It Was Tough But Wonderful

After a stage and screen career spanning seven decades, Sheila Hancock could be forgiven for wanting to slow down. Instead, she recently completed one of the biggest challenges of her life 

Not many people would consider climbing one of Scotland’s most hazardous mountains in their 80s, but when Sheila Hancock was asked to do exactly that, she didn’t hesitate before agreeing. 

‘I was desperate to do it,’ she says of her role in the film Edie, in which she plays a recently widowed woman who decides to embark on the adventure of a lifetime – climbing Suilven in the north-west Highlands. ‘I was probably the only 80-odd-year-old that could climb it, so I got the part,’ Sheila laughs, with typically self-deprecating humour. ‘At my age, there are not many of us who can still learn lines and stagger across a stage, so the list of people they go to before they get to me has become shorter.’

Having accepted the role, Sheila realised she would have to embark on a rigorous training programme. She joined a gym, took up Nordic walking and weight-training, so that she was fit enough to tackle the two-month shoot, during which she and the entire crew would climb Suilven and camp out over a number of nights.

When filming began in May 2016, Sheila embraced the experience so fully that the crew joked she was taking her senior Duke of Edinburgh Award. ‘Whatever new thing I did, like cycling or rowing across a loch, I thought, “Well, I’ve got that badge now,’” she recalls. ‘It was tough but wonderful to be doing something like that at my age.’

Her determination seemed to rub off on everyone. ‘We had to walk across wilderness 
for miles, which was exhausting, but we were desperate not to let one another down,’ she says. There were moments of mild terror, too, such as walking a narrow pass with sheer drops on either side. 

Then there was the camping, which Sheila loathed but had to do since a lot of the filming was in such remote locations. ‘Why does anybody camp?’ she asks bluntly. ‘It’s utterly dreadful. One of the camps was halfway up the mountain on a sort of ledge, and it was above the clouds. I have never been so cold in my life.’

Nearing the 731m (2,398ft) summit, Sheila admits to a moment of self-doubt about whether she could make it all the way to the top. ‘But when I saw the crew clambering up with all their equipment,’ she recalls, ‘I thought: “I can’t let them down, we’ve got this far.”’ 

With one final push, she made it – and the experience proved exhilarating. ‘I remember just feeling absolutely at one with nature,’ she says of the view from the top. ‘I felt part of something magnificent.’ Her achievement won her much respect, not only from the film crew, but from many of the locals, too, who wouldn’t have dreamt of undertaking such a daunting challenge.

‘Nobody my age had ever reached the top,’ she says. It also impressed her three youngest grandchildren, who assumed she was climbing Everest when they saw her photos! 

Sheila feels proud of what she achieved and grateful. ‘I was surrounded by young people and it was a joyous experience,’ she says. ‘I’m terribly lucky that, at my age, I’m still jumping around and climbing mountains.’

She’s still treading the boards, too, recently appearing in London’s West End in the dark romantic comedy Harold and Maude, in which she played a bohemian 79-year-old who believes in ‘trying something new every day’. 

Playing strong, optimistic women is clearly something Sheila relishes, though she admits that finding life-affirming roles can be hard in later life. ‘When I get a part now, my kids say, “Do you go senile or die in it?!” But I’ve got to the stage where I don’t have to obey any rules, and I only do things that’ll be nice.’ 

She wasn’t always able to be choosy. In the early days, she spent a lot of time playing ‘dizzy blondes’ before getting her first big break, as Carole in the 1960s sitcom The Rag Trade. ‘We were destined to do very clichéd things,’ she recalls. ‘It has changed immeasurably. Not enough, but it has changed.’

While her long, successful career on stage and screen has given her many accolades and awards, it was her emotional honesty during one of the darkest periods of her life (the death of her second husband, John Thaw, from cancer of the oesophagus) that earned Sheila a new and deeper respect. Her two memoirs, The Two of Us and Just Me, in which she detailed her life with John and her attempts to come to terms with his loss, struck a chord with readers worldwide and quickly became bestsellers. 

‘I’ve lived a long life and seen many things, and, I can tell you, grief is a killer,’ she says. Having been widowed twice (her first husband, actor Alec Ross, also died from oesophageal cancer), she understands the fragility of life and the pain of loss. ‘Eventually, you have to make a choice. You can stay stuck where you are, or you can say, “I am now on my own, my life has changed, and I need to change the way I operate.”’

Sixteen years after losing John, Sheila is living life to the full. Aged 85, she is still weight-lifting. ‘I’m addicted to it,’ she says. ‘I don’t know the size of the weights I do, but they are great big discs on the end of the pole. They’re the same size as the ones the men do. Before training for Edie, I could barely lift just the pole.’

As for being an octogenarian, she finds it rather liberating. ‘The wonderful thing about old age is you get to be very selfish when you’re old. I don’t have to answer to anybody now.’ 

So what advice does she have for those who are younger than her? ‘Have as much fun as you can. You’ve got to cherish the moments and say, “I’m happy now.”’

It’s an attitude she lives by, and which left a lasting mark on those who climbed Suilven with her, particularly the film’s director, Simon Hunter. ‘Watching Sheila taught me you really can do anything if you put your mind to it,’ he says. ‘And that it’s never too late to try something new, to do something different.’

Edie is released in UK cinemas on 25 May

Photo Credits: Allstar, Capital Pictures, Harry Borden/Getty.