Loss & Liberation: Sheila Hancock

18th October 2008

Sheila Hancock tells Hannah Patterson about coping without John Thaw.

Actress Sheila Hancock has a photo of her beloved late husband, the actor John Thaw, which takes pride of place in her dressing room at every theatre in which she appears.

“I’ve a photo of him looking proud (he used to have this lovely look when he was proud of me) and I always have that on my dressing table when I’m in the theatre. It’s the last thing I look at before I go on stage. It’s like he’s saying, ‘Well done, kid’ and I like that.”

It’s now six years since the star of Inspector Morse, Kavanagh QC and The Sweeney died from cancer of the oesophagus at the age of 60. They had been married for 29 years, with one daughter each from previous marriages and another together.

Hancock wrote in detail about their shared life in The Two Of Us – an instant bestseller which won her the British Book Awards coveted Author of the Year award in 2005. Now the follow-up, Just Me, charts how she has survived since Thaw’s death. It could so easily have been another misery memoir but has ended up a story of optimism and opportunity. The idea came to her when she was asked to write a travel feature for the Daily Mail and chose to write about holidaying on her own. Initially, Just Me was intended to be a book about her travelling adventures but she discovered new confidence and enjoyment in her solitary pursuits.

“I started to look at myself more than I intended to and in the process I really did change. I became more confident, coping with things on my own.”

After depression in the immediate aftermath of Thaw’s death she is now trying to cram as much enjoyment and excitement into her life, feeling that, at 75, she probably doesn’t have that much time left. It’s been liberating, she confesses, to be able to laugh and to enjoy the solitude that she once considered loneliness.
Hancock does yoga every day and has a personal trainer to ensure that she remains fit enough to follow her dreams. She wants to visit the North Pole before it melts, take up piano playing and continue her work in the theatre and on TV and film. She still drives a Jaguar sports car, and is certainly not ready for the slow lane yet.

“I am in a panic about what I want to be able to do before I die. Most of my achievements are mediocre. I find it difficult to be satisfied with that.”

She may belittle her talent, but the acting jobs still keep on coming. She can currently be seen as the Nazi commandant’s mother in the film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, while on TV she has appeared in a variety of series including New Tricks, and recently played a terminally ill patient in The Last Word.

Travel has been high on the agenda over the past two years. She’s been to Budapest, was arrested briefly in Thailand because of a passport mix-up and found a true love of art in Venice and Milan.

“Instead of being wimpish, I’ve learned through travelling on my own,” she explains. “I used to worry about going in to restaurants on my own. I couldn’t care less about it now. But at one stage it seemed a mountain to go into a room and sit on my own and have people stare at me, or so I thought.”

Travelling alone has enabled her to make many new friends. Thaw was not a sociable soul and Hancock admits that she lost the habit of friendship when he was alive.

“I have many more friends than I used to have and I’ve made a positive effort to make new friends and not neglect my old friends as I sometimes did when I was married.”

Although grief comes in waves when she least expects it, Hancock says the pain of loss is not as great as it once was. “It’s not as agonising, although there are moments which can take you unawares. When he first died it was unending agony. Now, not a day goes by when I don’t think of him but I’m not agonising over it… I no longer feel lonely.”

She has moved from the couple’s home in Chiswick to another house nearby, overlooking the river. This wasn’t a wrench; Thaw was always happier in their country house in Luckington, Wiltshire, than he was in their London base. After he died she put their beloved house in Provence on the market, too, because it held too many memories – but took it off again when her daughters and their families began to use it more and more. Now, there are toys everywhere and a swing in the garden. It’s a family house, rather than a private space for her and John.

“John loathed public scrutiny. In England he was virtually a recluse. In France he was free to be himself, rather than some image based on the characters he played on television. “There, he could wander the lanes and sit in cafes unaccosted. He could even join the crowds in a market without causing a commotion.”

Hancock’s ability to pick herself up and move on must come in some measure from her no-nonsense working class roots. Born on the Isle of Wight, she moved to King’s Cross where her parents ran a pub, and later to Bexleyheath. She was evacuated to Berkshire and Somerset, returning home during an unusually quiet period – just in time for the Blitz. She recalls spending most of the time down the air raid shelter.

From Dartford County Grammar School, she went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was successful long before Thaw, who was almost 10 years her junior, made his name on television.

Over the years, she recalls, they watched a lot of TV together – criticising, moaning, amusing each other, an irascible partnership filled with affection. When she thinks of him now she usually smiles.

“I mostly remember the jokes. Very often I’ll be watching something on television and I will imagine what he would have said, and it would have been bloody funny.”

Just Me, by Sheila Hancock, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99.

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