Just A Minute blog

A blog on the BBC radio programme Just A Minute

Location: Wellington, New Zealand

March 24, 2015

Sheila turns 100

Sheila Hancock had her 100th appearance on Just A Minute today. She first appeared on the show in its 2nd ever show way way back in 1967, and 48 years later, she's still there, challenging, talking and being cheeky at the age of 82.

She is by a distance the most frequent woman panellist and is the only one who is still appearing who has stood up to both Kenneth Williams and Paul Merton and out-talked them both.

I'm a big fan  and I thought it very appropriate that she won on her 100th appearance.

It seems from this article of a few months back that she is now semi-retired from stage work so hopefully that gives her time to do JAM more often!

Happy 100th Sheila!

At 81, Sheila Hancock likes to joke that she only has another 10 years to live. But far from resting on her laurels, the award-winning actress, best-selling writer and grandmother of seven has been busy launching a new career – as a novelist.
We meet soon after the publication of her debut novel, Miss Carter's War which has been well received. She was already an accomplished author of autobiography, having won plaudits in 2005 for The Two of Us, about her life with her second husband, the late actor John Thaw, and in 2009 for Just Me, in which she chronicled life getting used to being without him. But when her publisher Bloomsbury approached her to write fiction, she didn’t think she could do it.
Then her imagination became engaged, after watching a woman being ignored by everyone around her at Fortnum & Mason, simply because she was old. Suddenly, Hancock found she wanted to write about somebody elderly and lonely, who might have had an interesting life. Her attempt at the first chapter was a disaster – “it was so boring, it was unbelievable” – and the tale only started to come alive when she began to weave in strands of her own life and interests.
The plot thickened to include themes of education, the French Resistance, and the shift in attitudes towards homosexuality. She researched hard and was given an editor as a sounding board. “There were endless rewrites, because I was coming at it new,” she says, and she almost gave up after presenting a documentary about the Brontë sisters.
“Bloomsbury had given me an advance, so I phoned them up and said, 'I’m writing a cheque, I’m sending the advance back. I can’t do this – I just can’t. Because I’ve read these great books by the Brontës and I can only be mediocre. I don’t like being mediocre.’ It took me about three months to get over that.”
The role of teaching is at the heart of the book – something that Hancock feels passionately about. She is involved with a charity that tries to rescue primary school children who might otherwise fail early in the system: “If you don’t pick ’em up at that age, they will be behind for the rest of their lives.” In the days before the Education Act of 1944 made grammar schools free, Hancock won a scholarship to Dartford Grammar (“Dare I say I was a bright kid?”). Her teachers were desperate for her to try for a “state scholarship”, which would have subsidised her university years, but she knew of no one who had gone. “I didn’t know what university was.” Her head teacher tried to persuade her father, but the idea was lost on him, too.
Instead, she chose acting, and won a scholarship to Rada. She had been hailed for her performance in the school play and the head boy asked her to the dance. “I did think, 'This is good, this is glamorous, it’s better than being a nurse.’ ”
While other Rada graduates went off to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hancock spent eight years in rep in Oldham. She performed a “huge” range of parts, but no one picked her up until Joan Littlewood, the innovative director of Theatre Workshop in east London, gave her an audition and transformed the course of her acting life.
“She said, 'You’re wonderful, my little bird’, and she allowed us all to be ourselves.” In Littlewood’s world, actresses didn’t have to be beautiful and middle class. “I would have spent my life being a character actress if it hadn’t been for Joan, because people like me played comic maids.”
Hancock describes her career trajectory as “muddled”. “I never get listed in the pantheon of important actresses because I’ve so confused everybody. I played the lead in Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane, I was the first Miss Halligan in Annie [in 1978], I did revue with Kenneth Williams [One Over the Eight in 1961], I’ve done lots of musicals – and I’ve been at the National Theatre in The Cherry Orchard.”
Despite her fame, Hancock has been driven by a very basic urge. “I think of myself as a jobbing actress. I’ve had to work to earn the money.” Even when she was married to Thaw? “He felt the same. If you’ve been poor, it haunts you for the rest of your life. And John was very poor.”
Hancock’s marriage to Thaw lasted from 1973 until 2002, when he died, at just 60, of oesophageal cancer. She had previously been married to the actor Alec Ross, from 1954 until his own death from oesophageal cancer in 1971. Hancock and Thaw each brought a daughter to their marriage and had another together. She loved both her husbands. “I was very lucky. One of the best things that John and Alec gave me was somebody to love. It’s every bit as important as being loved. It’s lovely loving, isn’t it? In fact, I find it almost better, because being loved sometimes embarrasses me, but loving is a gift.”
Today, though, there is no love interest. “Darling,” she says, “I did go out on a date with a gentleman and halfway through the supper with him I was thinking, 'Did I switch on my electric blanket?’ John and I always used to walk hand in hand – usually because we were clinging on to one another with fear if it was a Bafta award ceremony or something, John’s sweaty palm in mine – and I occasionally see an old couple walking hand in hand and I do have a horrible pang then and think, 'Oh s---, I wish that was me’. But I soon get over it.”
