SHEILA HANCOCK: I was the only actor at the RSC who didn’t go to private school or university

It started out as a gentle record of her later years, but as she made progress with her autobiography, one of our best-loved actresses found it turning into a powerful riposte to a world driving her mad. Here, in Part 2 of our serialisation, Sheila Hancock rails against the class system, feelings of regret… and the continuing spectre of Covid that hangs over her generation.

March 2019

One of my grandchildren asked me: ‘What is the difference between the classes?’

I hate the class system, having been a victim of it myself. I classify myself as working-class, because I believe that is what my family was, but now I am floating about leading a middle-class life, with working-class attitudes. A phoney, in fact.

On reflection, my answer to this question from my grandchildren is that the working class obey orders, often to their cost, and the upper class do what they choose.

Hancock poses on a canal boat with Gyles Brandreth in September 2020

Sheila Hancock (left) is pictured during an appearance on Loose Women in 2018. And right: Hancock poses on a canal boat with Gyles Brandreth in September 2020

The upper class know they can get away with a certain moral laxity, legal tax-dodging, that sort of thing, whereas the working class know that if they do not sign on for their benefit at the right time they won’t get the money, and if they are caught shoplifting they will be sent to prison, rather than for a course of psychotherapy.

I was once bewailing my lack of educated, intellectual prowess to a high-flying lover, and he replied that I was streetwise, and that was better. At the time I thought that he, with his private-school/Oxbridge credentials, was being condescending, and probably referring to my sexual lack of propriety.

But he had a point. Maybe the supreme self-confidence that I see in those who have attended private schools, usually leading also to a Russell Group university education, has its drawbacks.

Was it perhaps the hubris that comes from an Eton education that led David Cameron to believe the referendum would go his way? He is, I think, not a bad man. Much as I dislike their views and attitudes, neither, I suppose, are Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. Even Farage, that poseur as a man of the people, who actually went to the distinguished Dulwich College and worked in the City, must, I suppose, sincerely believe in his mission to restore us to a mythical bygone age of beer-drinking and Little England.

Sheila Hancock is pictured preparing for her role as Cyrenne on the West End in March 1963

Sheila Hancock is pictured preparing for her role as Cyrenne on the West End in March 1963

Ms Hancock is pictured before her big West End break in April 1961

Ms Hancock is pictured before her big West End break in April 1961

They have all been taught in their excellent schools to believe in public service, duty and compassion for lesser mortals. What they disastrously lack is a real, gut, first-hand understanding of what it is like to be poor, ignored and excluded.

May 2019

The delightful musical I am appearing in in Chichester has been a big success. The show is called This Is My Family and the young cast have been hugely supportive of this old bird, especially after I had what could have been a disastrous accident. I woke up in my digs one night and, probably confused by the unfamiliar layout of the flat I was staying in, fell in the bathroom and hit my head on the edge of the shower. Stunned, I found myself sitting on the floor, blood pouring from my head.

I tried to stem the flow with towels but eventually rang 999. 

Hancock (left) is pictured with comedy legend Tommy Cooper (right) on ABC-TV in 1967

Hancock (left) is pictured with comedy legend Tommy Cooper (right) on ABC-TV in 1967

In a new memoir, the West End and Broadway legend reflects on a world changed by Covid

In a new memoir, the West End and Broadway legend reflects on a world changed by Covid

I can’t remember much about what followed, except that in no time I was in the local hospital having ten stitches put into my scalp. I insisted on leaving as I had a matinee that day and we had no understudies. When I got back to the flat, my bathroom looked like a crime scene, with blood everywhere, handprints up the wall and bloody towels soaking in the bath.

Our director, Daniel Evans, came round, took one look, gulped and said: ‘We’ve got to cancel the performance.’ I knew the season was sold out, so if we cancelled the audience would not be able to rebook. In the past I have performed with broken bones, broken heart, and so, to the alarm of my fellow actors, on I went, blood still dripping down my forehead from under my wig.

Absurd behaviour on my part, when nowadays you can get a matinee off to attend a friend’s wedding. Once I remember a John Lewis salesperson thinking I was being obstructive when I told him I could not receive a delivery on a matinee day. ‘Take an afternoon off, that’s what people do,’ he said.

I asked what he would think if he went to the theatre and the tannoy announced: ‘Ms Hancock will not be appearing today as she is awaiting the delivery of a new oven.’ His shrug showed he would not give a damn. Fair enough.

July 2019

In old age I see more of my friends than my family. My two grannies lived with my mum and dad until the day they died, squashed together in one room – they fought like cat and dog and must have driven my parents insane.

