Sheila Hancock has been a star for more than 40 years. She's an Olivier Award winner, an OBE and the recipient of the British Book Awards' Author of the Year in 2005 for her heartfelt memoir of life with Inspector Morse, John Thaw, which also won her the affection of millions. But call her a "national treasure" at your peril. "That's bullshit," says Hancock. "I'm much too ordinary for that. I really am. I haven't had that sort of career."
This isn't a woman who can easily put her humble beginnings behind her. Which may be just as well, as she's now in a production that pitches her right back to those beginnings, when she toured as a "tacky rep actress" with a young actor called David Baron. Baron did a bit of writing on the side; his real name was Harold Pinter. This month, Pinter's first play, The Birthday Party, is given a 50th-anniversary revival – with his old provincial rep co-star in a lead role.
Hancock is 75 now, and looking good for it. The roles still come thick, fast and characteristically varied. Her Olivier was for Fraulein Schneider in the recent West End revival of Cabaret. (A musical theatre veteran, she was the UK's first Miss Hannigan in Annie and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.) She's been a Grumpy Old Woman on the TV series of the same name, and a grumpy old woman on The Catherine Tate Show, as sister to Tate's foul-mouthed cockney granny, Nan Taylor. She's about to publish a sequel to her extraordinarily successful memoir, The Two of Us, entitled Just Me – which chronicles her recovery from the "profound grief" she felt after Thaw's death from cancer in 2002. And she's "very proud" to have been appointed chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, which is a balm to her own regret at never having attended university.
Which takes us back to the 1950s, when Hancock was struggling to establish herself on the now-defunct provincial rep circuit. This was theatre as production line, with companies churning out a play a week. "We did everything," says Hancock: "awful comedies, detective plays, thrillers". She worked with Pinter in Bournemouth and Torquay, and they shacked up in seaside guest-houses not unlike the one in The Birthday Party – in which a hapless guest is visited, and finally abducted, by two mysterious thugs. Hancock has been cast as dotty landlady Meg: a woman, she says, who in her touring days, "I met over and over again".
She remembers Pinter's furtive typewriting all those years ago. But she "didn't quite know what he was doing. And certainly didn't think it was going to be important." She also recalls The Birthday Party's notorious debut at the Lyric Hammersmith – where she is now performing its revival. The première was slammed by critics ("non-sequiturs, half-gibberish, and lunatic ravings", The Guardian; "frivolous", Kenneth Tynan, The Observer) and only redeemed by a late notice from The Sunday Times, which recognised Pinter's genius, albeit after the play closed.
Hancock professes to have loved the play from the off. "It was so revolutionary. It's still quite revolutionary." With hindsight, she can hear echoes in The Birthday Party of those rep shows Pinter performed; and of the variety acts that abounded at the time. But Pinter took those influences and forged from them something unheard-of. "He put on stage, and made poetic, ordinary people. [He writes] absolutely as people speak, but highlighted in such a way that you realise it's funny and sad." Hancock ascribes the nonplussed 1950s reaction to the play to its enigmatic silences. "Audiences back then wanted a beginning, middle and end. They wanted to know exactly who the characters were. Audiences now are more open to going away and arguing afterwards: 'No, it doesn't mean that, what it means is this...'"
Hancock heartily approves of that development. When she talks of the 1950s, it's as a period in which people knew their place and didn't speak out. I ask whether (given that she has late-flowered as a successful writer) the young Hancock harboured Pinter-like ambitions herself. "No, I didn't," she says bluntly. "And I regret that bitterly. But I hadn't been to university. I didn't think I could do anything like that. I didn't think I had a brain at all." Even when she secured her own BBC TV comedy series, But Seriously, It's Sheila Hancock, the scriptwriters were men. "And although I used to constantly look at scripts and go, 'Oh God, I'm playing another dizzy blonde,' it wouldn't have occurred to me to write something better."
That's why she's sceptical about conventional histories that cite 1956 as the year theatre opened up to outsiders, when Look Back in Anger heralded the rise of kitchen-sink drama. That year, she maintains, was still "all about middle-class people". And Hancock, daughter of a half-Italian Isle of Wight publican, couldn't gain entry to the clique.
"The Royal Court was a lot of academic men who were able to express themselves, and they knew people because they'd all been to posh universities." Not so Hancock, who attended Rada with Joan Collins, but who was never, she says, "a very fashionable sort".
For Hancock, theatre's revolution took place at the Lyric, where she starred in a hit 1959 revue with Beryl Reid, which featured a Pinter sketch about bag-ladies called Black and White (Hancock's only Pinter credit until now); and at Joan Littlewood's Theatre
Workshop, that powerhouse of radical entertainment in London's East End.
"Joan liberated me," says Hancock. She starred in only one show with Littlewood – Wolf Mankowitz's musical Make Me an Offer – but Littlewood's maverick vision of theatre as a people's art form, a "fun palace" where actors and artists of every background could muck in and create together ("she would throw cards up in the air and nothing could ever be the same night after night") inspired Hancock, as it did Barbara Windsor, Harry H Corbett, Miriam Karlin and others.
This is surely why Hancock shudders at the thought of being a "national treasure". Her self-image is as a perennial outsider, the young actress who "so didn't fit in, I couldn't give myself away." Not unusually for an actor, she mixes toughness – "I may be wrong, but I can't help saying what I feel" – with brittle self-confidence: she has suffered "crippling stage fright" throughout her career – partly because acting in rep habituated her to catastrophic first nights, where "sets fell down [and] you forgot your lines".
Hypnotherapy helped with the stage fright, but the sense of not fitting in, of not being wanted, has been harder to resolve. "To my sorrow," she says, "I've never really belonged to any of theatre's cliques. It's because I bop around a lot." Not many actresses could flit from Catherine Tate and Carry on Cleo to Chekhov's Madame Ranevskaya. But "it's a disadvantage in some ways", she says. "Some people wouldn't dream of offering me Ranev-skaya." Does she think she's been typecast as a comic actress? She looks out of the Lyric's window, on to the milling crowds below. "Certainly those guys down there would probably think that. If they think anything. Half of them wouldn't know who the hell I was."
Those days half a century ago of "uphill struggle" have clearly resonated throughout Hancock's career. What's "lovely", she says about this Pinter revival, is that it propels her back there, but finds her finally at peace with herself too. Her new book moves her personal story beyond the grief with which The Two of Us associated her in the public mind and, as her theatre career comes full circle, the stage holds fewer fears for her.
"Now I just think, 'Get on with it,'" she says. "The most important thing is whether there are bums on seats. I still don't have a high estimation of my own value. But I care less about that than I did. Because it's too late. What I am now, I have to settle for."
'The Birthday Party' is at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London W6 (0871 221 1729), from Thursday to 24 May
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