Sixties icon Sheila Hancock has enjoyed a career spanning six decades. After training at RADA, she began working in musical theatre, comedy and revue.

Her successes in the 1960s and 1970s – such as The Bed-sit Girl, The Rag Trade and But Seriously, It’s Sheila Hancock - were followed by stage credits for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National and in the West End with, most notably, Sweeney Todd and Annie. On screen, her credits have included Three Men and a Little Lady, Love and Death on Long Island, Bedtime, The Russian Bride, Carry On Cleo, The Wildcats of St Trinian’s and EastEnders.

Hancock has most recently been seen on the London stage in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook and Peter Pan opposite her actor-husband, the late John Thaw (See News, 22 Feb 2002). She recently published to critical acclaim her memoir The Two of Us, about her life with Thaw.

The actress returns to the West End this week in The Anniversary. Bill McIllwraith's comedy, described as “the mother-in-law's revenge”, first premiered in Liverpool in 1966 when Hancock played a young daughter-in-law, a role she reprised on screen eight years later opposite Bette Davis. In the new production, which ran at the Liverpool Playhouse this past September (See News, 3 Aug 2004), Hancock takes the role of the malicious and malevolent ‘Mum’.

Date & place of birth
Born on 22 February 1933 in the Isle of Wight.

Trained at…
RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).

Lives now in…
Hammersmith, west London. I’ve lived in my current house for four months, where I only moved in recently, but I’ve been in the same area of Chiswick and Hammersmith for about 30 years. A lot of actors live in the area, as it’s very convenient, we’re near the BBC, there’s the river, good schools and nice parks.

First big break
It was Joan Littlewood. She was the first person who saw me see a way through the fact that I didn’t fit in. When I left RADA, people didn’t want tall, odd working-class girls. Joan liberated a lot of people and made us proud to be funny and odd. I only did one show with her, Make Me an Offer, at Stratford East that then transferred to the New Theatre. But we stayed in touch from then on – I was last in touch with her a fortnight before she died.

Career highlights
The thing I would say above all is that I’m still here. I’m not a person who has had enormous highlights, but I have kept slogging away, and am quite proud of that. I’ve had a very varied career that has been lucky and fun, and I’ve got tenacity. I’ve just hung on in there!

Favourite productions
Being artistic director of the regional tour for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983, when I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and co-directed Romeo and Juliet with John Caird was my favourite job. I organised the whole tour and the workshops we did, and I had the most amazing company. I still meet people, like Daniel Day Lewis, who were in it who say, “that was the best of times”. I was so passionate about what I was doing. It was a kind of social commitment as well as a theatrical one, as I was desperate to take Shakespeare to the masses, and worked hard to make sure that it wasn’t just the usual middle-class audiences who came. We sold tickets through mobile libraries and places like that. It was just stupendous the effect we had, and the spirit of the company. We were like little pioneers; it was the time of the miners’ strike and a teachers’ strike, a fascinating time to be going around Britain. I wrote a book about it, Ramblings of an Actress, and because I’m a very curious person, I combined it with a look at what was happening to the country at the time. Going to the places we did, we got together with teachers and miners who were affected, because they were not only our audiences but also our hosts, as we were taking our auditorium into their premises. Seldom do you do something where you’re utterly committed to the job as well as the acting. I had never done Shakespeare before, and it was very late in my career to be doing so, but I helped to raise the money to do the tour and we did it. That’s what I look back on and smile about. But I was exhausted, and not long after that I got cancer, and I swear it was partly to do with that - I’d worked my little ass off!

Favourite co-stars
I don’t have favourites. I always get on very well with most of the companies I have worked with. But the ones who amused me most were Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd. The wonderful thing about working with comics and eccentrics was that you never knew where you were. That appealed to my sense of anarchy. You made it up as you went along with them. It was very liberating for me as a tight-assed, RADA-trained actress to suddenly think, “this is fun!” With Frankie, I did Tons of Money at Bromley Rep. It was one of the many times when his career was on the skids, he was a very complex man. Nigel Hawthorne was also in the company, and Frankie became a friend for life for both of us. With Kenny, I did One Over the Eight at the Duke of York’s, and Just a Minute, and we became very close. Mostly, you must move on, but the reason I remember them both is that they both became close friends.