In her novel, there is a brief mention of love-making between an elderly couple. “If it came along, I might think about it, but I can’t waste time thinking, 'Am I attractive enough to have sex?’ I really can’t, because sex for me is an expression of love. It takes a long time to get to that sort of love. And part of it, to begin with, is guile. What I can’t do any more is pretend to be fascinating and sexy and attractive. I can’t be bothered.”
There was a period, after Thaw’s death, when Hancock says she expected too much of her daughters. She wanted them to call every day to check up on her, but realised suddenly that she was being unreasonable. Although the grief hasn’t entirely left her, she chose to cherish the life she has.
“It seems to be a betrayal of John not to live my life to the full. And also, you’ve got a wonderful freedom when you get old, you have no responsibility. There’s this phrase, 'Spending the kids’ inheritance’. I’m not responsible for my daughters any more.”
But she doesn’t feel lonely. “That’s the joy of writing. What I couldn’t stop being is creative in some way. The people I find who are not enjoying old age are the ones who cease to be curious. It’s never too late to learn things.”
Old age – and “old” seems an out-of-place word when describing Hancock – has not got to grips with her. “The reaction I get so much is, 'You’re not 81!’ I swear to God I don’t feel any different. I’ve always felt slightly ill. I was always aching and I was always injuring myself on stage. Then I had cancer [breast cancer in the late Eighties]. So if I wake up and the fingers are a bit achy, I think, 'Well, I’ve always felt like that.’ ” When she describes the benefits of growing older, her sense of naughtiness comes out. “I hate parties, I can never hear what anybody’s saying. Now, if I want to leave, I just say, 'Look, I’m terribly sorry, I’m getting a bit old for this.’ I’m not – I go on somewhere else. It’s a wonderful excuse.”
Although she no longer needs the money – “I’m fine, thank goodness” – Hancock might return to the stage. “I may do a play for a short run, but with my 10-year time lapse that I’ve set myself, I can’t afford a year doing the same thing every night. If I do a play, it will probably be new writing or something that I find exciting.”
At the moment, she has other things on her mind. “I’m really getting ready for death so I don’t leave my children with terrible complications. I’m throwing things out, having a real big declutter. I’m even going round old people’s homes.” The urge, she says, stems partly from her religion. “You do have a responsibility, as a Quaker, to prepare for your death and not be a burden to people.”
Hancock also burnt the diaries upon which she based her book about her life with Thaw. She’s not keeping a dirty secret, but avoiding hurting those she loves. “I wrote at the end of the day, so if I’d had a row with one of my kids, I’d write, 'Oh, she’s impossible, I don’t like her! How did I have a daughter like this?’ The next day, or a week later, I would look at that and think, 'What the hell was I talking about? Mad! It’s absolutely not true.’ ”
Remarkably, for a woman who has achieved so much, Hancock would prefer to have been a teacher. “That is the life I would like to have led, the woman I would like to have been. I’ve faffed around being an actress, I’ve gone on the odd march, I’ve involved myself with some campaigns, but I haven’t really done it – not like teachers do, not like social workers. I worship people like that. I’ve had a great life and hope I will continue to, but honestly, if I’d known what university was like I would have gone. It’s been a big disadvantage, it’s given me a terrible inferiority complex.
“When I was at the RSC later in my career, I think I was the only actor who hadn’t been to university. I would have become a writer earlier, too, because I didn’t have the courage to write. I’ve spent my life being seen and not heard. Surprisingly, because I sound as though I’m shouting my mouth off all the time. But I have been so inhibited all my life. And that’s the other freedom of old age. You suddenly begin to think, 'OK. Got nothing to lose.’ ”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Dean and Fellow Jammers, Thankyou for that lovely article on Sheila Hancock my favourite actress and lady JAM panelist. 48 years on from her debut and she's still on winning form. I have seen most of the recordings of JAM she appeared in and it's always so special when she appears. She obviously loves doing the show. She is very friendly towards the newbies and creates a nice vibe. There are two more JAM recordings - one at the Beeb and the last at the Shaw Theatre - I'm hoping that she is in one of them. I'll forward the dates when I next contact you. I saw Sheila in the play of The Anniversary - the film she made with Bette Davis in the 60s and she was so good she out-Betted Bette ! As for performance in 'Sweeney Todd' as the original Mrs Lovett she was better than any of her sucsessors in the role - including Angela Lansbury. Sheila based her Mrs Lovett on the more earthy types of cockney women she would meet around her Dad's pub in King's Cross. It was a more realistic portrayal and I LOVED IT. Thank God someone had the sense to download some of the tv recording of it on You Tube. Nicholas told me at the last recording that the paperback edition of 'Welcome To Just A Minute' is being relaunched in Edinburgh at the book festival. He's still as spritely as ever and enjoys a good laugh. He's very pleased about the book too.
All the best and lots of love KEITH XXXX

7:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Dean & Fellow Jammers, The last two recordings are on 8th April at the Radio Theatre and the final one is at The Shaw Theatre on the 17th April. When I next speak to Nicholas I'll ask him who are on the panels.Someone blogged something very offensive about the panel and Nicholas. It needs to be taken off. Lucy Beaumont comes from Hull and she is engaged to the comedian Jon Richardson. She is writing Radio 4 comedy series that she will perform with Maureen Lipman. KEITH xxxx All the best.

12:05 am  
Anonymous Lolster said...

Hi dean

Any word back about the jam app yet?

10:22 am  

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