married John Thaw in 1973 – two years before The Sweeney made him a national icon – and they remained together, save for a brief period of separation during which she was treated for breast cancer, for the next 30 years. They raised three daughters, including two from their respective first marriages, all of who are now actors.

After Thaw died in 2002, Hancock channeled some of her all-consuming grief into a hugely moving and vivid memoir, The Two of Us. Originally conceived as a straight account of their lives, it provoked an extraordinary reaction among people struggling with bereavement.

‘I didn’t know how to write about John’s death,’ she admits, ‘so I decided to intersperse the book with diary entries. And because that’s so immediate, so raw, maybe when people are feeling almost mad with grief, it’s comforting to know there are other people going through the same thing.’

A follow-up, Just Me, chronicled her life after Thaw, and proved equally powerful. ‘There’s a point in grief when everybody else seems to get better, and you’re still grieving maybe a year or even 10 years later,’ she reflects. ‘Again, it’s probably comforting to read someone else sharing that, and sharing how they got over it.’

Hancock’s way of getting over it was to say yes to things – to be less fearful. Which is why, in recent years, she’s juggled TV, film, theatre and musical roles (winning an Olivier Award for Cabaret) with documentaries on everything from watercolours to the Suffragettes and appearances on the likes of Grumpy Old Women, QI and the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special. She also followed up her memoirs with a well-received first novel, Miss Carter’s War, tracing her idealistic heroine’s journey from the French Resistance to Thatcherism.

One project close to her heart was an ITV documentary on the Brontë Sisters, not least because she can’t help but see parallels between Wuthering Heights’ tormented lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe and her own life with Thaw. ‘It was a passionate relationship – it wasn’t a contented, benign relationship,’ she says. ‘It’s no secret John was an alcoholic. I’m drawn to that sort of tempestuous life, I suppose. And it was utterly exciting. I wouldn’t ever have liked to know where I was or what was going to happen next, and have a lovely, cosy life.

‘I’m not saying that out of pleasure – I’m sure to live a more contented life is wonderful, and I would love it if I was of that temperament. But I have to accept that I’m not.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 7, 2016

(c) Waitrose Weekend