Sheila Hancock has been awarded a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours List. The actress, who lives locally, was given the award for Services to Drama and to Charity.
She told The Chiswick Calendar “I was very ambivolent about it to begin with. I didn’t think I was the type. I never thought I could go higher than a CBE, (which she was awarded in 2011) but then I was absolutely overwhelmed by people saying how thrilled they were and that it was deserved and not before time and so on, people like my dresser from 30 years ago, so I began to think ‘my God, maybe I do deserve it’.”
Sheila is best known for her work in the theatre. Having trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she worked in repertory theatre in the 1950s before moving on to perform in plays and musicals in London, making her debut in 1958 in Breath of Spring. She was nominated for a Tony award for Best Lead Actress in Play for her role in Entertaining Mr Sloane in 1966 on Broadway.
Over the years she was nominate five times for Laurence Olivier awards: for Annie (1978), Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter’s Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010). Finally she won an Olivier award in 2007 for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret, at the Lyric, in the role of Fraulein Schneider. She was also the first woman artistic director at the RSC.
“I’m a working actor” she told me. “I do it for a living, not as a hobby and I was particularly pleased that this group of honours recipients didn’t feel as elitist as it can do. The other actors who got awards were proper working actors and one of the other women who was awarded a damehood, Pat McGrath, is a woman of colour”.
Sheila lived for many years beside the River Thames in Grove Park, with husband John Thaw, then at the height of his fame for TV series Inspector Morse. Her first big television role was in The Rag Trade in the early sixties. She had roles in a string of sitcoms and played opposite John Thaw in Kavanagh QC. She wrote a best selling book about their life together called The Two of Us. They married in 1973 and were together until he died of cancer in 2002. She then wrote Just Me, on how she got on with her life after he died.
In recent years she has taken part in the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, made a guest appearance in an episode of Casualty and taken part in the prequel to Inspector Morse, Endeavour, in a guest appearance as clairvoyant Dowsabelle Chattox alongside her stepdaughter Abigail Thaw. She had one of the main roles in the Sky One comedy drama series Delicious, acting alongside Dawn French, Emilia Fox and Iain Glen. Sheila Hancock plays Mimi Vincent, mother of the celebrity chef Leo, played by Ian Glen.
She is a brilliant comedian. She takes part in shows such as Have I Got News for You and Grumpy Old Women, and is at her best in BBC Radio 4’s Just a Minute.
“I miss Nicholas Parsons terribly” she told me. “I was one of the original panellists 50 years ago”.
Her latest TV performance is soon to be seen on Sky. She plays one of the witches in the second series of A Discovery of Witches.
Sheila Hancock is a Quaker. She is Vice President of St Christopher’s Hospice. She promotes Digismart, a digital app developed by a couple of former teachers designed to stop children aged 9 – 11 from falling behind with their reading before they go up to senior school. She is also a trustee of the John Thaw Foundation, which gives grants to organisations which work with young people.
“We often go for little organisations and causes which might not get help from anywhere else – kids whose mothers have been in prison or other groups who are having a hard time of it”.
It also supports outreach projects at the Young Vic and the Royal Court theatre.
She worked with London children’s charity Kids Company until its dissolution on 5 August 2015 was also a patron of London HIV charity The Food Chain.
“I used to be much more involved with that then I am now. I was one of the founders but I hate it when people claim to be involved with a charity when they do very little for it. I used to go and do cooking for them and everything, but not now”.
I didn’t like to say that that at 87 she’d hardly be expected to go and do the cooking. That didn’t seem to have occurred to her.
“I’m not going to use the title Dame” she told me “except that it might come in handy when raising money for charity”.
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