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Today in history… a ‘national treasure’, like it or not

12:00am | & Lifestyle

YESTERDAY’S blog commemorated the death, 17 years ago, of actor John Thaw; today’s celebrates the life of his widow and fellow actor, Sheila Hancock, who turns 86 today.

Born in Blackgang on the Isle of Wight on February 22nd, 1933, Sheila was the second daughter of publican Enrico Cameron Hancock and his wife Ivy. After being evacuated to Somerset during the war years, she attended Dartford County Grammar School for Girls, in Kent, where she got the acting bug from taking part in school plays and receiving praise for her performances.

It led her to win a coveted place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the Bloomsbury District of London, studying with the help of a grant. But it was nine years of demanding work touring the country in a repertory companies that she really learned her craft. Working ‘in rep’ could often mean performing a different play in a different venue each week, compelling actors to become extremely versatile in the characters they portrayed and masters of learning their lines quickly.

It was while performing at a theatre in Bath that she met fellow actor Alec Ross, the couple marrying in 1955 and having a daughter, Melanie, in 1964. By then she was already well known, having made her West End stage debut in 1958 and getting her first break in TV when she was cast in “The Rag Trade”, in 1961.

Already a respected stage actress, it was television which naturally brought her to a much wider public audience. “The Rag Trade”, in which she played Carole Taylor in the first two series, was a big hit and led to offers of other roles. She even made a comedy record, “My Last Cigarette”, in 1963. There were also parts in features films throughout the 1960s and, as ever, she was able to demonstrates her versatility in a variety of straight and comedy roles. Some of the films she appeared in include “The Bulldog Breed” with Norman Wisdom, “Twice Round the Daffodils”, “Carry On Cleo” and “How I Won the War”.

Away from work there was tragedy when her husband of 16 years died from oesophageal cancer in 1971, when their daughter was only seven. She tried to keep working to ease her grief and it was through work that she met and fell in love with another up-and-coming actor, John Thaw. They were married in 1973, two years before Thaw got his big break playing DI Jack Regan in “The Sweeney”. He officially adopted Sheila’s daughter and they had two more daughters together, all three going on to become actresses.

Though Sheila has never starred in her own TV series, she has appeared in countless, including “Doctor Who”, “Brighton Belles”, “Fortysomething”, “Bleak House”, “New Tricks” and opposite her husband in “Kavanagh QC”. She has also continued to act in the theatre, despite suffering from stage fright, which she has sometimes used hypnotism to overcome. She has appeared in several productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre, and successfully tried her hand at directing.

In 2006 she appeared in the West End revival of stage musical “Cabaret” and, beginning, in 2009 spent more than a year playing the Mother Superior in “Sister Act the Musical” at the London Palladium. That role earned her an Olivier Award nomination for best performance in a supporting role in a musical.

In 2002 she was widowed for a second time when John Thaw succumbed to the same cancer which claimed her first husband. He died in her arms the day before her 69th birthday. She had herself been diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1980s, but after a course of treatment made a full recovery.

Over the course of her career she has received many awards, including an OBE for services to drama in 1974, a lifetime achievement award at the 2010 Women in Film and Television Awards, and a CBE for services to drama in the 2011 New Year Honours. Now in her eighties, she continues to make occasional TV appearances including as a guest on panel shows such as “Room 101” and “Have I Got News for You”.

She is a devout Quaker and patron of a number of charities and good causes. In 2016, she starred in a film called “Edie” in which she played a gruff octogenarian determined to make a climbing trip in the Scottish Highlands which her controlling husband had kept her from nearly 30 years before. During filming Sheila became the oldest person to climb Suilven, a daunting 2,398ft peak in the Highlands.

She is said to dislike the term “national treasure”, having once commented: “I know people who get called national treasures who are vile”. However, in her case the description is wholly deserved and entirely inescapable.

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