Old Rage Sheila Hancock Bloomsbury, €26.59
In 2016, when actress Sheila Hancock was offered the chance to star in Edie, a film about an old lady climbing the remote mountain Suilven in the Scottish highlands, she accepted with alacrity.
She was chuffed that she was going to be the star, though she did pause to wonder why none of her more high-profile peers had been offered the role.
When she found out there would be no CGI images of the mountain and no stuntpeople, and she would actually be doing the arduous climb herself in unpredictable weather conditions, the penny dropped.
The game veteran of theatre and movies, who at the time of filming was 83, did the job and all worked out fine though not without some cliffhanging moments, as she relates in her latest memoir Old Rage.
Hancock has been around the theatre and movie scene as long as Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, but hasn’t hit quite the same heights. She describes herself in a typically frank way as an “also ran”.
Hancock is now 89 and this tome is about growing old
To most people she would be best known as the widow of the legendary John Thaw of Morse fame. But she’s had a long career in her own right and she’s written several best-selling memoirs.
The title sums up the book. Hancock is now 89 and this tome is about growing old – which Bette Davis reminded us is not for sissies – and also about making the most of those senior years.
Not only did she tackle that mountain in life-threatening conditions, she recently learned to master a barge for Channel 4’s Great Canal Journeys (and takes great pleasure in telling us she did it better than Gyles Brandreth some 25 years younger than her).
There is rage too – rage at Brexit, at Covid and what it did to old people, at social injustice. She’s particularly fired up about education.
Hancock, the daughter of bar workers, benefited from a scholarship to grammar school and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and she rails about the inequalities in the current British system.
She’s proactive too and is patron of a local primary school as well as being the former chancellor of Portsmouth University and the vice president of a neighbouring hospice.
The memoir is loosely a diary from 2016 to 2021 and while she recounts her daily activities during those years, she cleverly weaves in reminiscences about her youth, World War II, the Blitz, her early days in theatre and her two marriages.
She is extraordinarily honest, making it clear that Thaw, who died in 2002 was not easy to live with, yet acknowledges: “My heart lurches when I see an old couple walking down the street as we used to. I do not allow myself to dwell on how it would have been to share my old age with the man I loved.”
She doesn’t sugar-coat old age and can be funny about her increasing decrepitude. And she doesn’t avoid reflection about her own death.
There are plenty of entertaining theatrical anecdotes and she worked with all the greats. She knew the illustrious Harold Pinter when he was a jobbing actor under the stage name David Baron and she has lovely stories about Kenneth Williams and David Tennant and many more.
She is au fait with everything going on in the world. When her daughter Ellie Jane – she has three daughters – was diagnosed with cancer, Hancock trawled the internet for the latest research. She notes rather tartly that when she herself got a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis it was best to avoid the web on the subject.
What’s noteworthy here is that there are many people decades younger than her who wouldn’t have a clue how to turn on the computer, let alone do a search.
Unlike many of us as we get older, she’s not stuck in her views. She is appalled that her beloved Winston Churchill has been outed as a racist, but she accepts the evidence.
We’ve long been looking for the recipe for growing old successfully and it seems Hancock has found some of the ingredients: endless curiosity about the world, empathy with those less fortunate, humour, and a dose of rage.