Books: Dame Sheila Hancock on feeling angry as she approaches 90

The acclaimed actress talks about her book, Old Rage, why she won’t dwell on ill health, and how she climbed a mountain in her eighties.

Outspoken, funny, feisty and a little furious are all the words that come to mind when interviewing acclaimed actress Dame Sheila Hancock.

Today, the 89-year-old theater and film star does not want to dwell on her painful rheumatoid arthritis or other ailments, nor on the 20th anniversary of the death of her husband, actor John Thaw, whom she wrote about in The Two Of Us, her best-selling memoir of their marriage.

He also doesn’t want to dwell on the prospect of turning 90 (no big parties planned), though he does confront aging in his latest book, Old Rage.

It was intended to focus on a serene and fulfilling old age, but instead ended in a partly political diatribe about his anger and anguish over Brexit, with condemnations from the likes of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, laced with entertaining anecdotes. and witty stories of her life and career, written in diary form since 2016, but covering many stories throughout her life.

She is in the process of selling her home in Provence, the hideaway she and Thaw loved, in part because of Brexit, the arduous lines at airports, the fact that she can’t get the medical care in France that she once could. Leaving the EU is a big source of her fury.

“It wasn’t going to be an angry book,” muses the award-winning actress. “I thought about writing a book about old age and that it’s not as bad as people think, with some little advice. But almost as soon as I started, Brexit happened, which put me out of myself with anger and pain. Then we went in in lockdown and then I got rheumatoid arthritis.

She also recounts in the book her fear when her eldest daughter, Ellie Jane (from her first marriage to the late actor Alec Ross), was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50, as Hancock had been in 1988. Best not to show his anguish in front of his daughter during treatment, waiting until she got home to howl in pain, powerless to make her better.

Today, he keeps tight-lipped about his daughter’s recovery, saying only that she is doing very well.

Hancock’s rheumatoid arthritis flared up when Ellie Jane was diagnosed, which is common when you’re in shock, she says, but the condition is managed with a cocktail of medication, which has made life so much easier.

“But oh dear, let’s not talk about the pain all the time, I hate it,” he pleads. “It’s not an important part of my life.

“When my friends talk about all the ailments we have, I often tell them, ‘Remember when we were talking about sex? And here we are talking about fucking hip replacements!'”

Still as sharp as a pin, Hancock has directed and acted for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, as well as performing in a wide variety of television roles over the past six decades, most recently the comedy-drama series Unforgotten and the Sky. from ITV, Delicious.

He also made his way along our canal system in two series of Great Canal Journeys with Gyles Brandreth, but before that, in 2016, when he was 83, he climbed Suilven, a 2,400-foot mountain in the Scottish Highlands. for the film Eddie.

With her ‘still lethal ambition,’ as she calls it, she hired a trainer at her local gym to help her tone up for the mammoth climb, which resulted in lifting weights, speeding on a treadmill and, over three months, developing bumps. in her arms and legs that hadn’t been there for years. She remembers running regularly through Richmond Park helped.

“I had to get in shape if I wanted to play the part,” he says with a shrug. “It was really hard work. It was really cold and I can’t understand why anyone wants to go camping. It was my idea of ​​hell on earth living in a tent on a mountain. Sometimes I was really scared because I couldn’t be tied”.

These days, she has an alarm on her watch that alerts her to move regularly every day, and she walks a lot, rarely taking fewer than 5,000 steps. She is also in the gym twice a week.

There is no doubt that Hancock is tough. Age hasn’t dampened his spirit or his desire to work, be it acting or writing.

“Work keeps me going. It’s company as well as anything else. It keeps my mind sharp and keeps me in touch with young people. I need young people in my life.”

He has three daughters, Ellie Jane, Abigail (from Thaw’s first marriage) and Joanna, who he had with Thaw, as well as eight grandchildren, some of whom live nearby, but says he trusts his friends more than his family.

“They are incredibly busy and I don’t need them all the time, but I couldn’t do without my friends, a lovely moan and a lovely laugh.”

As for work, he rejects a lot. “That’s because there are very few of us left who can still run. There aren’t many 90-year-olds who can play those parts. Some have retired or can’t learn the lines, so I get a bigger choice than I used to. do it in the old days.”

While deadpan, biting wit is never far from the surface, Hancock seems to harbor a rage for so much around her.

“I don’t think you can get old without being pretty angry,” he says. “The leadership right now is so diabolical and I think we’ve been lied to and I’m worried about what’s happening to society. That makes me angry because people deserve better.”

She remains a Labor supporter, but is no longer a member of the party.

“I’m not as political as I used to be. I think politics is outdated. The next generation is going to get rid of partisan politics. We want the people who run the country to make it better, not because they follow some partisan line.” .

“I would like to see a parliament full of people who are experts in their field and care desperately about making the world a better place, rather than just saying they do and doing nothing about it.”

She talks about industry closures, the immigration and refugee crises, the need to reorganize the educational system, and cringes at the idea of ​​young people being exposed on the Internet to what she calls “terrifying introductions to love.”

Hancock doesn’t use social media because she doesn’t want to read nasty things about herself.

“There are sad people who have nothing better to do than be mad at everyone and my heart goes out to them because I always visualize that they are stuck in some horrible situation in their life and all they can think about is being vile and threatening people. they don’t know.”

She has a strong Quaker ethic and was made a lady in 2021 for her services to theater and charity. Fortunately, she was able to receive it in person from Prince William, she notes.

Hancock says he did not cope very well with the pandemic.

“I considered myself incredibly lucky not to be in a high-rise block with five noisy kids and a grumpy husband who couldn’t work. I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining. I have a balcony and could get some fresh air, but eventually I started to break the windows a bit.” rules. I drove into central London when it was empty and started having some adventures.”

But he did resent losing two years of his life. “Of course it’s sad for young people, but when you’re old it’s almost worse, when you can’t afford to be locked up for a couple of years.”

She broke her wrist three months ago (she was sitting in the bathroom washing her feet on the bidet, when she stood up and lost her balance) and doctors told her she would never be fully functional again.

“Well, it is, you see. I worked really hard with a physio who challenged me to get back up and running. The consultant was gobsmacked. I was very determined.”

Perhaps that pure iron will is his secret to face old age.

“You have to challenge yourself all the time. If someone doesn’t want to do that, I totally understand, but it’s not my way.”

Sheila Hancock’s Old Rage is a Bloomsbury publication, priced at £18.99.

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