Written by Richard Barber
Sheila Hancock fixes me with those vivid blue eyes. “When you get to my age,” she says, “you can start to seize up and, if you sit for a long time, you do. Whereas, if I’m rushing around, I feel much healthier.” Little wonder, then, that she looks the picture of health – not bad for someone who celebrates her 83rd birthday in February.
“I don’t care about the age thing at all. I just care about being nearer to death which I don’t want. I may be a bit creaky sometimes but I accept that as just part of the package. And I am very busy.”
You can say that again. She has just guest-starred in a 30th anniversary special edition of Casualty and popped up in a children’s programme, The Dumping Ground (“It’s a favourite of my seven-year-old grandson, Louis”). On the day we met, she arrived hotfoot from recording a play for Radio 4. She is also planning another book of memoirs, probably based on places she wants to revisit. But first she must tackle her leading role in a new stage musical.
She’s naturally fit and healthy, she says, although she doesn’t leave that to chance. “I’m careful about what I eat. I try to walk a lot. I also swim fairly regularly. I do a tiny bit of yoga just to keep myself supple. I’m lucky that I’m naturally slim.”
Sheila has been alone since 2002 when her second husband, actor John Thaw, succumbed to oesophageal cancer aged just 60. She wishes he was still here, of course, but she’s philosophical about the blows life has dealt her. “The older you get, the more you appreciate your own company. That can be dangerous, though, because you can get things out of proportion if you don’t talk them through with someone else.”
It’s true, she thinks, that time is a great healer. “You never forget but you learn to accommodate your grief. In fact, I realised the other day that now when I remember John I laugh more than I cry. I still cry for what might have been but then I’m someone, like my father, who cries at the drop of a hat. After a couple of gins, I’ll always have a good sob.”
I'm careful about what I eat. I try to walk a lot. I also swim fairly regularly
There’s no question of another chap, though. She did go on a date not too long ago. “Halfway through the meal, I started wondering whether I’d remembered to switch on the electric blanket.” She laughs. “I haven’t got enough time left for another big romance. But I do want to participate in life until I drop.”
Sheila has never been afraid to say boo to a goose. Take the recent incident of her car insurance tripling overnight, rising from £800 a year to £2,400. “I wanted to know why. Was it because of my age, my profession? I’d had an accident which had had absolutely nothing to do with me. The other person’s insurer paid up without a qualm.
“I’d also made a phone call to my insurance company asking whether there was any point making a claim after another car scratched mine. They told me no. But when I queried the huge hike in my annual premium, they wrote to say that if you have two no-claim accidents you’re more likely to have a real accident in the future.
“Well, I wasn’t having that. I asked to see the statistics that supported this extraordinary assertion. I wanted proof. Of course they couldn’t provide it because, they said, that information was confidential.” So she filmed a report for BBC1’s consumer programme, Watchdog.
By her own admission, Sheila’s a bit of a petrolhead. “Oh yes, I love cars. I’ve had a Morgan, Jaguars, MGs, always very beautiful machines. I’ve currently got a specially built two-seater Mini. John used to buy them for me; he got me my first Jaguar sports car.”
And she has just discovered a new app that’s changed her life. “It’s called JustPark. I was rehearsing in north London not long ago. There was only a two-hour meter available so I had to keep running out to feed it. Then someone told me about JustPark.
“You enter the postcode of where you are and then you get all these offers from people with driveways or unused underground parking spaces. There turned out to be one opposite the rehearsal room. I had to pay, but much less than parking on a meter and I could use it all day. Job done!” says the unstoppable Sheila Hancock with her sunniest smile.
New stage challenge
Sheila is curently starring in Grey Gardens, a new stage musical based on the 1975 documentary of the same name about Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric aunt and cousin, who lived in a raccoon-infested mansion on Long Island.
She says: “I was drawn to it for two reasons – the mother/daughter relationship and the fact that it’s very often the daughter who’s left with the care of the elderly mother. I’m the mother of three girls and I’m making absolutely sure that my life is tidied up so that I won’t be a burden to them after I’ve gone.”
- Grey Gardens is at the Southwark Playhouse until February 6. For details visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk