What tends to motivate me? Fear
There’s a lot of Wallis Simpson about at the moment. Eve Best played her in The King’s Speech, Gillian Anderson in Any Human Heart. She was a walk-on in Upstairs Downstairs, and, as played by Andrea Riseborough, she is an inspirational figure in Madonna’s forthcoming directorial debut. There’s also the accomplished new biography by Anne Sebba, and now here comes a new play. Is there no avoiding the Duchess of Windsor?
In fact, there’s every avoiding her in The Last of the Duchess. Nicholas Wright’s play turns her into an invisible woman who, in her final years, was kept from the prying eye of the visiting gawpers by a human shield in the notorious shape of Maître Blum. At the Hampstead Theatre, the formidable French lawyer-turned-gatekeeper moves to the centre of the stage, where she will be embodied by Sheila Hancock.
It’s her first new play in a decade. She signed up out of fondness for Wright, whom she first encountered at George Devine’s Royal Court “when we were both little”, and the director Richard Eyre. “Good directors are really hard to find,” says Hancock, “so it was quite nice at my age to be acting with a really proper director.”
As bait, the subject matter trailed in a distant third. Hancock cheerfully admits to “never giving the Duchess of Windsor a passing thought in my entire life”. But time spent in the London Library – Hancock is a prodigious researcher “just for the hell of it” – has turned her into an expert. The thrust of her scholarship was to understand what motivated Blum to protect the Duchess so fiercely.
“The biographers have been so unfair to her. They have imposed this ogre on to her. In fact, Blum was a self-made woman who rose to the top of her profession, was very brave during the war, and was the usual thing: a strong woman, so immediately she’s a beast. For some reason, this deeply intelligent woman loved the image of [the Duchess]. She knew that she was decaying and she didn’t want the world to see that.”
It will be intriguing to see Hancock play not only French but posh. As she detailed in her bestselling memoir The Two of Us, which is a portrait of her background as well as her marriage to John Thaw (who died in 2002), Hancock was always conscious of coming from another side of the tracks. Her early years in acting were spent in weekly rep pretending to be something she knew she wasn’t.
“I did rep for eight years, and nobody gave me a passing glance. Most people were middle class, and I was one of the early working-class or lower-middle-class people to go into theatre , and it was very difficult to get a foot on the ladder.”
The change came when she was cast by Joan Littlewood. “She let me be myself for the first time. I’d been trying to be a middle-class pretty person and I wasn’t. That’s when it all began to change.”
She was also sidetracked into comedy and, in the West End sketch show One Over the Eight, became a lifelong friend and confidante of Kenneth Williams. “I was frightfully snotty about it at the time. I am upset that I was so rude about it sometimes. I wanted to do better things.”
Forty years on, she’s started doing more of it: she “loved” being in The Catherine Tate Show, is now working on a sitcom with Sandi Toksvig and Paul O’Grady, and is again a regular on Radio 4’s Just a Minute.
“Some of the fans were reminding me that I was on the second Just a Minute that was ever done. They really couldn’t get people to do it because Kenneth [a regular panellist] was so evil. I knew him and I didn’t care. He used to test you out to see how far he could go. If you stood up to him, he loved it and he became a little boy again. I love it now because I get to meet all these very funny men and women. My secret is I don’t try to be funny. I can’t compete with them. So I just play the game.”
At 78, Hancock is still playing the game in every sense. “It isn’t an effort for me. I don’t feel any different. I am a very energetic person; I have to keep moving. If I’m not working, I seize up. I’ve got a reason to leave the house, and that’s really a bonus.”
Her trimness is explained by her year’s stint in Sister Act: The Musical as the Mother Superior who slowly melts, where she made sure to warm up every day with the dancers. “That kept me very fit. It’s not easy. I used to take them by surprise sometimes. I couldn’t do all of it, but I did most of it.”
It’s possible that the restless pursuit of new experiences is a consequence of the war. Thanks to the experience of being evacuated, and living through the bombing, “my first reaction to everything is…” Her eyes widen, her nostrils flare, and she tenses like a cat taken by surprise. “Fear is my motivation, I suspect. Conquering fear.”
She confronts fear by searching for opportunities to overcome it. When The Two of Us provoked a vast mailbag from similarly bereaved readers, she wrote Just Me, a travel book that suggests a personal route through the grieving process. At nearly 80, she’s now grappling with her first novel.
“Occasionally I read what’s purported to be a bestseller that everybody’s raved about and I think, it’s mundane – I can
do better than that. But then my book group read A Tale of Two Cities, and I thought, 'Oh forget it.’ I wrote one chapter and phoned my publisher up and said, 'I can’t do this. I haven’t had the education.’ ”
But she’s carrying on. “Even if I don’t finish it, at least I’ve got something to think about.”