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8 June 2022

Sheila Hancock Q&A: “I met Clement Attlee when I was working at the circus”

The actor on how education changes lives, falling in love and the brilliance of Shuggie Bain.

By New Statesman

Sheila Hancock was born on the Isle of Wight in 1933. A stage, film and TV actor, she made her West End debut in Breath of Spring in 1958 and has acted and directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

What’s your earliest memory?

When the Second World War was declared, my father had dug a hole in the garden for an air raid shelter. The siren went after Chamberlain’s speech. I sat in an earth pit, my mother crying, and my father lugging railway sleepers to put over the top of the hole, and shovelling earth on top – and on our heads. It was the second declaration of war in my mother’s lifetime.

Who are your heroes?

Two of my headmistresses: Miss Markham and Miss Fryer. They changed my life. They gave me everything. My hero now is one of my grandchildren, Jack, who is a teacher. Education is the most important thing.

What book last changed your thinking?

I usually loathe award-winning books, because they never have an ending. But I have just read Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which won the Booker and is utterly comprehensible and quite brilliant.

Who would paint your portrait?

Picasso, one of those faces that’s all broken up. A portrait of me in bits seems suitable, given the state of the world.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Clement Attlee. I met him when I was working as an usher in the circus. The show had started and this funny little man came and stood in the corner. I said: “Can I take you to your seat?” He said: “No, I don’t want to disturb people.” It was our prime minister. I can’t imagine the present incumbent being so humble.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would want to pretend to be a boy in Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, at the Globe, in about 1585. To do his plays in the raw.

What TV show could you not live without?

Channel 4 News. It is the most intelligent report of the day. Newsnight on BBC Two is also brilliant. Both stations are now targeted for destruction by people who are uncomfortable with brutal honesty.

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What’s your theme tune?

My husband John Thaw always used to sing a terrible song called “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”. Every time things got heavy he would start dancing and singing that. It’s a sure way of making you laugh and not feel quite so serious.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

After the war my dad showed me a picture of what happened in Belsen. I remember him saying: “This must never happen again. It’s down to you.” That has resonated with me for the rest of my life.

What’s currently bugging you?

Just look at the news: what isn’t bugging me? If I’m going to be superficial, I’d say that everybody is being unpunctual. Taxis never arrive on time. Builders say they’re coming and they don’t. Everybody is late. I find it irritating. I am obsessively accurate and terrified of letting people down.

When were you happiest?

When I very first fell in love with both my darling husbands. Later on it becomes harder work, always. But the first love with both of them was bliss.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d love to work in the law. I don’t think I could be a prosecutor, but I’d like to be a defender. I’d defend against injustice.

Are we all doomed?

Yes, if we don’t pull our socks up.

“Old Rage” by Sheila Hancock is published by Bloomsbury

[See also: Hannah Fry’s Q&A: “Pull handles on push doors make me feel like an idiot”]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man