During my marriages I neglected my friends. I had needy husbands, the first (Alec Ross) because of the damage wrought on a very young man by active war service, and the other (actor John Thaw) because of a difficult childhood.

For me, my work, the family and keeping John happy in our all-consuming relationship was a full-time occupation that left little time for friends. When we had time off, we did not want to share it with others.

We were not good hosts. As children, neither of us came from backgrounds that understood the concept of dinner or cocktail parties. ‘Dinner’ was what we called lunch anyway, and parties were just rather spartan do’s for children’s birthdays – junket and pass-the-parcel, with the prize being a gobstopper, quite a bonanza during sweet-rationing.

Hancock in 2017 drama Edie, about a woman in her eighties moving on after her husband's death

Hancock in 2017 drama Edie, about a woman in her eighties moving on after her husband’s death

So, as grown-ups, for John and me the idea of inviting people in for a meal was a scary enterprise. To this day it is an ordeal for me, taking days of planning and near nervous breakdown when cooking the meal.

I am a member of a lovely book club where we take it in turns to host the meeting. The others conjure up gastronomic feasts while I sneakily spend a fortune at Ottolenghi’s.

August 2019

I do not allow myself to dwell on how it would have been to share my old age with the man I loved. I manage. No, more than that: I have freedom.

I have always put husbands and children first. Now I don’t have to. So, there are bonuses.

When John died, I was in agony. Eventually I realised I had two options. I could spend the rest of my life with my memories, filling his absence with imagining what he would have said or done in any situation that arises. Or I could ensure I did not waste the life I was privileged to still have.

This seemed to necessitate a flurry of activity. I never do things by halves, when, in fact, half would be sufficient. I keep promising myself I will slow down and relish life more tomorrow – well, there aren’t many tomorrows left.

September 2019

Gyles Brandreth and I, having raised a few laughs on Celebrity Gogglebox, were asked to take over from our friends Tim West and Prunella Scales, who wanted to leave the beautiful programme they filmed travelling canals in a narrowboat.

They made handling the boat look so easy that we were shocked to discover it is fiendishly difficult.

I gradually got the hang of it but Gyles seems irresistibly drawn to walls of bridges, lock gates and other boats, many of which bear the scars of his early efforts.

October 2019

Went to 80-year-old Ian McKellen’s one-man show. Apart from being open-mouthed at the range of his work, I felt he belonged to a different profession to me.

His Cambridge scholarship took him into the right circles. His CV includes all the great classical roles, working with a pantheon of celebrated directors and once, as a joke, appearing in pantomime, something I did five times in all rent-paying seriousness.

As part of my wildly eclectic career I appeared with Cyril Fletcher on the end of Sandown Pier, did comedy shows with Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Brian Rix and Norman Wisdom, worked with elephants in the Bertram Mills Circus and did lots of television sitcoms. All a bit ‘common’, as my mother would say. Going backstage to see Sir Ian, I felt like a faintly ridiculous poor relation.

When I entered the profession, it wasn’t easy for a gawky, rather plain actress, who was not obvious casting for elegant West End plays. The truth was, I was never part of the ‘in-crowd’ when it came to classical roles in grand theatres.

By the time I got to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, I was virtually the only member of the company who had not been to university, or a posh school, and felt at a distinct disadvantage when they discussed noted Shakespeare scholars.

Regret is an emotion I try to suppress. I regard it as a pointless waste of time. The one regret that won’t go away is my lack of a university education. My teachers tried to persuade me to enter for a state scholarship to Oxford, one even visiting my parents at home, but none of us knew what university was.

None of our acquaintances or family had been to one, except my teachers, and at 16 I didn’t want to be like them. With no television, we didn’t even know what university looked like.

The ignoble reason I decided to go on the stage was that, after playing Saint Joan in the school play, I had some success with a particularly handsome blond boy at school, so I thought, acne and mousey hair notwithstanding, life in the theatre would be a succession of Greek gods.

March 2020

Well. Deep breath. Here goes. Um – um – er…

After suffering several weeks of inability to think coherently, I must write something.

Well. Today I –

Last week we –

No, I don’t know where to begin. In a matter of days, the world has been plunged into a crisis which makes it look as though the end of my life is going to be engulfed in a catastrophe as great as the one that engulfed my childhood.

In February I enjoyed working on a television programme, Unforgotten, with a brilliant cast and crew, relishing playing a thoroughly unpleasant woman. On March 12, I spent a riotous night in Soho with my 22-year-old grandchild, Lola, at a crowded comedy club. We literally cried with mascara-smudging laughter.

When I came home from our outing, I switched on the late-night news to see Boris Johnson announcing it was ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’ and that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’.