Favourite directors
Mike Alfreds is one, because he calls upon the actors’ creativity very much. Nothing is set. When we did The Cherry Orchard at the National, not a single move was set. We changed it every night, and it was very exciting and thrilling. He’s an extraordinary, demanding director. He’s there every night with a notebook, but then so am I when I direct! Joan Littlewood was another amazing director. She had a total understanding for actors and tried to bring out what you had to offer, rather than trying to mould you into something else. I also admire Trevor Nunn hugely. I was in his production of Peter Pan at the National. He also came in and rescued a show I was in at the last minute at the National, when Corin Redgrave and I did a Neil Bartlett play about Oscar Wilde, In Extremis. I admired hugely his facility to get effects very quickly. His facility for putting his finger on the problem was amazing. I’ve also enjoyed working with Rufus Norris at the Royal Court – he directed a lovely piece by David Eldridge called Under the Blue Sky that I was in - and with Denis Lawson and Jonathan Munby now on The Anniversary. They’re absolutely terrific.

Favourite playwrights
Shakespeare is the top of the list. In the last three years when I’ve been a bit miserable off and on, he’s been a huge comfort. He just knew everything! There’s not a thing that happens to you that you can’t find reflected in Shakespeare. I’m passionate about him, and I’m very upset that he’s not taught well in schools. I know – with total arrogance but total truth – that if you do Shakespeare in the right way, children love it. We need to tell them that this is their playwright and their heritage, and the language is funny and rich and wonderful. It appals me that children haven’t always got the opportunity to find that out for themselves. It’s shameful. Chekhov is an actors’ joy. And David Eldridge is an extraordinary young writer. He’s trying to write something for me at the moment. The play we did at the Court, Under the Blue Sky, was absolutely beautiful. People were packing in to see it, and the only shame is that more people couldn’t. The stupid Court didn’t put it in the main house or do more with it after its run in the Theatre Upstairs. It breaks my heart that this beautiful piece of writing hasn’t been seen again.

Why do you like to return to the stage?
I return to the stage partly because it’s the one thing in a career that can remain constant. If you’re a working actress like I am, your theatre work can be ongoing. You can be fashionable on television one minute and then people get bored with you, and there isn’t much work in film, especially for older women. But in the theatre, once you’ve established some reputation, you can always chunter away. I do think it’s also important to keep in touch with audience reaction. The other mediums are more a director’s art than the actor’s. The director can cut you out or muck you up. But on stage, it’s you and the audience and the director goes home, so you are in control.

Why do you think theatre is important?
Culture is vital, and we’re losing touch with it. For a girl from a background like mine where we didn’t have any culture – my parents were lovely and open-minded, but ill-educated – it was my teachers who introduced me to the theatre. And there’s a communal experience in theatre that’s vital. Theatre is ahead in the world of ideas, too. That’s why I’m so passionate to defend to the last the right of the Birmingham Rep to have put on Behzti. It was awful that it was stopped by violence. Theatre is a place where people can say what they like and, because it’s live, you can stir people up with it. Or you can just go and be entertained, to have a laugh and feel better. It’s an event in which you participate rather than dumbly sit in front of the screen. And theatre feeds all the other mediums. Most writers and directors as well as actors cut their teeth in the theatre.

What roles would you most like to play still?
I’m just happy to keep working! I’m now too old for all the roles I’d like to play. I’d like to have played all the leading Shakespearean roles, but it’s sad that he didn’t write a Lear for old ladies!

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Festen. It was exquisitely directed by Rufus Norris and adapted by David Eldridge, and was a total theatrical experience. It was magic to look at and listen to and utterly gripping and just beautiful. It was an extraordinary experience.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Do something about the schools. Get theatre back in education and make children aware that it’s there and how lucky they are to have the most amazing playwrights as part of their tradition. That’s where it’s got to start. And get music back in schools, too. Stop cutting these things out of the curriculum. I want government to think that arts is the most important thing, rather than the least important, and to stop appointing the least efficient minister to it. They should have one of their top, most lively people as the minister, because the arts so enriches people’s lives. I’ve seen that for myself!

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Anne Hathaway. I’d like to be able to talk to Shakespeare in bed, to find out what made him tick.

Favourite holiday destination
My house in Provence in France. I’ve had it for 14 years.

Favourite books
Whatever I’m reading at the moment. I’m very involved in books about London now: Peter Ackroyd’s London – The Biography, and a wonderful book about the Thames, as I’m living beside it now. I love history and biography.

