Tall, elegant with a thick cockney accent, she might not have fitted the criteria for the quintessential classical leading lady of the forties and fifties. Yet for more than sixty years, legendary actress and entertainer Dame Sheila Hancock has been defying the odds of legitimate theatre to become one of Britain’s most versatile and enduring stars. A graduate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Sheila always knew that she wasn’t destined to become the archetypal femme fatale and instead chose to follow the path of comedy. Being surrounded by future stars of Hollywood including Joan Collins made the young Sheila realise her true path to become a gritty, earthly character actress. Making her theatrical debut in rep on the Isle Of Wight during the early fifties offered her a grounding in the Arts which she would go onto perfect in the coming years.
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Despite being a graduate of RADA, Sheila didn’t fully realise the true power of gritty drama until she enrolled in Joan Littlewood’s infamous theatre company which made stars of some of Britain’s most enduring talent including Barbara Windsor and Brian Murphy. Littlewood believed in finding the drama in everyday life and was more interested in shining a light on the domesticity and mundanity than an imitation of the working classes. This was the first time that drama fully represented the whole spectrum of society and broke down the social barriers of legitimate theatre which had stood for generations. As a lower middle class Cockney, Sheila never thought that it was ever possible for her to play prominent roles in theatre but Joan’s vision was to enrich drama with a more representative approach. Nurturing future acting heavyweights including; Harry H. Corbett, Barbara Windsor and Brian Murphy, Joan Littlewood’s repertory company was highly influential within the industry and Sheila remains proud to have been a part of it.
Beyond acting, Sheila has always been blessed with a very strong principled moral compass. Politics and environmental issues were always matters which were far removed from the world of entertainment and personalities could be at risk of extinction should they become vocal about such issues. Yet over the past twenty years, politics has become so divisive that it’s impossible not to have an opinion. Sheila believes that contemporary politics has become out of control and there’s so many flaws with the system that she’s already resigned herself to the fact that she won’t live long enough to witness a resolution. Instead it’s up to the future generations to learn from the mistakes of their forefathers and create a greener, sustainable, democratic future. There’s so much positivity to Sheila Hancock’s political philosophy that it’s a shame that she will never see it come to fruition.
Such social awareness made her one of the most prolific actors of her generation and in 1961 she secured the first of many career defining roles as the outspoken independent Carole Taylor in the BBC sitcom The Rag Trade. Cast alongside the great Reg Varney, Miriam Karlin, Anna Karen and a young Barbara Windsor, The Rag Trade made Sheila Hancock a star during the period when there were merely two TV channels. Carole Taylor represented the new, vibrant generation of the sixties who were the first to benefit from the new concept of social mobility. Written by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney and produced by the legendary Dennis Main-Wilson, The Rag Trade took a satirical glance at the trials, tribulations and goings on in the clothing factory Fenner’s Fashions. Running for two series on BBC One, The Rag Trade helped to set the benchmark for all situation comedy hereafter.
In the era when the BBC management was dominated by upper middle class businessmen with traditional, conservative views, Sheila’s radical philosophy made ripples within the corridors of Television Centre as they struggled to cope with a young actress who was willing to take a significant stand against the old fashioned political values which had stood for generations. The BBC senior management were considered devoid of interaction and debate which didn’t make them the easiest targets for a constructive discussion about gender equality. Executives such as Bill Cotton and Tom Sloan weren’t used to being challenged on their political ideology which was completely unheard of for the time. With the exception of the great Grace Wyndham-Goldie, the BBC had yet to balance up the obvious gender gap within senior management. Therefore an outspoken actress with forward thinking values didn’t suit the image of the corporation and it would be some years before Sheila returned to the hallowed grounds of Television Centre. Suddenly, the world was changing and the corporation had to reflect this and it was partly down to Sheila’s stoicism that this change occurred.
Of course, in the era of such male dominance, the role of women in comedy had yet to come into question and female characters were merely a subsidiary to the male star. Sheila always cites the 1980’s as the era when the gender gap started to level up when hugely talented female performers like French and Saunders and Victoria Wood started writing their own material. Yet Sheila herself made significant contributions to this entertainment equality in 1972 when she starred in her own television vehicle Seriously Sheila. In the era where Light Entertainment was dominated by male performers, Seriously Sheila was one of the only shows to be centred on a female entertainer despite being written by an all male team. Stoic writers like Carla Lane were too few and far between and treated as exceptions rather than the norm. Looking back, Sheila realises that this gender imbalance wasn’t the best testament to the so called freedom philosophy of the 1960’s.
