While shooting her latest film, Edie, on the side of a remote Scottish mountain, Sheila Hancock foresaw her own death.
“We were above the clouds,” she recounts with a shudder. “It was so cold. I had all these thermal layers on. But going to the loo is the worst thing – there’s nowhere to go, not even a little bush to go behind. Everybody had to turn around. So humiliating! I knew we were on a ledge. I thought I’m going to be found at the bottom of this mountain with my knickers down.”
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the actress, author and activist, who went up a mountain to prove to herself that she wasn’t over the hill in her 80s, came down energised, ready for the next challenge and hooked on the weight-lifting regime her personal trainer had introduced into her pre-climb gym sessions (“I can lift things into overhead cabin lockers now.”)
“Sometimes they’re nervous about giving you ‘old’ parts because they think you might be offended,” she says, in the warmth and comfort of a London hotel suite in April.
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Hancock’s in fine fettle apart from a sore right hand, for which she apologises when unable to shake mine. “Life comes in lots of different stages and you have to adapt to them. Most people want life to stay the same. It doesn’t. People die. Awful things happen. And you have to go, ‘How do I make this work? How do I live my life differently?’ ”
This get-up-and-go attitude seems hard-wired into Hancock, but it’s more of a shock for Edie, the bereaved wife and mother she plays in director Simon Hunter’s new drama (in cinemas from Friday 25 May), who finds herself free of a controlling husband but faced with a future in a stultifying nursing home.
With a sudden, strident independence closer to Hancock’s, Edie swaps her shopping trolley for a backpack and her grey, suburban existence for Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, where she plans to make a symbolic attempt on what we could call her widow’s peak: the 2,398-foot-high Suilven in Lochinver, an unfulfilled ambition from her more carefree childhood.
By contrast, Hancock has enjoyed a long, varied career in theatre, TV and film that began in rep in the 1950s, saw her playing what she calls “dizzy blondes” in comedies in the 60s and acting opposite Bette Davis in The Anniversary, where she was able to study at close hand the then 60-year-old diva’s insecurities: “I discovered that she was amazingly vulnerable. She did this marvellous take and I dared to say, ‘Miss Davis, that was wonderful.’ And she said, ‘Oh, honey, thank you so much. The highest compliment I ever get is PRINT!’”
Like Davis, Hancock has been able to defy industry ageism, having enjoyed some of her best theatrical parts since her 70th, with an Olivier award for Cabaret in 2007 and a nomination for Sister Act in 2010.
Born on the Isle of Wight, raised in a London pub run by her parents (her elder sister Billie was a variety performer) and evacuated to the West Country during the war, Hancock’s life took a different path to Edie’s.
In a moving moment in the film, Edie reveals to her young guide Jonny (played by Sunshine on Leith’s Kevin Guthrie) that she hasn’t been happy since childhood. Conversely, Hancock, who was made an OBE in 1974 and a CBE in 2011, has filled two glorious bestselling memoirs with fondly recalled reminiscences.
The Two of Us addresses her sometimes tempestuous but fulfilling marriage to actor and second husband John Thaw (they were married from 1973 to his death from cancer in 2002), and in Just Me she faces the world on her own.
“I was desolate after John died,” she admits. “For about a year I could barely move. But then I picked myself up and said, ‘I’m lucky enough to have my life; he was younger than me and he lost his, so I’ve got to use mine.’
“As my friend Sandi Toksvig says, you get sick of people tilting their head to one side and going [adopts simpering voice], ‘How are you?’ And the only answer is: I feel dreadful. But you’ve got to start saying, ‘I’m fine!’ whether you are or not. That’s why I get thousands of letters as a result of the books: they pour it all out to me.”
She hasn’t sought a new partner since John and prefers to spend her time at home alone. “I’m fine on my own. I call it solitude, as opposed to loneliness.”
But back to the film… as an ardent feminist, would she agree that the crucial difference between her and Edie is that she read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1970, and Edie didn’t? Hancock cackles at the prospect.
“She wouldn’t have liked the title, apart from anything else! She’s typically middle class, with that sense of duty and caring for this beastly man. For her to branch out and do something is not in her culture.
“I’m 85 now, and for all of our generation those steps have been difficult to take. When I read the book, I was in a play at the Royal Court in London called Fill the Stage with Happy Hours – which we didn’t! There were four women in it [Hancock, Faith Brook, Stella Moray, Helen Cottrell], and we used to meet in the dressing room and discuss the book regularly. We became friends for the rest of our lives. But we had to puzzle it out. You began to think: this is all wrong!”
She sees a direct link to lingering institutionalised gender inequality and the #MeToo movement, stating that it requires “a similar revolution”. People like Edie, she thinks, would have “shut their ears to it”.
In her 30s, Hancock joined the campaign group Women in Media (now the Alliance for Women in Media) and became an activist: “I was behind it full pelt. John’s first wife, Sally Alexander, who’s now a professor of history, was one of the women that threw flour at Bob Hope in 1970.”
This is a reference to the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall where women’s libbers protested at the meat-market nature of the popular beauty pageant. An Attlee socialist to her bones, Hancock tells me she’s “thrilled” that one of her daughter’s family has recently named a baby Aneurin, after the postwar Labour minister Nye Bevan.
But her rage about Brexit refuses to recede. “I’m now coming out of my despair a bit,” she says. “But I was so upset about it. I am a European through and through, and I can’t understand how anybody who lived through the Second World War didn’t want [a united] Europe.
“I hated the war, being bombed and evacuated, then the shock of Belsen. I’d been taught to hate the Germans – my first husband [actor Alec Ross, who died in 1971] was air crew and bombed Germany – and for them to become our allies and friends was marvellous.”
She understands why people frustratedly voted to leave the EU but hopes that the current mood is “temporary, and maybe we’ll move on to something more equal”.
Unlike her late husband, who – according to her book – responded to her 1987 breast cancer scare by shutting himself off, Hancock is not squeamish about mortality, and throws it into conversation lightly: “Maybe after I’m dead, something will happen,” or, “I won’t be here long enough to solve it.”
Does she have any regrets? “I wish I’d started writing when I was 30, because I think by now I’d be really quite good. But regret is a waste of time.”
We sail past our allotted time to allow for a passionate rant in support of teachers (“It’s a racket that teaching assistants get paid less than teachers!”).
But she’s happy with her own lot: “The public have always been nice to me and don’t pester me,” she says. Then, after a pause, “You do get a bit fed up with the selfies. I often wonder what John would do. Thank God they weren’t invented before he died!”
Edie is in cinemas from Friday 25 May