Sheila Hancock

Sheila Cameron Hancock, CBE (born 22 February 1933) is an English actress and author. Hancock trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before starting her career in repertory theatre. Hancock went on to perform in plays and musicals in London, and her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane (1966) earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Lead Actress in Play. She won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role in Cabaret (2007) and was nominated at the Laurence Olivier Awards four other times for her work in Sweeney Todd (1980), The Winter's Tale (1982), Prin (1989) and Sister Act (2010).

Sheila Hancock

Hancock at a book signing in 2014
Born (1933-02-22) 22 February 1933
OccupationActress, theatre director, author, panellist
Years active1953–present
Alec Ross
(m. 1954; died 1971)

John Thaw
(m. 1973; died 2002)

Children3, including stepdaughter Abigail[1]

Early life

Sheila Hancock was born in Blackgang on the Isle of Wight, the daughter of Ivy Louise (née Woodward) and Enrico Cameron Hancock,[2] who was a publican.[3] Her sister Billie is nine years older and worked as a variety artist until retiring to Antibes in 2003 at the age of 79.[4] After wartime evacuation, Hancock attended the Dartford County Grammar School and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.


Hancock worked in repertory during the 1950s and made her West End debut in 1958, replacing Joan Sims in the play Breath of Spring. She then appeared in Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production of Make Me An Offer in 1959, and her other early West End appearances included Peter Cook's revue One Over the Eight with Kenneth Williams in 1961, and starring in Rattle of a Simple Man in 1962. She recalled that in One over the Eight she had been egged on by Irving Davies's exhortation as dance captain, "Eyes, teeth, and tits, darlings - and sparkle, sparkle, sparkle!"[5]

In 1965, she made her Broadway debut in Entertaining Mr Sloane. In 1978, she played Miss Hannigan in the original London cast of the musical Annie and two years later, she played Mrs Lovett in the original London production of the musical Sweeney Todd.

Hancock has appeared in The Winter's Tale, Titus Andronicus and A Delicate Balance for the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the National Theatre she has appeared in The Cherry Orchard and The Duchess of Malfi. She also directed A Midsummer Night's Dream for the RSC on tour and directed The Critic at the National Theatre. She was also associate artistic director of the Cambridge Theatre Company.

In 2006, Hancock played the role of Fraulein Schneider in the West End revival of the musical Cabaret at the Lyric Theatre. She won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical. In 2009, she spent over a year playing Mother Superior in Sister Act the Musical at the London Palladium.

In 2013, Hancock starred alongside Lee Evans[6] and Keeley Hawes in the comedy Barking in Essex at Wyndham's Theatre.[7]

In 2016, Hancock starred with Jenna Russell in the UK premiere of the musical Grey Gardens at the Southwark Playhouse.

In 2019, Hancock starred in This Is My Family at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester.


Hancock's first big television role was as Carol in the BBC sitcom The Rag Trade in the early 1960s. She also played the lead roles in the sitcoms The Bed-Sit Girl, Mr Digby Darling, The Secretary Bird and Now Take My Wife. Her other television credits include Doctor Who, Kavanagh QC (opposite her husband, John Thaw), Gone to the Dogs, Brighton Belles, EastEnders, The Russian Bride, Bedtime, Fortysomething, Feather Boy, Bleak House, New Tricks, Hustle and The Catherine Tate Show. In 2008, she played the part of a terminally ill patient who travelled to Switzerland for an assisted suicide in one of The Last Word monologues for the BBC. In 2009, she played Liz in The Rain Has Stopped, part of the BBC daytime mini-series Moving On.

Hancock has also presented several documentaries. In 2010, she presented Suffragette City (part of A History of the World series), telling the story of the suffragette movement through objects from the Museum of London's collection.[8] In 2011, she presented Sheila Hancock Brushes Up: The Art of Watercolours, exploring the history of watercolour via beautiful yet little-known works of professional and amateur artists.[9] In 2013 she presented, as part of the ITV Perspectives documentary series, Perspectives: Sheila Hancock – The Brilliant Brontë Sisters,[10] examining the writers' upbringing and the sources of their inspiration.

In December 2012, Hancock took part in a Christmas special edition of the BBC programme Strictly Come Dancing.[11]

In January 2016 she made a guest appearance in an episode of the BBC medical drama Casualty. In December 2016 she began starring alongside Dawn French, Emilia Fox and Iain Glen in the Sky One comedy drama series Delicious.

