Books: Dame Sheila Hancock feels angry as she approaches 90

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The acclaimed actress opens up about her book, Old Rage, why she doesn’t dwell on ill health and how she climbed a mountain at eighty.

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

Today, the 89-year-old stage and film star does not want to dwell on her painful rheumatoid arthritis or other ailments, or the 20th anniversary of the death of her husband, actor John Thaw, about which she wrote in The Two Of Us, her bestselling memoir about their marriage.

She also doesn’t want to dwell on the prospect of turning 90 – there are no big parties planned – although she confronts aging in her latest book, Old Rage.

It was intended to focus on a serene and fulfilling old age, but instead resulted in a political rant about its fury and distress over Brexit, with condemnation of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, interspersed with amusing anecdotes and witty stories of his life and career, written in diary form from 2016 but covering many stories over his lifetime.

She’s in the process of selling her house in Provence – the asshole she and Thaw loved – in part because of Brexit, tough queues at airports, the fact that she can’t get the health care in France than she once could. Leaving the EU is a big source of his fury.

“It wasn’t going to be an angry book,” says the award-winning actress. “I was thinking of writing a book about being old and it’s not as bad as people think, with a few little tips. But almost as soon as I started, Brexit happened, that which drove me mad with rage and grief. Then we went into 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 at age 50 with breast cancer, as Hancock had been in 1988. Typically, the actress did it best not to show her distress in front of her daughter during treatment, waiting for her to come home to scream in grief, helpless to cure her.

Today, she remains discreet about her daughter’s recovery, contenting herself with saying 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 drugs, which has made life much easier.

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

“When my girlfriends talk about all the ailments we have, I very often say: ‘Do you remember when we were talking about sex? And here we are talking about damn hip prostheses!'”

Always sharp as a pin, Hancock has directed and starred for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, as well as in myriad television roles over the past six decades, most recently the comedy drama series Unforgotten and the Sky d ‘ITV Delicious.

She has also traveled our canal network in two series of Great Canal Journeys with Gyles Brandreth, but before that, in 2016 – aged 83 – she scaled Suilven, a 2,400ft mountain in the Scottish Highlands to Eddie movie.

With her ‘ever lethal ambition’, as she calls it, she employed a trainer at her local gym to help tone her up for the gigantic climb, which entailed lifting weights, speeding on a treadmill and, for three months, develop bulges in his arms and legs that hadn’t been there for years. Regular running through Richmond Park helped, she recalls.

“I just had to get in shape if I wanted to play the part,” she shrugs. “It was damn hard work. It was freezing cold and I don’t see why anyone would want to go camping. It was my idea of ​​hell on earth living in a tent on a mountain. It was sometimes very scary because I couldn’t’ be roped off.”

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

There’s no doubt that Hancock is tough. Age has not dampened her spirit or her desire to work, whether acting or writing.

“Work keeps me going. It’s companionship, apart from anything else. It keeps my mind sharp and keeps me in touch with young people. I need young people in my life.”

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

“They’re incredibly busy and I don’t need them all the time, but I couldn’t get enough of my friends, a lovely moan and a lovely laugh.”

As for work, she refuses a lot. “It’s because there are so few of us left who can still race. There aren’t many 90-year-olds who can play those roles. Some have given up or can’t learn the lines, so I have a bigger choice than I used to in the old days.”

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

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

She remains a supporter of the Labor Party 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 will get rid of partisan politics. We want the people who run the country to make the country better, not because they’re toeing a line away. .

“I would like to see a parliament filled with people who are experts in their field and are desperate to make the world a better place, instead of just saying they do it and doing nothing about it.”

She speaks of industry shutdowns, immigration and refugee crises, the need for an overhaul of the education system, and shudders at the thought of young people being exposed to what she calls “hideous initiations” on the Internet. to love “.

Hancock doesn’t social media because she doesn’t want to read bad 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 a horrible situation in their lives and all they can think about is being vile and threatening to people they don’t know.”

She has a strong Quaker ethic and was awarded a Dame 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 she hasn’t coped very well with the pandemic.

“I considered myself incredibly lucky not to be in an apartment building with five noisy kids and a grumpy husband who couldn’t work. I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining. I have a balcony and I could look cool, but eventually I started breaking the rules a bit. I drove around central London when it was empty and started having a few adventures.

But she didn’t like actually wasting two years of her 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 few years.”

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

“Well, it is, you see. I worked really hard with a physio who challenged me to make it work again. The consultant was speechless. I was damn determined.”

Perhaps this iron will is his secret to fighting old age.

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

Old Rage by Sheila Hancock is published by Bloomsbury, priced at £18.99.

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