What? Hello? Excuse me?

March 23, 2020

I am scared and appalled by the situation we are in but, strangely, despite being a cry-baby, I haven’t cried yet. I just wander about my empty house doing that thing of going up three flights of stairs and then, when I get there, not knowing what I want. I open cupboards and drawers and stand staring at them, wondering what I am looking for.

I perform this old-lady behaviour not occasionally but all the time. My brain seems to have splintered, incapable of a whole thought. It’s quite frightening. I can’t discuss it with anybody. It doesn’t seem appropriate, when everyone is in turmoil, to tell friends and family I am going mad. Anyway, I am OK. Despite awful stories about the illness, and ominous predictions about the future, I am fine. Fine. I haven’t shed a single tear.

March 24, 2020

Lucky me, I have now received three letters, one from Boris Johnson and two from the NHS, that have categorically identified me as ‘extremely vulnerable’. What is more, they have the solution for my existential angst: ‘Stay at home at all times and avoid all face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks.’

March 29, 2020

I still have not shed a tear. When I was a student, and early in my working career, I found it difficult to cry real tears when a part demanded it. Maybe a childhood spent repressing them was behaviour hard to change, even in pretence.

Playing scenes with a married actor whom I lusted after, who led me into tortured temptation, then rejection, first released the flow for me. I brought my private agony into the performance of any scenes I had with him – which made for some inappropriate over-acting in a jolly farce like Ma’s Bit o’ Brass.

I later discovered this cat-and-mouse seduction routine was something he did with all the new ingenue actors, presumably to relieve the boredom of being trapped in weekly repertory, doing dreadful plays to indifferent audiences. Poor disappointed soul that he was, he was a much better actor off-stage than on. But he taught me to cry real tears. And probably lots of other actresses as well. So, his career was not a complete failure.

I was doing some preparation work for my edition of Who Do You Think You Are? when Jeremy Paxman passed by and shouted: ‘Be careful, they’ll try to make you cry.’ As, to his fury, they did him. I swore I wouldn’t but, of course, ended up blubbing snot and tears over the grave of a woman I had not even known existed. I was genuinely upset, fortunately. They would have been very let down if I had not been.

In real life I usually have no trouble with tears. But since the coronavirus appeared on the scene, I have been a model of stoicism. Like my mother.

I only remember seeing her cry twice. The first time was when we all sat round the wireless listening to Neville Chamberlain saying: ‘This country is at war with Germany.’ Her tears frightened me much more than the air-raid warning that followed the broadcast.

The second time was when I received a phone call from the manager of the caravan park where she lived in a mobile home, and I rushed down to find her sitting holding my father’s body, on the floor, where he had died of a heart attack. She never cried again. At least not in front of anyone.

April 2, 2020

Last week my daughter Ellie Jane left a bunch of flowers on the doorstep, in which were two pink antirrhinums.

Because my parents worked in pubs and hotels, we lived above the shop, usually in a couple of rooms, and never with a garden. When they stopped this gypsy existence and moved to Bexleyheath in Kent, for the first time we lived in a house with a garden, front and back.

The back was mainly vegetables but in the front I aided my father in constructing on this small plot a maverick Italianate concoction of crazy paving, different levels, steps, and an ancient stone birdbath stolen from a bomb-damaged mansion. It caused a sensation amid our neighbours’ neat lawns and hedges.

The flower beds were irregular shapes and the blooms of choice, not following the Mediterranean theme, were a joyous mix of English catmint, pinks, cornflowers, daisies, poppies, foxgloves and antirrhinums – or bunny rabbits, as we called them, because if you pinch the blossom it opens like the mouth of a rabbit. The two antirrhinums in my daughter’s bouquet were a bit poncy and cultivated-looking, rather than the sturdy, rough-and-ready ones at 58 Latham Road, but they gave me a childish pang of delight.

After a couple of days one of them started to wilt. I was out- of-proportionally upset. I snipped off a bit of the stalk and took off two dead flowers to let water and strength go up to the buds above.

It worked for a day or two, then the top began to droop. I propped it up against a sturdy iris. It seemed to rally and I rejoiced.

Then the next day, as I tenderly took it out of the vase to change the water, the unopened buds gently curled over and hung limply.

Again, I cut off some of its stalk and propped it against the iris, telling it: ‘Come on, please, open just one more bud before you die, make the effort. There are people surviving a horrid virus – surely you can get better. Look at your sister there, look how she’s enjoying the sun.’

Out loud. I said it out loud, with serious intensity. Desperation. But the flower gave up the ghost. As I put it in the bin, the floodgates opened. I sobbed my heart out.