Other work

In March 1963, Hancock made a comedy single record, "My Last Cigarette".[12] The song is about someone trying to give up smoking: however, every good intention is dependent on her having "just one more cigarette".

Hancock regularly works in radio. She starred as Alice Foster in the BBC Radio 2 comedy series Thank You, Mrs Fothergill, in 1978-79, alongside Pat Coombs. She has made guest appearances on television shows like Grumpy Old Women, Room 101 and Have I Got News for You. On radio, she has been a semi-regular contestant on the BBC Radio 4 panel game Just a Minute since 1967. From 2007 to 2012 Hancock was Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.[13] From March to May 2010, she appeared as a judge on the BBC show Over the Rainbow, along with Charlotte Church, Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Partridge.

Hancock appeared in the BBC Radio Four series North by Northamptonshire in 2011, alongside Geoffrey Palmer.[14]

In 1995 Hancock provided the voice of Granny Weatherwax in BBC Radio 4's adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Wyrd Sisters.

Hancock was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1977 when she was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at the curtain call of the play The Bed Before Yesterday at the Lyric Theatre, London.

Personal life

Hancock was married to actor Alec Ross from 1954 until his death from oesophageal cancer in 1971. They had one daughter, Melanie, born in 1964. In 1973, Hancock married actor John Thaw. He adopted Melanie and they had another daughter, Joanna. Thaw's daughter Abigail, from his first marriage, also joined their family. All three of their daughters have become actresses.

Hancock was married to Thaw until his death (also from oesophageal cancer) on 21 February 2002. Hancock herself was diagnosed with breast cancer during the late 1980s, but made a full recovery. Her 2004 book, The Two of Us is a dual biography, which gives accounts of both their lives, as well as focusing on their 28-year marriage. This was followed by the 2008 book, Just Me, an account of coming to terms with widowhood. In 2014 she published her debut novel, Miss Carter's War.

Hancock is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She is a patron of London HIV charity The Food Chain and worked with London children's charity Kids Company until its dissolution on 5 August 2015.[15]

Hancock was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1974 Birthday Honours and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 New Year Honours.[16]

Hancock is a friend of Sandi Toksvig and read Maya Angelou's poem "Touched by an Angel" at the "I Do To Equal Marriage" event which celebrated the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales.[17]

Honours and awards

  • 1974 Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to drama
  • 2002 BAFTA nomination, Best Actress for The Russian Bride
  • 2003 BAFTA nomination, Best Actress for Bedtime
  • 2007 Appointment as Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth[15]
  • 2007 Laurence Olivier Award, Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret
  • 2010 Laurence Olivier Award nomination, Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical for her role as Mother Superior in Sister Act the Musical
  • 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Women in Film and Television Awards[18]
  • 2011 Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to drama



  1. Hancock, Sheila. The Two of Us, my life with John Thaw.
  2. Film reference Hancock Biography accessed 9 March 2010
  3. Revoir, Paul (17 March 2011). "Actress Sheila Hancock admits loving drama of 'vile and wonderful' drinking men". Daily Mail. London.
  4. Daily Mail Profile of Sheila Hancock 16 September 2008 accessed 9 March 2010
  5. Sheila Hancock, Ramblings of an Actress (1987), p. 4
  6. "Lee Evans and Sheila Hancock star in new stage comedy". BBC News. 30 November 2012. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  7. "Lee Evans – 'I really wanted to get back into theatre'". Whats on Stage. 3 May 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2013.
  10. "Perspectives: Sheila Hancock – The Brilliant Brontë Sisters". Series 3. Episode 3. 31 March 2013. ITV3. Retrieved 31 March 2013. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  11. "Strictly Come Dancing". Series 10. 25 December 2012. Retrieved 25 December 2012. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  12. Songfacts accessed 17 March 2014
  13. University of Portsmouth News Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine accessed 19 March 2010
  14. BBC. "North by Northamptonshire". BBC. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
  15. Guardian (4 October 2008). "Guardian Profile of Hancock Saturday 4 October 2008". The Guardian.
  16. "No. 59647". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2010. p. 7.
  17. "Thousands help comedian Sandi Toksvig renew vows after introduction of gay marriage". Herald Scotland. 29 March 2014. Retrieved 1 April 2014.
  18. "Sheila Hancock receives Women in Film and TV Award". BBC News.
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