There are very few people who can truly be described as British acting royalty; performers you would happily offer up a body part to see, let alone meet for an intimate coffee. Sheila Hancock is one of these few. Currently appearing in The Anniversary at the Garrick theatre – a show in which she first appeared nearly 40 years ago – she met a very awe-struck Matthew Amer at the Langham Hilton for a bit of a chat…
Sheila Hancock is one of the most easily recognisable faces in show business. Whether she is making her presence felt as Steve Owen's mother in Eastenders, eliciting a titter in sitcom, or wowing live audiences in a theatre, hers is a presence that immediately sets an audience at ease; they know they will be in for the finest of treats.
A treat is certainly what audiences at the Garrick theatre are getting, as Hancock is currently playing the deliciously domineering ‘Mum’ in Bill MacIlwraith’s The Anniversary. The play’s title comes from an occasion that Mum’s family are joining her to celebrate; the wedding anniversary of Mum and her late husband, presumably Dad. In actual fact it is the perfect excuse for Mum to gather her sons together in an attempt to set their lives back along the tracks that she dictates and wrestle them away from her daughters-in-law.
"It’s not very nice being in the West End if you’re not in a success."
Hancock’s last West End performance came way back in late 2000 when, following a successful run in Under The Blue Sky at the Royal Court, she starred in Neil Bartlett’s In Extremis at the National Theatre. For an actor whose roots lie in stage work, four years is a long time to be away from the bright lights of London. She is enjoying being back, but… “I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t such a success. It’s not very nice being in the West End if you’re not in a success. But it is lovely and just wonderful to hear audiences laughing and clapping”.
Although clearly loving the experience of returning to the West End and performing to live London audiences, Hancock is not as young as she once was and playing the pivotal part in a West End comedy is proving challenging physically. “It’s bloody hard work, because you’ve got to drive the play. You’ve got to be on absolutely top energy every single night.” The taxing nature of performing eight shows a week is having an effect on Hancock’s normal life as every day’s activities are geared towards being on top form at 7.30 each evening. Though a restful afternoon might be happily accepted by many, the restrictions on going out or doing too much must be frustrating. Not that Hancock seems particularly worried about this; she is too busy singing the praises of MacIlwraith’s play to care. “It really is an extraordinarily well shaped play for audience reaction. It takes an audience totally with it and they react all the way through in a way that is quite unusual.”
Hancock’s character, Mum, is the type of terrorising mother-in-law that has been a stereotypical staple of comedy since it was first invented. Still trying to control the lives of her three sons, she spends the entirety of the play employing a collection of different methods of persuasion and abuse to try and make her offspring view situations the way she does. Controlling and manipulative, she won’t take ‘No’ for an answer. No-one would dream to suggest that a national treasure such as Hancock could share these uncomplimentary traits… “I am very like her. I’m very possessive and I can be very domineering. I don’t think there is a mother in this world who, if she’s honest, isn’t possessive towards her children, and isn’t super-protective towards her children with regards their partners.” Anyone reeling in shock at this point should look away now, as Hancock goes on. “At various times when [her daughters] came back with nasty little men I’ve been the first one to be vicious to the men and try to get rid of them as quickly as I possibly can.”
One such boyfriend, who wasn’t shown the door following a lashing from Hancock’s tongue, is real life son-in-law Matthew Byam Shaw, the producer behind The Anniversary. A cynical theatregoer may think there was a little inside knowledge about Hancock’s ability to convincing play a battleaxe at work in the casting. The more sensible among us would realise it has more to do with Hancock’s comic timing and ability to play a ‘big’ character. Hancock, with a wry smile, sits firmly in the second camp; “[Byam Shaw] is much too beady to be concerned about my feelings as a mother-in-law; he was thinking of me purely as an actress”.
"I’ve been the first one to be vicious to the nasty little men."
Hancock clearly has a soft spot for Mum, and is quick to defend her. Dubbed by some a monster – “she’s no more monster than anybody who makes a mess of the way they love” – Hancock has found a way into her heart and understands the forces moving her. “Everything she does is driven by love; a hideous form of love. I do know women who are almost as bad as her and I’ve had people stop me to say ‘it is exactly like my mother or mother-in-law’.”
Of course, Hancock’s performance may be helped by the fact that she knows what it is like to be on the receiving end. When the show premiered in 1966, Hancock played daughter-in-law Karen, before reprising the role opposite Bette Davis in the screen version. But after such a long career, Hancock’s memories of those performances are somewhat blurry; “I’ve done so many hundreds of thousands of plays in my life that I have instant wipe-out when I finish. I don’t remember a great deal about it”. She does remember getting her first big West End break in Rattle Of A Simple Man, in which she played a prostitute opposite Edward Woodward’s football fan, also at the Garrick. “There I was as a young woman, not known, and I had success. Now here I am an old woman in the same dressing room, looking in the same mirror. There’s a symmetry to it.”
