On The Road: Sheila Hancock Louise Flind
When Sheila Hancock lost husband John Thaw, she went away on her own and found liberation in travelling solo, she tells Louise Flind
Is there something you really miss when you’re travelling? Tea – proper tea. I never quite understand why even the top hotels abroad have never quite mastered making tea. They all give you a teabag and some supposedly hot water in a jug. I’m very sophisticated about tea – I go to a shop in Marylebone High Street and get lovely blends.
Earliest childhood holiday memories? The working class during the war didn’t have holidays. My dad worked in a pub in King’s Cross and I just remember a coach trip to Ramsgate with all the pub customers for the day.
Are you a traveller? No. I wrote a book about travel which is called ‘Just Me’. After John died [the actor John Thaw, who passed away in 2002], I decided travelling on my own would help me learn to cope. I forced myself to go to Germany, having been bought up to hate the Germans, and I loved it. I missed a train in that huge station in Berlin and my first reaction was panic and then I thought it doesn’t matter – there’s no John to get angry, no kids to be a nuisance – just me. And I sat there for about three hours, watching people until the next train came along – it was a wonderful sense of utter freedom.
Did you do a lot of theatrical touring? Hell of a lot. I toured with the National Theatre to France and America but mainly I did all the tatty dates in England. Sundays were wonderful because, at Crewe station, which was a crossing point, you could see all the stars – Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Olivier – because they’d be touring with big shows, and there was a place where we’d have cups of tea with them.
What was it like working abroad? We went to Chicago and Paris with the National Theatre and to New York with ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’, a Joe Orton play. New York at that time was quite sedate, and I remember the review in the ‘New York Times’ said, ‘Throw this British cesspit back into the Atlantic.’ The ‘Village Voice’ took us up and wonderful people like Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams came and loved it. Joe was the toast of New York, and I got a Tony nomination. My mum came out with my daughter Melanie. Mum was frightfully prim and working-class and Joe adored her – she used to do roast beef in New York on Sundays in the steaming heat.
Where did you go on your honeymoons? Didn’t go on one either time because I was working. With John, we thought we’d get married secretly with just the two girls as it was then, but it turned out that the Cirencester register office was opposite the local press. With Alec [Ross – her first husband], we did go down to Brighton for a couple of days, but we were both in weekly rep, we had no money, and my mum did a proper wedding which was awful.
Do you go on holiday? I went on my first holiday for yonks with my daughter’s family the other day – to Mykonos. John hated holidays; we always came home the day after we got there. Do you lie on the beach? Not now – too boring.
Strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? There used to be a wonderful café in Maddox Street in London which had chocolate-covered insects – John and I loved it.
Best and worst experiences in restaurants when abroad? I never get recognised abroad, whereas in England I do sometimes – so I have to behave myself – but abroad I can earwig, as John used to say. I once wrote about getting involved with the Mafia in Milan – where I saw a man being menaced. Nobody noticed me, this old woman, sitting in the corner.
What is the strangest place you’ve ever slept in – while being away? When I was 14, I hitchhiked around Europe with a girlfriend, and a Union Jack on my back. I slept in haystacks, people’s cars, lorries, ditches and hostels. It was 1947 – I remember Dunkirk with relics on the beach, bomb damage and burnt buildings.
Top travelling tips? Just endure it and think of the destination. I went through a period of being frightened of flying, and a hypnotist taught me to think of my destination.
What about your film locations? I’ve only really recently had a good film career – I’ve got a film out now that’s doing so well, and it’s amazing because it’s the first film I’ve ever had a leading role in – it’s called ‘Edie’, and it’s about Scotland.
My life on location at the moment is in Cornwall. I’m doing a series called ‘Delicious’ with Dawn French, Emilia Fox and Iain Glen. Dawn loves Cornwall. One of my daughters lives in St Ives – I try to love it…
Sheila Hancock with John Thaw in 1976