Sheila Hancock in conversation at the New Theatre Royal

Sheila Hancock is in conversation with Caroline Sharman at the New Theatre Royal on Saturday

Sheila Hancock is in conversation with Caroline Sharman at the New Theatre Royal on Saturday

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You name it, Sheila Hancock’s done it.

Award-winning actress? Tick. Author? Tick. TV talent show judge – and contestant? Double tick. In her seven decade-spanning career, Sheila has starred in musicals, films and television and from2007 to 2012 was the Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

Sheila Hancock as Big Edie in Grey Gardens. Picture: Scott Rylander

Sheila Hancock as Big Edie in Grey Gardens. Picture: Scott Rylander

With so many strings to her bow, there’ll be plenty to discuss when she speaks to Caroline Sharman, CEO of the New Theatre Royal, at the venue tomorrow.

Born on the Isle of Wight, Sheila says she’s always had an affinity with Portsmouth.

‘There’s just something about it. Coming over the brow of Portsdown Hill and seeing the skyline makes my heart lift.

‘There are dreadful areas of poverty, but on the whole it’s a city full of vibrance. It’s a wonderful place, not least for its historical importance and literary connections, particularly Dickens, and because it’s by the sea.’

Coming over the brow of Portsdown Hill and seeing the skyline makes my heart lift

Sheila Hancock

Now 82, Sheila’s career hasn’t slowed; in fact it’s picked up pace. In 2014 she released her first novel, following a string of successful autobiographies including 2004’s The Two Of Us, which documents her marriage to her late husband John Thaw.

‘I’ve just finished being in a musical so my other career is still ongoing, but I love writing and shall continue to do so.

‘In The Two of Us I discuss issues like bereavement and addiction and it’s started something I didn’t intend to. I’ve received thousands of letters saying how much the book has helped them and it’s used in bereavement counselling which is very touching.’

She adds: ‘It’s so good to get things written down. In the acting profession everything is so transitory. I was in this fantastic show in a fringe theatre, but it is over now. It’s gone into the ether.’

The show Sheila refers to is Grey Gardens, a musical based on the 1975 American documentary film. Both depict the lives of a reclusive mother and daughter both named Edith Beale, who were aunt and cousin respectively of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Sheila, who played ‘Big Edie’, says the research was fascinating.

‘I had to go further than the documentary because she is so guarded. You can tell she didn’t like the camera, whereas Little Edie loved it.

‘These were a very Bohemian pair, who used to entertain and have their house full of people. Both were very brave women, and they survive.’

During her prolific theatrical career there have been many highlights – but one that stands out in recent years was her Olivier award-winning turn as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret in 2006.

She says that the production’s success stemmed from the approach of its director Rufus Norris, who is now artistic director of the National Theatre.

‘He had a take that no-one had before. It was seriously approached and played, and brought out the darkness in the musical that other productions hadn’t before.

‘Being a wartime child myself, the war horrifies me and still does. I’ve done a lot of research into it for my books and I can’t begin to fathom the horrors that happened.

‘Germany is now one of our closest friends – and will continue to be if, please God, we remain in Europe – which makes the madness that overtook the place all the more staggering. The musical gave you a glimpse into the period.’

It could have been the reason for her award success – but Sheila believe’s it’s down to luck.

‘Awards are nice and are great publicity for the show, but you’re always very conscious there are several other people that could have won the award; it’s all down to chance.

‘To say somebody is the best actor or actress is foolish really. What you have to say is I had the best part and that was lucky.’

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