When the young Sheila Hancock fell in love with Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, the backdrop was the Regal cinema in Bexleyheath rather than the Yorkshire moors, and the Heathcliff who stole her heart, little though she knew it, was a pale shadow of the man Emily Brontë had invented a century earlier.
That was Laurence Olivier in a Hollywoodised, 1939 version of the book. “Much later in life I realised that it was a total distortion,” says Hancock. “I’d thought it was a great love story, with Heathcliff as this hugely romantic figure. But the cruelty and the savagery were completely cut out of the film. In fact it’s an appalling story, about a psychopath.”
Still, the Olivier-Merle Oberon version at least kindled her appreciation of the Brontës as storytellers, which has grown and grown until now, at 80, she is able to relate their tempestuous stories directly to her own experiences of life.
“Emily writes extraordinarily about the depth of Cathy and Heathcliff’s desperation, with him actually grabbing her body as she’s dying to try to stop her going, as it were. Well, anyone who’s watched somebody die, that’s just what you want to do. I did. ‘Don’t go, don’t you dare go!’ She puts into words something I totally understand.”
Hancock is referring to the death, in February 2002, of her husband John Thaw. But Wuthering Heights, she feels, also evokes their life together. “If you have ever known that obsessive love, which sometimes makes it difficult to be together but impossible to be apart, you can identify with the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff.
“I read sometimes that long marriages are hard to sustain, that they become sexually boring, that one or both inevitably stray. It just was never like that with John and me. Once you’ve found that person you can’t imagine being with anyone else, and even though she marries another man, that’s what Cathy and Heathcliff have. There are certain people you’re meant to be with, and you feel as though life is not possible without them.”
And yet, I venture, she has found that it is. “Yes. You pick yourself up. Heathcliff doesn’t. He wreaks vengeance on everyone who’s kept them apart. But if you’re sensible, you do.”
Hancock’s fascination with the Brontës has culminated in a film for ITV’s Perspectives, in which she learns how three sisters, living most of their lives in a remote parsonage, could have produced such enduring novels of love and loss.
“There’s this perception of three maiden ladies leading sheltered lives in a vicarage in Haworth, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was the Industrial Revolution, and their father was a vicar in a parish where people were dying like flies from typhoid. They had to cope with an alcoholic brother, Branwell. Charlotte went to Brussels, and fell passionately in love with her tutor there. They were highly educated women having extraordinary lives.
“They all write amazingly about poverty and all sorts of things that Jane Austen doesn’t write about, dare I say.” Hancock smiles, aware that this is tantamount to heresy. “I’ve always been snotty about Jane Austen,” she admits.
Not so Shakespeare, with whom she became besotted, in the 1980s running the RSC’s touring company, which included the young Daniel Day-Lewis. “I’ve been quite good throughout my career at picking out people with a special glow about them, and Dan certainly had that,” she recalls. “He was fabulous, though he found Romeo difficult, strangely enough, because he didn’t think he was beautiful enough for Romeo. I could tell him until I was blue in the face that he was the sexiest creature on God’s earth, which he was, but he didn’t think he was.”
He would plainly have made a memorable Heathcliff, and so, says Hancock, would Thaw. “Oh, John would have been a wonderful Heathcliff when he was young. While making this I kept thinking that John would have understood that part so well. All that passion, the sexiness. He’d have been stunning.”