What made you want to publish your memoir of life with your late husband, John Thaw, The Two of Us?
The main reason I published it is I didn’t want anyone else to write it. I was threatened that others would write a warts-and-all biography about John. It was difficult to write, as the research was very hard. I wanted to set it in a social context, and I didn’t know much about John’s childhood, so I had a lot to research, especially about Manchester as it was then. It has a complicated structure, so I had charts all over the walls – I really got my knickers in a twist with it! But the reaction to it has amazed me. I thought people would be interested in John, obviously, but what I didn’t realise was there would be this amazing emotional response to how the book deals with relationships, grief and alcoholism. I’ve had thousands of letters from people who’ve said it has helped them enormously. Having worked so hard on the biographical side of it, I hadn’t foreseen that it would have this extraordinary emotional impact. It was just overwhelming.

Favourite website
There’s a wonderful website dedicated to John that has an amazing collection of photos, archive stuff, articles and provides a total survey of his career. It’s a very well designed and thorough site.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I wish I’d gone to university, and then I might have known what I would have done professionally. But after a lifetime as an actor, I can’t imagine what else I could do. Perhaps I might have gone into politics, or I would have loved to have become a full-time writer.

Why did you want to accept the part of Mum in this production of The Anniversary?
I was asked. My son-in-law, Matthew Byam Shaw, is one of the producers, and suggested it. I was slightly startled that he thought it was a good part for me, as I’m his mother-in-law, and it’s about a mother-in-law from hell! But when I read it, I realised that it’s really rather savage and has a lot to say about families today, and is still very funny, too. I did want to try it out first, and so we went to Liverpool with it last year and it went like a bomb there.

How have you found returning to the play after so many years?
The interesting thing is that when we first did it, people were much more shocked at the idea of an evil mother. Motherhood was still very sacred in the Sixties, and you didn’t dare say mothers could be rubbish. But when we did it in Liverpool this time, people laughed a lot more – and the more evil I was, the more they laughed. People would also keep stopping me in the street and say I was just like their mother or mother-in-law! I do a lot of work with children that have gotten into trouble, and I have found in their backgrounds that, nine times out of ten, there’s a father in it who’s a nightmare, but very often there’s also a mother who thinks she’s loving but is actually very destructive and possessive and doing enormous damage. So I’m very happy to be attacking motherhood – even though I can see things in myself that are relevant in this play. It’s easy to be over-possessive and resent the people who take your children away from you, their partners.

When I researched the book, I also discovered a lot about John’s mother, who had deserted him. The final chapter is about her, and trying to forgive her. Both his mother and my mother were from a generation of women who were very bright and sparky, but because they had no education, and their families were huge, they had no opportunities at all. Had she been born now, she would probably be heading a company. I think that’s also very true of the character I play in The Anniversary. There’s a sense of huge frustration for her. She’s running a business since her husband died, and she’s very good at it – if she’d been given another opportunity, she would have done incredibly well.

Have you had any nightmare experiences in real life either with mothers-in-law or as a mother-in-law?
I’ve been pretty horrible to some of the boys that have been brought home, but then they deserved it – they were unsuitable! I could easily be the mother-in-law from hell. I hope the boys involved with my daughters now don’t think so, though.

What’s your favourite line from The Anniversary?
There’s a line that sums up what’s appalling about the woman. She says to her youngest son, whom she worships: “You belong to me and I’m having you. If I could, I’d stuff you and stick you on the wall over there along with all my other beautiful possessions and that’s love for you.” Of course, that is absolutely not what love is, but it’s what a lot of women think it is.

What’s the most notable thing that’s happened in the run to date of The Anniversary?
The run has been wonderful for me. It came about at the same time as the book came out. I was back doing interviews about John and was in danger of becoming a professional widow. But here I was at the Liverpool Playhouse, the theatre where John had started his career, and it was quite touching to be working there myself towards the end of mine. With people packing in and laughing and cheering, it was also hugely good for my morale. I’m not expecting the same thing to happen in London, but by God I was grateful to Liverpool for that. It helped me no end at quite a difficult time. Judging by the reaction in Liverpool, it’s a bloody good laugh for audiences, too.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m recording the audiobook of The Two of Us and also there’s a paperback edition coming out that I’m writing another chapter for. And there’s a series of Grumpy Old Women being broadcast that I’ve already recorded.

- Sheila Hancock was speaking to Mark Shenton

The Anniversary opens at the West End’s Garrick Theatre on 26 January 2005 (previews from 20 January) and is currently booking until 23 April 2005.