Sheila Hancock's memoir Old Rage has made me believe in Brexit Derangement Syndrome
Sheila Hancock’s memoir begins as something, and swiftly becomes something else, I suppose like Hancock herself. She is an actress after all, and she breaks free, perhaps because she has spent a professional lifetime reading other people’s words. You can get too old to be pleasing.
It is supposed to be an inspirational memoir, a how-to-be-old guidebook for people who find Joan Collins too frightening. Hancock is 89 and still working, though others have, as she says, “dropped off the twig”. (She is fascinated by birds – is it because they appear to be free?)
Hancock is beautiful, gifted and rich, part of a generation of working-class actors who made it to the RSC and what she calls, disparagingly, telly, but probably wouldn’t now. She looks, and behaves, like a central casting actress: dashing to the West End to see live comedy with her granddaughter, climbing mountains, observing songbirds, gathering black figs from the garden of her house in France.
But no woman is exempt from imposter syndrome and, in the opening pages, when she is offered a damehood, she panics. She asks herself: is it because “I am old, and can cross a stage without falling over, and can handle a canal boat?” (She and Gyles Brandreth took over Great Canal Journeys from Timothy West and Prunella Scales.) She imagines a scene in which the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh discuss the idea of Dame Sheila. Prince Philip: “It’s all going a bit downmarket, isn’t it?” The Queen: “Well, she was very good in Just a Minute.”
Hancock recovers – of course she does, she is a trouper who was hurled into an oven every night and twice on Saturdays as Mrs Lovett in the 1980 West End Sweeney Todd – and writes her diary of the last few years. Of course, since we were under lockdown for much of it, and she lives alone – her husband, the equally grumpy actor John Thaw, died in 2002, and we can only imagine his shouting off-stage – it is filled with digressions on her childhood, her friends and her opinions.
Hancock is more sensitive than she pretends: that is why she almost never stops moving and why she is almost always angry. Harold Pinter himself praises her for it: and he would know. The reasons emerge, piecemeal, and without self-pity.
She was educated by mad nuns; the punishment for being raised from working class to lower-middle class was moving from King’s Cross to Bexleyheath. When a kindly teacher suggested she apply for a scholarship to Oxford University, she did not know what a university was.
At Rada, she had to wear a tooth prop for two years, “and learned to say ‘door’ as opposed to ‘daw-ah’”. By the time she was in the National Theatre company, at 52 – she was the first woman to direct a play in the Olivier Theatre – it was, “much too late for all the Violas and Rosalinds, which as an absolute devotee of Shakespeare’s work, I would earlier have willingly given my then quite attractive body to play”.
Instead, it was the greasepaint of provincial theatre for her, and we get descriptions of long destroyed dressing rooms, dead make-up artists, broken hats and her sister Billie, a variety girl married to a man on stilts who retired to the south of France and is every bit as thrillingly angry as she.
I can read these stories happily – 20th-century British theatre is her area of expertise – and nod, too, over her attempts to control her body. But I wish she wouldn’t write so much about politics, particularly Brexit, which she views as a disaster on the scale of the Second World War. I didn’t really believe in Brexit Derangement Syndrome until I read Old Rage and her curses on Dominic Cummings and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Hancock knows how to do a good curse – she read the Tarot in the Morse prequel Endeavour, and then shot someone in the chest – but I don’t want to read her on the politics of division and she, presumably loving experts, should agree. In fact, if we are talking of expertise, why is an actress writing a self-help book?
Much of her anti-Brexit rage takes place in her hamlet (not Hamlet) in France, which is under threat from development, which she seeks to thwart. “I want my village back,” she says, which is ludicrous, because she really lives in Hammersmith, and so what she means is: I want my holiday back. But a woman of 89 has earned her contradictions: she wouldn’t be much of an actress without them.
In truth, the hamlet agony is the most interesting part of the book for me, but I live in west Cornwall. I find myself lying in bed, wondering: does the hamlet get its affordable housing or do the rich socialists prevail? In this case, she did something a dramatist should never do, and I suspect she will be pleased by it. She left me without an ending.
Old Rage by Sheila Hancock is published by Bloomsbury at £18.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books