Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

May 10, 2009

Sheila Hancock reveals her love for JAM

Lovely article in the Telegraph today

'I'm not some kind of tragic widow'
Despite suffering from stage fright all her life, Sheila Hancock is starring in a musical at the age of 76. She tells Roya Nikkhah about singing nuns, feminism and life with – and without – John Thaw

Sheila Hancock is dancing around her dressing room, counting out loud as she tries to remember the dance steps she learned this morning. "I'm too old for all of this," she laughs, pointing her toes and unleashing an elegant high kick. "I'm not sure about all these new steps and routines. I don't know if I can still totter about on stage."

At 76, Hancock still looks svelte and sprightly with her neat white bob, black jeans and tan leather jacket, but tottering about on stage is always a bit harder in a habit. In her latest role, she plays Mother Superior in the stage adaptation of Sister Act, the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg in which Deloris, a murder witness, is sent by the police to a convent for protection, where she transforms the choir, much to the dismay of Mother Superior.

One might forgive Hancock for putting her feet up with a cup of cocoa instead of performing eight punishing all-singing-and-dancing shows a week but she couldn't resist taking on the role of the icy nun who slowly melts.

"There's a huge warmth to it and it's about sisterhood, which appeals to me. And the idea of a group of people facing adversity and triumphing is particularly timely. Mother Superior has a place of sanctuary where she protects those within. She sings a song, 'Outside all is sin, I won't have the outside coming in.' And in comes this sexy, sassy – she thinks ghastly – woman, and hates it, but then learns to change her mind."

Hancock, who went to two convent schools in London, trawled her memory to research the role. "I can still remember how much I hated the scent of incense at school." Did she ever contemplate following in her teachers' footsteps? "Not in a million years," she replies laughing. "And I couldn't wear the hat – it is absolutely crucifying my neck."

Hancock admits that despite a constant battle with stage fright, for which she sees a hypnotist, she is addicted to work, including writing – she has published three best-selling memoirs and is working on a novel.

"It's an illness. I have been really scared when rehearsing and thought to myself, why do I torture myself like this? But it's about proving that I still can do it. And I like the discipline. It's good for me to have to get up and do something, otherwise it would be very easy to just fall apart and vegetate. And the fear makes me do it. I will not be defeated – I'll bloody well do it."

That determination has seen Hancock bulldoze through a few glass ceilings. Rather than take a back seat role to her two husbands, Alec Ross and John Thaw – both actors – for much of her career she was the more successful half of the partnerships, as film and TV work as well as West End roles kept coming her way. Hancock recalls an incident before Thaw hit the big time with The Sweeney. "We were looking through a copy of Who's Who and there was this long description of me, and then we looked up John and it said, 'See Sheila Hancock'." She was also the first woman to direct a play on the National Theatre's main stage, and has never been afraid to push her head above the parapet.

"I didn't work at the BBC for many years after I spoke up to them," she says. "After reading The Female Eunuch [the seminal Seventies feminist tract], I wanted to break out. I wanted to do a comedy sketch that was quite controversial – it was all about prejudice and race and I was playing this mad, grotesque landlady. But the BBC didn't want me to do it – they said, 'It will ruin your image', which was basically a tizzy blonde. Anyway, I did it, but then I didn't work for them for years. They didn't like women who spoke up. But I don't like authority and I don't like being dictated to or told what to do."

Hancock and the BBC have long since made up, and she appeared in a number of recent productions including Bleak House, New Tricks and The Catherine Tate Show.

Born on the Isle of Wight to publican parents who moved to London, Hancock was introduced to the world of performing through the weekly piano singalongs that her parents hosted at their pubs.

"There were not many options for girls in those days," she recalls. "I was bright at school but I didn't know what university was – nobody did. So the options were being a nurse, a teacher, or an old maverick who went on to the stage. I did a school play and the head boy asked me out to a dance and I thought, 'This is good, I'll do this.' "

Her training at Rada was less to her taste. "I hated every minute. It was like a finishing school. I was a scholarship girl, I had an estuary accent, and everyone else was like Lord this, or the Hon that. They were all frightfully posh. I was also tall, so I got cast as a man a lot – I made a pretty good Petrucchio."

Hancock has rarely been out of work since, but admits that motherhood was the one role she never perfected, with success often coming at the cost of her children, who she "neglected terribly". She has three daughters – Melanie, from her marriage to Ross, Abigail, her daughter with Thaw, and Joanna, Thaw's daughter from his first marriage, who she considers "very much part of the family". "You youngsters have moved on from us early feminists. But back then, we were not going to be cast aside as wives and mothers; we had to work. Now, my daughters are very elegant examples of how to do both. But I never did enjoy motherhood: I was too busy battling, striving and fitting them in around my life."

Hancock also admits that her turbulent relationship with Thaw, to whom she was married for 29 years, distracted her from family life. Thaw was an alcoholic for all but the last six years of their marriage, which at best was "volatile" and at worst unbearable, prompting them to separate more times than she can remember. What, kept bringing them back together?

"It was an obsession. We both really did love one another. We couldn't be apart, we kept leaving one another all the time, but it didn't work. I couldn't imagine life without him and he couldn't imagine life without me. I like volatile men. My first husband and my father were volatile. I never, to the day he died, knew what John's opinions would be. He would get pissed off about something I couldn't understand or find something hilarious that I was just as bemused by."

In 2002, Thaw lost his battle with cancer and Hancock lost the love of her life. She sank into a deep depression, which at times "nearly took over". "I only emerged very gradually," she says quietly. "I do suffer from depression, and realised, about two years on, that I was sinking very badly, so I yanked myself out and went travelling on my own to Budapest and southern Italy.

"Both trips were very scary without John, but I was getting off my arse and accepting the fact that my old life was over and I had to rebuild my new one. You have two choices: you can live with your memories or start again."

Her one relapse was during a solo trip to Venice, a city she and Thaw visited frequently together – "usually after a bust up".

"Every time we went to Venice, I wanted to go up those stairs in St Mark's Basilica and see the real Horses of Saint Mark, not the replicas outside. But John would always claim he had marble foot rot and would insist on coffee in the square instead. When I went on my own on an art history trip, I made it up those stairs and saw the real horses. It was awful and hit me in the stomach when I realised he was never going to see them. I just collapsed."

Hancock lost her mother and both husbands to cancer, and is herself a survivor of breast cancer. But she is most definitely not, she insists, "some kind of tragic widow". "I've had a normal life. Everyone gets ill, everyone loses people. I have never thought to say, why me? That's the nature of life."

In her rare time off, her passions are spoiling her seven grandchildren, who are regular visitors to her homes in London and the south of France, and "sitting in cafes and watching the world go by - it's the best thing in the world". When in need of a good giggle, she listens to recordings of Radio 4's Just a Minute, on which she has long been a regular guest and on which she frequently appeared with the late Clement Freud. "He was a dour old bugger – so good at playing the game – he always came in at the last minute," she laughs.

Later this month, Hancock will present the first episode of BBC Two's My Life in Verse, in which she explores how poetry helped her deal with her grief after Thaw's death. "I am hoping to do more of those kind of programmes. We should have some more older women in television. But we get rid of them when they're older. We're generally bad with old folk."

In the meantime, despite the dance routines and the aching muscles that follow, she is relishing putting the finishing touches to Mother Superior.

"The best thing is watching her slowly open herself up to new things, which she learns from, as I have. Rigidity and protecting yourself is not a way to live. You've got to open yourself up to harm and hurt and new challenges, otherwise you're only half living."


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