With her professional life riding high, in 1973 Sheila married fellow actor John Thaw following acting opposite him in the theatrical version of What About Love in 1969. At the time, it was evident that Sheila was much more of a household name than the up and coming Thaw and instead of this becoming a relationship built upon professional rivalry, the pair enjoyed a normal life of domesticity. Sheila loved charting John’s career from theatrical actor to one of the biggest names in television drama but at home the politics of showbusiness was left at the door. The Thaw household was filled with children, animals and more importantly laughter which was a constant part of their marriage. Devoid of the glamour and prestige of an archetypal showbiz couple, Sheila and John never sought the celebrity lifestyle and were more than happy in their modest family house enjoying a modest living. Some would say the perfect life balance.
Beyond acting, Sheila has also turned her hand to directing, most notably at the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming the first woman to do so. Becoming the first female Artistic Director of the RSC tour, she thrived on the ability to nurture and promote new talent. The language of Shakespeare remains woven into almost every aspect of modernity and to witness new actors discovering this for the first time was one of the greatest accomplishments of her career. On the surface, Shakespeare can appear so antiquated to a twenty first century audience with confusing language, complicated themes and complex historical references that a modern society may struggle with. Yet Sheila’s great thrill is to break all of this down for a young actor and strip away the complexities until they reach the essence of the story where they realise that it’s purely universal storytelling at its core. Her time at the Royal Shakespeare Company proved a highlight in a career with so many and elevated Sheila on to the next phase of her career.
Despite theatrical success, Sheila has never lost her love of TV comedy and in 1993 was cast alongside fellow TV icons Wendy Craig and Jean Boht for the short lived sitcom Brighton Bells. Based on the US hit The Golden Girls, Brighton Bells centred around three middle aged women coping with their advancing years while attempting to live a carefree lifestyle. Unfortunately, despite some comedic moments, Brighton Bells failed to live up to the glory of its transatlantic origins, merely lasting just one series on BBC1. As a quintessential television actress, Sheila isn’t precious of the roles she plays as she has forever thrived upon the earthy beauty of her profession. Therefore honesty is in her veins and when something unfortunately doesn’t work, she is more than happy to admit it. Brighton Bells possibly acts as a reminder to TV producers that sometimes it’s better just to stick to the original import.
With a fascination with the intricacies of domestic life, Sheila has always been a firm advocate of the British serial drama. In 2000 she guest starred as the dying matriarch Barbara Owen in the heavyweight BBC soap Eastenders. Cast as the mother of nightclub owner turned gangster Steve Owen (played by Martin Kemp), now on her deathbed, Barbara was facing redemption for her mistakes as a mother. Appearing in just two episodes offered Sheila the opportunity to gain an insight into the world of the serial drama and generated a new respect for soap actors which continues to this day. If another guest appearance in any of the major soaps was muted again, she would struggle to decide just out of joy and admiration for the genre which she loves.
By the dawn of the new millennium, both Sheila Hancock and John Thaw had reached the pinnacle of their industry, becoming legends of television drama. Appearing alongside Thaw in an episode of Kavanah QC reminded Sheila of the calibre of actor he truly was. Despite making the decision not to work alongside each other, Sheila relished the opportunity to see her husband doing what he did best. Yet tragedy was about to strike as on the 21st February 2002 the great John Thaw passed away from cancer aged just sixty. From the early 1970’s to the new millennium, Thaw had been a star of the small screen, best known for his roles in The Sweeney, Inspector Morse and Kavanah QC. There was no doubt that he had left an indelible mark on the evolution of British television drama and his legacy is still felt throughout the television fraternity. Meanwhile for Sheila and the rest of the family, she had lost her linchpin and rock with whom she was able to shut the whole world down and enjoy a sense of normality.
Continuing to work following John’s death offered Sheila a sense of normality in such a devastating period. Appearing in the BBC crime series New Tricks reunited Sheila with John’s Sweeney co-star Dennis Waterman playing the mother of Sandra Pullman played by Amanda Redman. Television was changing and that was the same for Sheila’s position in the national psyche, moving into another chapter of her career. Blessed with a unique ability to straddle both sides of entertainment, Sheila is just at home in character or as herself.
Whether it’s giving a flawless performance of Queen Tamora in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, her portrayal of the socially mobile Carole Taylor in The Rag Trade or speaking passionately about the issues which her profile allows her to, Dame Sheila Hancock has been an ever-present figure of popular culture throughout the past seven decades. It was one of the biggest honours of my life to welcome the legendary Sheila Hancock to Beyond The Title but no article could ever do enough justice to her standing within the pantheon of British entertainment. In the era where superlatives are an overused device for all entertainment writers, Dame Sheila Hancock has undoubtedly earned her status as one of the greatest female actors of all time. A true legend.