“Your first job in the profession indicates your career path. Kick off with Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and you are set fair for damehood. My first job after leaving RADA in 1951 was in twice-nightly repertory at the Theatre Royal, Oldham.”
Sheila Hancock in her own words reveals so much about the actress who this weekend received a Lifetime Achievement Award. The star was presented with the award at the 20th Women in Film and TV ceremony held at London’s Hilton hotel.
“I feel unworthy to be perfectly honest, but immensely grateful. I feel very honoured. When I started in the business there were no women in executive positions, no women producers, directors, certainly no camera women, and nothing behind the cameras.”
“After a few humiliating months of pounding the audition beat…I retired to the drudgery of weekly rep and tatty tours for another eight years of obscurity…One agent was sufficiently impressed by my performance to summon me to see him. I was thrilled. He sat me under a lamp and moved my head from side to side. He said I would have to have plastic surgery.”
Now 77, Hancock received her award from Julie Walters and spoke of the changing opportunities for women in the industry during her long career. “We were destined to do very archetypal roles, very clichéd things. I was a tizzy blonde for years. It’s changed immeasurably. Not enough, but immeasurably.”
With a career spanning fifty years, and with accolades in film, television, on stage and in musical theatre, Hancock was a natural choice to pass on her years of experience to the next generation as a judge on Over the Rainbow, the televised search for a Dorothy to star in The Wizard of Oz where her straight talking advice endeared her to a new generation of performers. The Guardian hailed her as the ‘most brilliant reality TV judge ever,’ while The Telegraph named her the ‘classiest talent show expert.’ .
Candid comments like “People think that this is cruel – by God, it’s nothing like how it was,” and “’In the beginning, you were a bit all eyes, tits and teeth… I don’t care, its the final, they can’t sack me,” further endeared her to the public, and her ‘open letter’ to the Dorothy’s was honest and touching.
For those who believe that luck is all it takes in the industry, Hancock proves that talent, hard work and determination are the true lynchpins. “At RADA, I was a failure. Too tall, plain, and with a cockney accent. I was one of the few people in my year not to be picked up by an agent…if you can’t take it, for your own sake get out now.”
Hopefully Hancock’s advice to the Dorothys will become as valuable as Hamlet’s advice to the players. It should certainly be required reading for those pursuing a career in this industry. Self-deprecating, humble, modest, Hancock is a role model in the truest sense, and fourthwall is honoured to pay this small tribute to her.
Excerpts from The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw by Sheila Hancock