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Yesterday, in the second extract of Sheila Hancock’s captivating memoir, in The Mail on Sunday, the actress railed against the class system in Britain.
Today, in the final extract, she reveals how the pandemic lockdown affected her life — and how her sense of humour helped to get her through it.
April 11, 2020
My greatest progress during the pandemic has been in my mastery of social media. After several unsatisfactory phone calls, my three daughters and eight grandchildren decided I had to move into the 21st century so that we could see each other’s faces whilst I was in isolation.
We started big, with them talking me through the process of joining a family Zoom meeting. I did just about manage it, but was bewildered by them all shouting instructions at me.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Oh, Nana, for heaven’s sake.’
After insisting on one-to-one coaching, I have gradually mastered WhatsApp, Zoom, FaceTime, YouTube — in fact, I will have a go at anything. I have a relationship with a charming young man called Craig, who works for my service provider, and comes into my screen and sorts it out when I get really hysterical.
‘Sheila, Sheila, just listen to me. Do what I tell you.’ I’ve never met him, or even seen him, but I love his masterful approach.
April 15, 2020
I have suggested that Louis, my 12-year-old grandchild, should keep a diary. Get nasty thoughts out of his head and on to a bit of paper, which he can then tear up or burn if he likes.
I showed him a battered notebook in which I kept a diary of my first visit to France. It catalogues my teenage attitude to the war that had not long ended, and, more fascinating to Louis, an account of my first proper kiss.
Despite my recommendation, I am rather nervous of diaries. Whenever I had a row with Kenneth Williams, which was often, he would mutter darkly: ‘I am going to put that in my diary.’ I never dared read them when they were published.
I am intending to destroy mine. But how? It is not an easy task burning flame-resistant, bulky, page-a-day booklets — as I discovered in one of my rows with John when I packed my bag to leave him, and on the way out attempted dramatically to destroy all evidence of our life together, in preparation for the new start I told him I was making.
He sat chuckling in his armchair as I flung my diaries on to the log fire, only to see them curl and char slightly as they put out the flames.
I am appalled by the content of my old diaries. Maybe this vicious, moaning, frightened, lustful, verging-on-insane woman is the real me, but if it is, I don’t want my daughters to know.
Sheila Hancock is pictured with her late husband John Thaw
Actress Sheila Hancock is made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Duke of Cambridge during a investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle. Picture date: Tuesday November 9, 2021
May 14, 2020
I am desperate for company of any sort. Two wood pigeons (I looked it up — they have white splodges on their necks) have taken to sitting on my balcony railings. They adore one another, billing and cooing and nuzzling their heads together. I am very jealous.
I am touched to see that today they are perched with their bums over the river, after I told them off yesterday for making a mess. I’m slightly less friendly now, as I read that they carry a disease that is very dangerous to old people. Everyone is out to get us.
May 16, 2020
Felt desperately lonely today. I like solitude, but not enforced. For an indefinite period. Even in prison you have a release date. I wish John were here.
I disapprove of attributing possible opinions and behaviour to dead people, but I can’t help thinking John would have quite liked this situation. Driven, as we both were, by the Protestant work ethic, he would have enjoyed an excuse not to do 13 hours a day on a film set.
For my part, I would love to hear his doubtless sardonic take on all the political shenanigans. I would sell my damaged soul to hear his comments on the daily briefings that we are receiving on television.
John’s impersonation of Boris would have been cherishable. He would have had even more fun with the wretched Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock — no relation, I hasten to add. To begin with he was quite perky as he read out manipulated statistics, but gradually his eyes have glazed over.
In a new memoir, the West End and Broadway legend reflects on a world changed by Covid
Hancock (left) is pictured with comedy legend Tommy Cooper (right) on ABC-TV in 1967
May 18, 2020
Today I broke all the rules, made a desperate break for it and drove into the West End. A journey that in rush hour can take 45 minutes or more took me ten.
Instead of sitting in the customary traffic jam, I only passed about three other cars. I parked easily behind John Lewis and I walked to Oxford Circus, half expecting to be arrested — but not only were there no police, there were hardly any people at all.
