Sheila Hancock: ‘Culture has become a dirty word, but a society must nurture soul and spirit’

As the West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates its 21st birthday, Sheila Hancock tells Sarah Freeman why even in the face of massive cuts, the show must go on.

Sheila Hancock is in reflective mood.

She’s reminiscing about her time in the musical Gypsy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse under its first artistic director Jude Kelly. Hancock has a lifelong love of musical theatre and has belted out the big numbers in everything from Annie to Cabaret, but that Stephen Sondheim production back in the winter of 1993 was particularly memorable and not just because a young Jude Law was rehearsing Death of a Salesman downstairs.

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“I fractured my pubic bone doing too many high kicks,” says Hancock, who had been successfully treated for breast cancer a few years earlier. “I was still performing, but it was agony and the first doctor I saw was worried I had secondaries. It was the kind of injury they’d only seen in professional footballers or dancers before, not the ancient old thing who stood before them.”

The Leeds theatre celebrates its 21st birthday tomorrow and while it’s performances from the likes of Hancock, who recently turned 78, which established it as one of the most respected regional theatres in the country, it is she says much more than just a playground for thespians.

“As soon as I arrived I thought what a fabulous place. It was like a community centre where people dropped in for a cup of coffee regardless of whether they were coming to see a show. It completely broke down the atmosphere of elitism which surrounds some theatres where people are afraid to even step through the sacred doors.

“One of my heroes and mentors, Joan Littlewood [the director who set up the left-leaning Theatre Workshop] always said the front of house was as important as what went on behind the scenes. She was right.”

Hancock grew up watching her parents entertain regulars in the pub they ran in King’s Cross and later won a place at Rada. Her Estuary accent meant she never entirely fitted in, but Hancock was unapologetic. She still has little time for the rarefied atmosphere which often surrounds the arts world, but she is worried that culture is becoming an easy target for spending cuts. In an interview shortly after the General Election, the openly left-wing Hancock admitted she was quite enjoying the prospect of a coalition Government. The idea of consensus and compromise fitted with her own Quaker philosophy. She joined the Society 20 or so years ago and it has remained a central part of her life ever since.

“Everything at Quaker meetings is done through discussion and I thought it was good that politicians were finally going to be forced to talk to each other. But I am now terribly worried about how quickly they seem to be pushing the cuts through and I’m not talking just about the arts. I was talking to my GP the other day and she is very concerned that the whole scale changes to the NHS are simply impractical. It seems to me that people keep finding flaws with their ideas. They were forced into a U-turn over the forest sell-off, but I suspect many other policies will be pushed through and by the time we realise the implications it will be too late.”

Hancock, who four years ago added Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth to her list of credentials is also against the tuition fee rise and views the closure of libraries as verging on the sacrilegious, but it’s the arts where she is most passionate.

When asked to cut arts funding to support the war effort, Winston Churchill famously responded: ‘Then what are we fighting for?’ Had he been speaking now, Hancock fears he would have been laughed out of the House of Commons. “Culture has become a dirty word and it shouldn’t be; a society has to nurture the soul and the spirit. I have no doubt these cuts will force many small companies to close and even big regional theatres like Leeds and Sheffield won’t be immune.

“Regional theatres are where people cut their teeth, it’s where new writers are allowed to experiment and where up and coming directors get to see what works and what doesn’t. Sadly with what’s happening now, those training grounds are under threat.

“I’m sure our politicians have their hearts in the right place, but they all seem to be cut from the same stock. They are public school boys with an Oxbridge education and there’s now so few people in Government from working class backgrounds the whole thing has been skewed. One of the most forward thinking governments was Clement Attlee’s. He was an Oxford graduate, but he also had Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison who gave the cabinet some balance. There was a great tradition of MPs coming through the unions, but that passage into politics no longer exists.”

Hancock may occasionally be wistful for times past, but she’s also a realist. While repertory theatre, long since consigned to history, was where she learned the ropes, which took her to the West End and later to Broadway, unlike some of her peers she refuses to wax lyrical about some golden age of stage. She has some good memories of those early years, but she’s also honest about the reality of life for a young actress back in the 1950s and 60s when the company performed a different play each week.

