In the new series of Great Canal Journeys, Sheila Hancock learns to scull in Henley-on-Thames. There she is with four Amazonian young rowers, heaving oars through the water. For someone born in February 1933, the month the Reichstag burned down, it looks hugely impressive, all the more so when she reveals that for three years she has been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I can’t move across the room. I’ve hidden the fact because of work, because I wouldn’t get employed, because I’m on the vulnerable list and all that.
“But because it’s a hidden illness and a lot of people have got it I’ve made a conscious decision to come clean about it.”
Hancock learnt of the illness in 2017 at the time when her sister was dying and she kept flying to visit her in Antibes. She felt an agonising pain in one hand. She bought a splint at Heathrow and managed to function for a time until the other hand started hurting.
“It’s a pain like you would not believe,” she tells me. “One day I was reading a script and when I got up I couldn’t move. My leg, my hip, my everything had gone into an appalling flare. I was trapped.”
She managed to get to a phone and after several consultations was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She says due to a cocktail of drugs she has managed to keep going. When performing in the musical This is My Family at Chichester last year she did tell the management, though the company had no idea about it.
“Because I am so bloody old they treat me with care anyway which used to really irritate me, but now I am quite grateful that they remember I am not only old but also ache a bit.
“I mean I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine thanks to medical science. It’s one of the least nasty things you can get in old age. It’s infinitely better than any of the mental illnesses, or indeed osteoarthritis.”
Hancock, whose vitality seems undimmed even at 87, is a wonderful casting coup for Channel 4’s evergreen show Great Canal Journeys. For 10 series and 35 episodes, the series was helmed by lifelong canal aficionados Timothy West and Prunella Scales. When they decided to quit, Channel 4 recruited Sheila Hancock and Gyles Brandreth, who had proved a hit pairing on Celebrity Gogglebox.
“I was very nervous about it,” she says, “because I didn’t see that lovely lyrical quality that Tim and Pru have got coming with Gyles and me. Gyles is a Tory whip and I’m, if anything, far-Left of centre. But we somehow managed to really learn from one another.”
Hancock has been a fixture in our cultural life for 60 years since her stints in Peter Cook’s West End revue One Over the Eight and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Seemingly the only thing she can’t do is make that familiar face, with its sharp angles and hawkish eyes, materialise on our Zoom call: despite frustrated stabs on her keyboard, the screen remains resolutely dark throughout.
Still, to hear her talk is to experience a fascinating oral history of 20th and 21st century Britain, including every wave of feminism. She was brought up to believe in “working-class values of family and husband first”, which were duly reflected in her roles in sitcoms like The Bed-Sit Girl and Mr Digby Darling.
“I was in a dizzy blonde little wife role – they didn’t want women to be grotesque,” she says. Then came The Female Eunuch. Hancock and other actresses were in a play at the Royal Court when Germaine Greer’s call-to-arms was published in 1970. “The book so flummoxed us that we used to meet after the show just to talk through all the things that it meant.”
Its teachings prompted her to rebel at a BBC Christmas party. “I was a bit p----- and said, ‘You always offer me such rubbish.’ So they gave me half an hour ‘to do whatever you like’.” Although written by men, But Seriously, It’s Sheila Hancock in 1972 was one of the earliest sketch shows to be led by a female star.
Hancock still possesses that pioneering spirit, but accepts that her acting days may be numbered. Filming the Sky One series A Discovery of Witches not long ago, she had an incident which “frightened the living daylight” out of her.
“I kept drying and drying. I just went blank. It’s never happened to me before. I thought, ‘This is senility, I should have given up.’ The next day I was terrified, but then I was fine. I did think, ‘Oh I see, this is what happens when actors get old.’”
The year 2020 has been difficult for Hancock as it has been for many: her only earnings consisted of a royalty cheque for £10.50 which she received for a BBC audiobook of David Copperfield from 1994.
Now she is in enforced confinement, alone, with the sweet Thames running softly below her window in Hammersmith. This has given her the chance to work on a book of recollections – following a recent novel and two bestselling memoirs about her marriage to John Thaw (with whom she had a daughter, Joanna, the half-sister of Melanie, Hancock’s daughter from her first marriage) and the depression she suffered after his death in 2002.
“I started it with Brexit,” she says. “I was just incensed and beside myself with grief. Then my sister died. She had this funny little diary she kept as her mind started to unravel. That made me want to talk even more about what it’s like to be an old woman who’s lived a life.”
She has also spent a lot of time “having to revise a hell of a lot of what I think and feel. I realised that I knew very little about colonial history. Me at 87! When I left school at 15 all the map was red and we were proud of the colonies. But we’ve got to be so careful that we don’t silence the people who disapprove of destroying statues. Things have to be debated, you have to hear both sides and make up your mind. What’s happened to J K Rowling is appalling. There’s a wonderful Quaker saying: consider the possibility that you may be wrong.”
Our conversation takes place before the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party, but it turns out she made up her mind about him a long time ago.
“He seemed like a good guy but he was saying socialist things that I remember from the Fifties when I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh dear, I don’t think this is any good.’ People don’t want extremism, they really don’t. I have this image of knocking down the Houses of Parliament and having a circular chamber and stopping this combat.”
In a year piled high with bad news, Hancock has spent a lot of time watching comforting television – she is a devotee of Netflix sitcom Schitt’s Creek – and cleaning the house. “That was something I hadn’t done for a long time. I’m a really good cleaner. It was a lovely excuse not to write.
“To be honest my mind is a muddle. I’m finding it difficult to say things because I don’t know myself. The awful thing is, when you get to my age and you’ve been through a lot of things, which are things that everybody goes through – everybody has husbands die, wars and poverty – I haven’t come out of it wiser. I really haven’t. And I think there has never been a more perplexing time than now.”
Great Canal Journeys begins on Channel 4 on Sunday at 8pm