Lynn Barber

Sheila Hancock takes pride in her irascibility

Raging against Brexit, the pandemic and the pain of arthritis, she still writes a better lockdown diary than most

Sheila Hancock takes pride in her irascibility
Sheila Hancock receives her damehood in November last year. [Getty Images]
Text settings

Old Rage

Sheila Hancock

Bloomsbury, pp. 272, £18.99

This book begins with Sheila Hancock wondering why she is being offered a damehood. I must say I slightly wondered too, but it seems that most actresses become dames if they live long enough: vide Joan Collins, Penelope Keith, Joanna Lumley etc. And Hancock, as well as acting and making brilliant appearances on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, also does lots of charity work. She considers refusing the honour because ‘it’s hardly in keeping with my Quaker belief in equality’, but decides ‘no, it would be dreadfully rude and ungracious’. Anyway, she admires the Queen, and also Prince Charles, who left flowers and a handwritten note on her doorstep when her husband John Thaw died in 2002. So Dame Sheila it is.

Then we go on to her diary proper, starting in 2016 when she was 83. She seems to have an enviable life: a house on the river at Chiswick, a cottage in Provence, three daughters, eight grandchildren, many friends and plenty of work. Her ‘still-lethal ambition’ makes her accept the lead in a film called Edie, about a very old woman who decides to climb a Scottish mountain. She does actually have to climb the mountain for two or three days, sleeping in a tent, and is colder than she’s ever been in her life – but reaching the summit is ‘transcendental, revelatory’.

Then it is back to London for the referendum vote and she is appalled by the result, fearing she will sink into depression. She takes off to her house in Provence, only to find a notice saying that the commune has decided to build 75 new residences in her hamlet. Then her eldest daughter, Ellie Jane, rings to say that she has just been diagnosed with aggressive grade three breast cancer and faces chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the prospect of two operations.

Meanwhile, Sheila herself starts suffering terrible pain in her right hand, then her left, then her knee and is diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and given steroids. They enable her to get through a short theatre run when ‘I ricocheted about the stage, climbing ladders, dancing and spouting long speeches not always accurately’. But she has to come off them before doing publicity for Edie, when journalists keep asking her what the secret of her vitality is. ‘Little did they know that, when they left, I could barely walk across the room.’

In October 2018 she takes part in a gala performance of Harold Pinter’s work, and remembers when she first knew him in rep with the stage name David Baron. His then wife, Vivien Merchant, was also in the company – ‘an actress of sphinx-like subtlety, with a seething sensuality’. Many years later, by which time Pinter was famous and married to Lady Antonia Fraser, Merchant turned up at a theatre where Hancock was playing: ‘At first I did not recognise the bloated, dishevelled drunk who reeled into my dressing room ranting incoherently about Harold.’ She died four years later. Hancock saw Pinter again at a revival of The Birthday Party in 2008. He was very frail and she offered to walk him to his car. ‘Suddenly he said “Are you still angry, Sheila?” “More than ever,” I said. “Good girl.” And he kissed my forehead.’

In 2020 she turns 87, visits her house in France and briefly wonders if she should sell it but decides not to. On 5 March she goes to the Curzon and notices that the cinema is oddly empty. On 12 March, after a riotous evening in Soho with her granddaughter Lola, she switches on the late news to find Boris announcing ‘the worst public health crisis for a generation’. A few days later she gets a letter from the NHS saying she is ‘extremely vulnerable’ (because of her rheumatoid arthritis) and must avoid all face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks. ‘I am on my own, so do not have to hide my tears.’ But then her daughters teach her to use Zoom, so she can talk to her family and attend Quaker meetings. It seems a bit weird sitting in silence in front of her laptop but she still finds it comforting.

She is supposed not to leave the house at all, but in May she starts venturing out at dawn when there is no one about, and relishes the silence. She starts noticing birdsong for the first time and learns to recognise blackbirds and wood pigeons. On l8 May she breaks all the rules and walks to Oxford Circus and realises that without people and traffic Oxford Street is actually rather impressive. In July, lockdown is lifted and she notes tartly that Westminster Abbey is still closed when Primark is open: ‘Mammon is obviously more efficient than God.’

In January 2021 her damehood is announced and she is thrilled by all the friendly letters and emails she receives. In May she resumes filming Great Canal Journeys with Gyles Brandreth and seems quite cheerful again. She finishes with a visit to the Arundel tomb in Chichester cathedral, quoting Larkin’s ‘What will survive of us is love’.

This book is far more entertaining than most lockdown diaries, but I do have one complaint. As an actress, Hancock should surely be familiar with Chekhov’s gun rule – don’t put a gun on stage unless a character is going to use it at some point. Otherwise it’s just distracting. She writes about her daughter’s cancer diagnosis on page 46 and I spent the next 200-odd pages wondering how Ellie Jane’s treatment was going, but Hancock never mentioned it again. I find this troubling.