“A lot of the work we did was lousy, really lousy and I learnt some very bad short cuts about how to get a quick laugh, which I have to confess I still use today. I was in weekly rep for eight or nine years, which was probably far too long and we shouldn’t be too nostalgic about it. The work being put on today is far superior. There are some who think regional theatre is a means to an end, a stepping stone to bigger things, but it’s not, it’s an end to itself. You get to perform in front of fabulous audiences who are open and honest and who don’t rely on the West End critics to tell them what they think.” Hancock isn’t a fan of critics. While she admits the legendary Kenneth Tynan was a man who more often than not had something worth saying, after a number of hurtful reviews early in her career – the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson wrote that she was “neither pleasing to the eye nor endurable to the ear” – she decided ignorance was bliss. Even today with a Tony and an Olivier award in her trophy cabinet she refuses to read even the most gushing of billings

“I fear it might make me too self-conscious and my performance won’t live up to the review, so it best that I don’t read them.” While Hancock has had to resort to hypnotherapy to ease the chronic stage fright which has been with her since she first started out, she has never been afraid of a challenge. While the early part of her career was mostly spent performing Shakespeare and Chekov at the RSC, she has also appeared in a Carry On film, The Catherine Tate Show and after being part of the judging panel on Over the Rainbow to find a new for Dorothy, she put her dancing shoes on under a habit to play Mother Superior in Sister Act the Musical. Clearly she’s a woman who takes the Quaker advice to ‘live adventurously’ seriously.

“I’ve always loved musicals, but Sister Act was also good money. People sometimes forget that I’m a working actress who needs to pay the bills. Going up on stage isn’t just a hobby, but I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. For Sister Act I had a get out clause after three months, but I ended up staying a year and a half.”

While rarely out of work, Hancock has deliberately kept herself busy since the death of her husband, the actor John Thaw, from cancer in 2002. With their Wiltshire home full of too many memories, she returned to London where she now lives in a flat overlooking the Thames. The central location might mean she doesn’t get to drive her guilty pleasure - a Jaguar XK sports car - as much as she’d like, but after losing the love of her life being able to look out on the familiar skyline does bring a certain contentment.

“If you are in this business you really have to have a base in London, it’s where most of the work is. I’m not a country girl, I feel much more comfortable in the city. I like knowing there are distractions on my doorstep.”

Hancock has recently branched out into documentaries, making one on the suffragettes and another on watercolours, and after publishing three volumes of memoirs she is now attempting a novel. Writing became therapy following the death of Thaw at the age of 60. In The Two Of Us, she talked with honesty about their 27 year marriage and in particular the effect his drinking had on the family – they both had daughters from their first marriages and Joanna came along in 1974. The book was an instant bestseller and the follow-up, Just Me, in which she described her feelings of invisibility as a newly single woman struck a similar chord with readers.

“I thought people would be interested in our lives as actors, but I had no idea just how much people would connect with the grief and it’s still selling. I’m trying a novel now, but I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it. It’s not going too well. I’m so opinionated I keep finding myself using the characters as a mouth piece for my own thoughts and feelings. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be ok, frankly I’m fare too old to waste my time exploring dead ends.”

BEHIND THE SCENES: Memories from 21 years of achievement at West Yorkshire Playhouse

I worked for Yorkshire Television fairly solidly during the 1990s and the Playhouse became a lifeline. I saw pretty well everything from the Peter Barnes epic Sunsets and Glories to an anarchic Molière directed by Toby Jones. When I went there to direct the Duchess of Malfi, I was just delighted with the standard and the enthusiasm. It was my second crack at the play, and in every way superior to my first.

Philip Franks

Ten years ago, I appeared in the Feydeau farce Horse and Carriage with Geoff McGivern and Alison Steadman. The play was a laugh machine, but like most Feydeau it took time to warm up and alas, by the time the third act started and the second hour reached its end, I fear we had exhausted the play-going population of Leeds. We were 20 minutes too long, but I loved the theatre on its island.

Griff Rhys Jones

I can’t imagine a better start for a first time director than West Yorkshire Playhouse [Warrington made his directorial debut with Rum and Coca Cola last year}. I felt a warmth and a welcome on entering the building; artistically, encouraged and empowered, and technically, brilliantly supported. I also salute its efforts to represent the full diversity of all its communities, and long may it go on doing so.

Don Warrington

I had one of the happiest experiences of my career at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, playing Betty in the world premiere of A Passionate Woman. I loved it. It’s the only time in my life I have ever cried when a play ended. I cried on and off for three days. I was sure nothing so wonderful would ever happen again.

Anne Reid

To work at the Playhouse was always an ambition of mine after I’d watched a compelling production of JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. Imagine my joy then when [artistic director] Ian Brown invited me to play Herbert Soppitt in the great man’s farcical comedy When We Are Married. While we were rehearsing though, I began to realise the daunting task that lay ahead. Walking through Leeds I would be stopped by people who would either quote lines from the play or warn me to not mess about with it with some fancy modern interpretation. It was all the more exciting then when we opened to applause and much laughter. They even allowed this Lancashireman to sing along with the other players the Yorkshire anthem On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at. Here’s to the next 21 years. Les Dennis