Although Hancock’s career has encompassed a wide range of projects, from working with the RSC to appearing as a slightly Oedipal mother in Eastenders, it is for her comedy roles that she is often recognised. The sitcoms The Bed-sit Girl and The Rag Trade brought her to the attention of the nation in the 60s, and she has been bringing a smile to faces and laughter to lips ever since. Though unable to comment on her own ability – “I can’t talk for myself, because I can’t see myself” – she has her own ideas about what makes a good comedy actress. “It’s the ability to know how to let a laugh settle, how to place a line, to have an ear for the audience so that you don’t step on them when they want to laugh. I think that is the difference between being a straight actress and being able to do comedy. I suppose one has to have a sense of fun oneself. One has to not be too solemn about things to be able to see where comedy lies.”
"My only boast is ‘I’m still here’."
There are some people, though, who have no idea where comedy lies. If it were lying in bed next to them, it would not even raise a titter. After recently appearing on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Hancock received a letter complaining about her conversation with floppy-haired, jauntily-suited chat show comedian. While chatting, the two had discussed the idea that a footpath sign saying ‘Dismount Cyclists’ could actually have meant that people should take it upon themselves to knock cyclists off their bikes, perhaps with a large pole while enjoying a leisurely picnic. The letter-writer didn’t see the funny side. “We were being absurd! But this woman had taken it absolutely seriously. She couldn’t see that one was being silly.”
For someone with such a lauded career spanning film, television and theatre, straight parts, comedy and musicals, Hancock is remarkably grounded. There is no air of superiority or achievement about her; in fact it is hard to get her to recognise just how incredible her career has been. “My only boast is ‘I’m still here’. I’m 72 next birthday and to be able to say ‘I’m still here, working, playing in the West End, getting audiences in; that is an achievement and I will boast about it. I didn’t give up. I kept going. So that is a claim to fame, but I haven’t got an illustrious career. I don’t look back and think ‘oh, what a remarkable career’. I don’t think that for one minute.”
Maybe this is because there are a number of roles that got away. Hancock’s voice is tinged with a hint of sadness and regret when she talks of the great Shakespearean roles that she never got to play; the Juliets, the Ophelias, the Beatrices. “I’m too old for them all.” When Hancock began treading the boards, society was very different. She had come from a working class background and a working class family, and struggled against the odds to be accepted at RADA. On top of that her looks were ‘unconventional’. At that time, these were not attributes that landed you a leading Shakespearean role. “I love Shakespeare and worship Shakespeare with all my soul. I’d love to have had the opportunity to play those great parts.”
The tale of Sheila’s childhood and entry into the acting world is told, in a most touching fashion, in The Two Of Us, as is the life of John Thaw, fellow actor and Hancock’s husband, who tragically died while battling cancer. The response to the book has been incredible, but Hancock was not originally even going to write it. Rumours were circulated purely to put off other writers threatening to publish a ‘warts and all’ biography of Thaw. Such was the response to the rumours alone, that Hancock set about the task. “I wanted people to know that he was not just a TV cop, both career wise and as a man. I got really fascinated by the research into the social background of our lives. I thought it was a fascinating period.”
Much of what has caught the imagination about The Two Of Us is the honesty with which Hancock writes about aspects of her and Thaw’s lives that could have been glossed over; Thaw’s estrangement from his mother, his decent into alcoholism and the effect this had on the rest of his family. “I’m a very honest person. It has always worked to my disadvantage in lots of ways because it is not good for actors to bear their souls. But it would have been ludicrous to have written a book about John without [the alcoholism] because it was so much a part of his life; it is what drove him and what happened to him as a result of his childhood. When I wrote the book, I wasn’t thinking of anybody reading it, I was just telling the story. It was only when I thought ‘people are going to read this’ that it frightened me to death.”
"I think this year is going to be phenomenal."
Although the publishers may have thought the book would have been a success – it was, of course, about two of the nation’s favourite actors – no-one foresaw that it would have evoked the massive response that it has. It is the telling of Thaw’s fight against cancer, and Hancock’s attempts to deal with both that and his death, that has evoked much of the response. It has already been described as a ‘textbook on grief’. “None of us realised it would have this huge emotional response. I was just telling my story; I didn’t know it was millions of other people’s story too.”
Another striking characteristic of Hancock that flows from the pages of The Two Of Us is her campaigning spirit. When she finds a cause she believes in she is not one to sit quietly when something needs to be said. Most recently she lent her support to the campaign damning the violence seen outside the Birmingham Rep Theatre late last year. Her answer to many of the problems she encounters would be simple but effective, “I wish more people could empathise. The cause of all hatred and all prejudice and all bigotry is because people don’t understand what those people are going through. Once you do, you can’t hate anymore.”
With The Anniversary going strong, Hancock is not worrying too much about what she will be doing next, “I like to not know what’s round the corner”. What she is sure about is the state of theatre in London. With Get Into London Theatre now in its last week (promotion tickets must be booked by 8pm Feb 25), offering reduced price tickets for many top shows including The Anniversary, Hancock is excited about the breadth of choice and quality of productions available to the public. “I think the West End is going through the most amazing time at the moment, I really do. There has never been a better time… never mind the National, which is also doing very well. I think this year is going to be phenomenal.”