I wandered around, smiling and greeting the other few strollers. The friendly atmosphere was like it was when I was a young girl lodging in the Theatre Girls Club hostel in Greek Street, apart from the absence of the women stationed along the pavement politely selling their wares (who, as they got to know me, gave me advice on make-up, as long as I didn’t stand around too long on their pitch).
I am probably romanticising the scene and their lives, but they weren’t the cowering, drugged-up, trafficked youngsters you see in shady hallways, nail bars and massage parlours nowadays.
May 23, 2020
All in all, although resenting the ‘vulnerable’ label, I do now accept that I am old. But it still surprises me a bit when very old ladies tell me they were at school with me.
I opened a wing of an old people’s home where ancient folk were mumbling to themselves, shuffling around on Zimmers, and the matron told me they were excited about my visit because ‘You’re their generation, aren’t you?’.
One of the things that depresses me most about getting old is all the things I will not have time to learn. And this bloody virus is wasting what time I have left.
May 25, 2020
A distressed phone call from Joanna. My youngest daughter has a rental home in St Ives, Cornwall. After it was permitted to make a short journey, she drove the three children down from Devon to check on the house.
She met no one, and went nowhere apart from her house. The work on the house went on till late in the evening, and the kids were tired, so she decided to stay the night, but at 9pm a neighbour came to the door and threatened to report her to the police if she did, because overnight stays were not allowed. For God knows what reason.
His belligerent visit felt a bit like the Stasi in East Berlin. She was no threat whatsoever to anyone. But her neighbour was drunk with the power of self-righteousness.
I have always had a reluctance to obey rules. It seems to me that, if you are going to obey them, you have to double-check that they are necessary, and made by people with good motives, who know what they are doing.
The economy is going to be wrecked by the shutdown. The NHS is forced to delay all other life-saving treatment while it deals with the virus casualties. My profession faces ruination.
It seems young people just get a mild version of the infection. So is there not an argument for locking away and protecting just us vulnerable ones, and letting the rest of the population carry on as normal, apart from a few bouts of fluey illness?
‘I am writing in the strictest confidence to inform you that you have been recommended to Her Majesty the Queen for the honour of DBE in the New Year 2021 Honours List. Before the Prime Minister submits your name to Her Majesty the Queen for approval, we would be glad to know that this would be agreeable to you.’
No, no it wouldn’t. I don’t feel at all agreeable. I feel sick with inadequacy. What if the Queen disapproves and rejects me?
The Queen: ‘First Boris asks me to prorogue Parliament. Now this.’
Oh Lord, maybe they are giving me this because I am old and can cross a stage without falling over and can handle a canal boat. Should I phone and tell them that, as I approach 90, this may no longer be true?
There is a bit in the letter that says: ‘There is a clear expectation that those invited to receive an honour are, and will continue to be, role models.’ What!?
It is very nice of them all to have thought of me, but should they be told what I’m really like before they bother the Queen?
Ms Hancock is pictured before her big West End break in April 1961
The reaction to the announcement of my damehood has been astonishing. All the letters and emails from people from my past and present swept away my embarrassment with their obvious delight. It was like reading one’s own obituary, but doubtless a lot more loving than the real one will be.
April 9, 2021
Prince Philip died today, aged 99. He has been ill for a while so it is no surprise. What is a surprise is the man that emerges from all the tributes.
I fear he has been unfairly treated. He was not just the gaffe-making joker he was portrayed as, and not just a man who walked two steps behind his wife.
I put some of his more dodgy remarks down to being a member of the upper classes. They are so ill-informed as to what is unacceptable language.
Prince Andrew’s teeth-gritting interview about his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein was a classic example of upper-class twit talk. The prince’s self-awareness, and his awareness of ordinary people, was so awry that he could not see how disastrous his pizza-in-Woking stuff was, on every level.
I am pretty sure he thought all those appalling folk he mixed with were rather jolly, and that the young girl he cavorted with was there because she liked him. His ‘honour’ was to stand by his friend even though he was a convicted sex offender.
The upper classes are big on loyalty to their own. I am touched by the story of Nicholas Elliott, who considered [the communist spy] Kim Philby a friend, both being alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge, and members of the old-boy network.
