Sheila Hancock: My children won’t get my money, it’s going to John’s charity

Sheila Hancock says she’s ‘not extremely vulnerable’

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A passionate campaigner for good causes, 88-year-old Dame Sheila plans to leave a considerable chunk of her fortune to charity. “A huge amount,” she emphasises. “My children know, they have had loads during their lifetime. My children are happy with my decision – well, I don’t care if they’re not! They’ll be all right, they’ll have a nice little bit, but the bulk of what I leave will probably go to charity.” The star, who was married to Inspector Morse and The Sweeney actor John Thaw until his death in 2002, has three daughters, Melanie, Joanna and Abigail.

“I set up the John Thaw Foundation in John’s memory after he died,” she says. “It gives money to small things that are going to make a difference. We’ve done a lot of good work over the years since John died and I want them to have a big lump sum for the work to continue after I’ve died.”

Not that she is planning on that happening anytime soon. One of the country’s most prolific actors, her career dates back to the 1950s. After making her name in the 1960s sitcom The Rag Trade, she has since performed on Broadway and in the West End, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for her role in Cabaret.

Her television career has included series as varied as New Tricks, EastEnders and, most recently, the Sky drama A Discovery of Witches. She is also a regular on Celebrity Gogglebox, where she can be seen in an entertaining double act with her chum Gyles Brandreth.

Her latest role sees her play irascible mother Eileen in the current series of ITV’s Unforgotten and it is one she has tackled with relish.

The police drama sees a team of detectives, led by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, investigating a cold case murder, following the discovery of the dismembered body of a young man who vanished in 1990.

Four newly-qualified police officers were in a car close to where the man went missing and the series follows their lives today and uncovers what connection they may have had to his disappearance.

Eileen is the mother of Liz, played by Susan Lynch, one of the young cops, who 21 years on juggles her successful career with begrudgingly looking after her aged mum.

Sheila says: “My character says she wishes she was dead because she has no life. Generally she sees no reason to get up.

“They had her in pyjamas and I said she should be in a terrible old corduroy jumper, as though she’s just thrown something on and gone back to bed. She’s not bed-ridden, but she says, ‘What the hell do I get up for?’.

“In this case, and this isn’t true of any of my daughters, she really has nothing in common with her daughter. She loved going to concerts and her friends were intellectuals and her daughter is in the police and they’ve not much to talk about.

“I suspect that’s at the root of their problems, because they really don’t like one another. We did some improvisation on a scene where she washes my hair and it was fantastic, so much so that they stopped it because they thought we were genuinely having a row.

“I was saying, ‘You’ve got the bloody shampoo in my eye! What are you doing?’ They said cut and all looked very embarrassed and we said, ‘We’re acting!'” Although she is still working, Sheila says that like many others she has struggled to cope with the pandemic. “One of the things about this lockdown is that you have to be very careful about your mental health,” she warns.

“Whereas I was busy, busy, busy before all this happened, now I spend hours not saying a word to anyone. I know that my brain is not functioning as sharply as it did. Hopefully it will again, but at the moment I am slower on the uptake than I normally am.

“I’m lucky in as much as I live by the river and I’ve got a balcony with very big windows, so I can push the windows open and have a draught right the way through the room, but I’m utterly lost. Every day is chaos and what is shocking is that I’ve realised I have absolutely no self-discipline – my discipline is all around my job.

“If I’m doing a show like Unforgotten I get called at 5.30am. I go to make-up, I film and then I go home that night and learn my lines for the following day. It gives me a structure, but it’s built entirely around work.

“Also, I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, which is no joke. I normally go to the gym every other day, and that’s how I’ve kept it under control, but there’s no gym at the moment and I don’t have the discipline to do the exercises at home.

“The people that are doing well in lockdown – and I could kill them all! – are the people who say, ‘I exercise for an hour, then I go for a run, then I do a bit of reading, then I do a bit of gardening and then I’m learning French’. None of that for me.” Sheila is however busy making plans for when lockdown ends. She was recently made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list for her services to drama and charity and is desperate to do more.

“I’ve always been over-curious, it’s a bit of fault really,” she says. “I’m frantic, because I haven’t got much time – all those books I haven’t read and all those things I haven’t done. Now I’ve been given this Dameship they’re going to bitterly regret it! Because I’m going to use it to try to open as many doors as I can, certainly in the world of education.

“I feel strongly that I’ve got to earn it. To begin with I was shocked and thought it was wrong and then I suddenly felt very proud to be part of it.

“I’ve done quite a few things, but I’m going to redouble that, because we’re going to need everybody if we’re going to change things.

“I feel strongly about how unequal our society is and how badly we treat people like care workers.

“Awful things happened during the war, but even during it people were planning a wonderful future. Recently we had a book club Zoom meeting and a few of us agreed that we’re going to meet on a regular basis to see what we can do about the way forward, in small or big ways.”

A strong advocate for education, Sheila is patron of DigiSmart, an IT learning system for nine to 11-year-olds who are falling behind with reading and writing.

She says: “I’m desperate for all children to have iPads and even then there are children who need a teacher in the flesh encouraging them.

“I’m involved a lot in education and I know the schools are having the most dreadful time trying to keep things going.

“It’s so difficult, the teachers are struggling. A lot of what they’re being asked to do is so unrealistic. It couldn’t be harder than it is for the youngsters now. Both for children and certainly my grandchildren who are university age, it’s wretched.

“It’s a time when they should be having fun, learning and enjoying themselves and they’re stuck in their rooms and it’s all done online. It’s awful.”

Sheila’s three daughters, Melanie, 56, Abigail, 55 and Joanna, 47, all became actresses. She has eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 25 to nine. “They’re all activists of some sort,” she smiles proudly.

“They’re apolitical, which is so different from when I was young. They support causes – Black Lives Matter, equality, #MeToo. They’re all on the right course and they’re really working hard to change things.”

As passionate as they clearly are about changing the world, it’s hard to imagine that any of them can match their inspirational grandmother, who refuses to make any concession whatsoever to her age.

She says firmly: “I know there comes a time when you think, ‘Oh hello, I’ve had enough of this, I’m off.’ I’m sure that will happen to me at some point, but until that happens there’s so much to be done.”

• Unforgotten continues on Tuesday at 9pm

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