Sheila Hancock inspires audience with her mountain climbing exploits at the age of 83

Dame Sheila Hancock in Edie

“I wanted to do it because it was a challenge – most of my parts now I either die or go senile”

Dame Sheila Hancock inspired the audience at Chiswick Cinema on Friday (2 December) talking about her film Edie, which she made at the age of 83 and required her to climb a steep mountain.

When she was first asked to take the part she assumed all the walking and climbing on Suilven in the Northern Scottish Highlands would be done with a green screen – ie. the mountain projected onto a screen and her in a nice warm studio.

It was not to be. She assumed other old Dames – Judi Dench and Maggie Smith had turned the part down for that reason. In the end, she was immensely glad it was shot for real, not only for the honesty it gave to the film but for her own sake. It was a phenomenal personal triumph.

She wanted to do it because it was such a challenge and such a positive and inspiring role:

“Most of my parts now I either die or go senile.

“I went to the Hogarth gym and asked them if they thought I could get fit enough to do it in three months. He went ashen and said ‘you will have to come in every other day’, and I spent time with a bloke in Richmond Park who made me run and shouted at me.”

Dame Sheila Hancock in Edie

One last challenge in a wasted life

The urgency was because they needed to film in May before the infamous Scottish midges made filming impossible.

The story is of an old woman whose husband dies and whose daughter sets about looking for a care home for her. All her married life Edie has cared for her controlling and abusive husband, the last 30 years physically caring for him after he had a stroke. She felt very strongly she had wasted her life.

As she is going through her things she finds a postcard from her late father of Suilven. She had been a “wild child” and enjoyed the outdoor life with him, hiking and rowing and climbing, that mountain in particular. The postcard had invited her to do it one last time with him before he died, ‘for old times sake’. She hadn’t then, but now something about the look of the care home she was destined for made her determined to do it by herself.

The film is an inspirational story, of triumphing over adversity and also of the benefits of friendships between the old and the young, as a young man from the local climbing shop kits her out and makes it his business to see she does not die on the mountain.

Dame Sheila Hancock in Edie

Kept going by jelly babies

It was in reality a very hard climb. “They said you have to be sure about this because once we get started we can’t get you down. The only place they could land a helicopter was at the top.”

Her personal ghillie, Reuben, said she could only walk or climb for ten minutes at a time, an idea which went straight out the window once the reality of filming kicked in.

“Reuben fed me with jelly babies, partly to keep my blood sugar up but also to encourage me. It was pathetic.

“There was a bit with a sheer drop on either side. My lovely bloke with the jelly babies went on ahead and said ‘look at me, just look at my eyes’. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to, because you’ll let people down or just because you want to do it.”

They spent two nights camping. The crew thought they had her well insulated in a special tent with layers of thermals to keep her warm but they did not count on her need to pee.

“My abiding horror throughout the whole thing was toilets. I went for a pee outside the tent and I got so cold hypothermia set in. I couldn’t sleep a wink, I was just so cold. I have never been so pleased to see the sun come up, I realised why early man so worshipped the sun.”

She told the audience she had not seen the film. She never watches her own performances as she is too critical of them, but she said she was immensely pleased that some people who had seen it had taken inspiration from it and decided they were going to go off and challenge themselves in some way.

Dame Sheila Hancock with Kevin Guthrie in Edie

“Kevin nailed it”

She loved working with her co-star Kevin Guthrie:

“The director wanted someone from Game of Thrones but we got to Scotland to start filming and still didn’t have anyone in the part. People were asked to send in tapes of their work. Kevin nailed it.”

She was also full of praise for the producer Mark Stothert, who did the interview with her on Friday. His career had been in advertising and this was a lifelong ambition, to make a film. It is hard getting funding for a film.

“We stopped filming at one point because we ran out of money. Off he went to London to drum up some more cash.”

Asked what she enjoyed most about the experience she said: “the scenes at the pub, the locals went absolutely silent when we first turned up but then they became extras and they got to know us and we ended up having a lovely time. They were really suspicious to begin with but we ended up getting on really well.”

The filming changed her relationship with the countryside, she said:

“I’m a city girl. I was evacuated during the war and it was not a good experience. I don’t want to be in the countryside for too long though, I’d rather be in Chiswick.”

Sheila Hancock is a long term resident of Chiswick and has written several books about her career as an actor and her life with husband John Thaw, with whom she lived in Grove Park.

Image above: Dame Sheila Hancock with Edie producer Mark Stothert at Chiswick Cinema; photograph Ersin Er and The Chiswick Cinema

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See also: Christmas in Chiswick 2022

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