Elliott requested that he should be entrusted with a last private meeting with Philby, the day before his arrest as a spy, to get a full confession from him. Philby duly spilled out his guilt, but postponed signing the written confession till they next met.
Trusting upper-class loyalty and honour, Elliott left. Philby defected to Russia the next day.
There is a naivete in these old-fashioned values of honour and loyalty that can be dangerous, but as embodied in our Queen they work.
I am of a generation that has a respect and affection for the Royal Family that is difficult to lose. I know the organisation will probably become redundant. I cannot give a logical reason why, but that saddens me.
I am glad it won’t happen till after I am dead and gone, for I have little confidence in some of the ideas about what will take its place.
Sheila Hancock is pictured preparing for her role as Cyrenne on the West End in March 1963
I treasure a print of a Van Gogh painting that hangs on the wall of my house in Provence. It is a picture of an old couple in a wood.
On his last visit to France, John stared long and hard at the Van Gogh. He used to jokingly say the couple was us. Now he said very solemnly, ‘That definitely is us. Lost in the woods but it is still beautiful, kid.’ I responded with some joke.
Maybe John identified with the figure of the man standing among the tangled undergrowth wearing a top hat and funereal black.
Which begs the question whether, despite his apparent denial that he was dying, the superhuman effort I made to shield him from the truth was a terrible mistake. Was he doing the same for me? Did he hope I might understand his interpretation of the picture?
He also stopped listening to his beloved classical music some months before he died because ‘I don’t want to get weepy’.
Maybe I should have talked more about death, the most important challenge of all our lives.
On the other hand, perhaps it was best that he turned his back on death as he had always done with anything that troubled him. And that I did the same.
Together we found a way through the forest.
Really glad to be back on a canal boat with Gyles [Brandreth]. With lots of physio, I can stand up more or less straight but have to be careful when I bend forward, which has been a perfect excuse on our latest canal trip to force Gyles to do all the crouchy things, grovelling around on the floor, while I stand looking noble at the tiller.
I hate having to say I can’t do things or I feel tired. The other day the boat was about 2 ft above the footpath and I had to admit I could not safely jump down.
There was some unkind comfort in the fact that Gyles, who is over ten years younger than I, did jump, fell flat on his face and got a black eye. ‘Pride cometh before a fall,’ said his wife.
Sheila Hancock (left) is pictured during an appearance on Loose Women in 2018. And right: Hancock poses on a canal boat with Gyles Brandreth in September 2020
Who am I? What have I done with my numerous years’ worth of living? Materially, between us, John and I achieved more than our parents could have imagined. But who cares?
Success, as defined by the world, now means little to me. Money, name in lights, even — forgive my ungraciousness — damehood.
Ironically, nearing the end as I am, I find that it is completely irrelevant what I personally have, or have not, achieved for myself. The test is whether I have, intentionally or inadvertently, passed on something that will contribute to the future.
I do not remember any other time when we have had the stark option of ominous disaster or, potentially, glorious change. We could end up as a dead star shooting round the sky, all its magnificent achievements wiped out.
Or maybe the seismic shock of this worldwide pandemic could be the blessing that will save us and propel us into a period of regeneration.
I can’t believe I am saying this, but the disgraced Dominic Cummings might be the most radical thinker we have. It’s a shame that he is so unpleasant because we need an inspirational leader with new ideas.
In Chichester I several times visited the Arundel tomb mentioned in Philip Larkin’s poem. What touched me most was that the earl has one of his gloves in the other hand.
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
He has taken it off before putting out his bare hand to his wife, which she has reached across her body to hold.
Never has there been more need for each and every one of us to take off our gloves, and reach out to support each other, to make sure that ‘what will survive of us is love’.
Love of all the creatures, the brilliance, the beauty, the overwhelming magnificence of this well-worth-saving planet on which I have been privileged to exist for 88 years.
- Old Rage by Sheila Hancock will be published by Bloomsbury on June 9 at £18.99. © 2022 Sheila Hancock.
- To order a copy for £17.09, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until June 4, 2022.
- Sheila will be appearing live in Ilkley (June 6), Richmond (June 7) and Chester (June 16). Tickets at fane.co.uk.