Sheila Hancock: what makes Edie a 21st century role

Posted Wednesday 04 Jul 2018


We leaped at the chance to chat with British film and theatre industry veteran Sheila Hancock a few days ago, about her eponymous role in Edie (playing in NZ cinemas now). She talked to us on the phone from France, where she's writing her fourth book.

When Sheila Hancock was offered the part of Edie, an octogenarian widow who decides to climb a mountain in the Scottish Highlands, she was delighted. Despite being afraid of heights, the then-83-year old was delighted because her character "wasn't going to die or go senile."

"Old age is so often depicted as decrepit, so it was refreshing to be offered a part that was so alive," the now-85-year old says. "I'm incredibly lucky, I've still got my memory, and I'm reasonably fit."

In the film, named after Hancock's character, Edie heads to Scotland and employs Jonny (Kevin Guthrie) to help her get the right equipment and train her for the gruelling climb. As the pair talk, bicker and have fun, they reveal more about their lives to each other, all set against the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands.

What makes the part of Edie such a 21st century role, is its take on a relationship between young and old.

"People think that as you get old you're always talking about hip replacements and the like, but the relationship between Edie and Jonny goes deeper than that," Hancock says.

Indeed, there are some heart wrenching scenes when Edie reveals to Jonny her unhappiness as a wife and as a mother, and where he reveals deep dissatisfaction and uncertainty about his own future and his life choices.

"[The film] says something about the relationship between the old and the young: that they can relate to one another, that they can have a profound friendship and learn from each other. That's what makes it a modern role."

Hancock never watches herself on screen.

"I can't bear it," she says.

It's a shame, because she worked so hard preparing for this role, and overcame a number of barriers while filming, including a fear of heights.

"It was bloody hard work, and I couldn't have done it in real life. I didn't altogether love the mountain itself - I'm a city person."

To prepare she worked out for three months every other day in the gym to develop her legs and biceps. She did a lot of Nordic walking. Most memorably, she was trained by "an ex-airforce man" in London's Richmond Park.

"On my first day he took me to a slope, and made me walk up and down it twice, and whenever I stopped he'd shout, 'Come on, keep going'!"

The hardest part was actually walking to the foot of the mountain, she says.

"There were snakes, and dust and you'd keep getting in the bog up to your knees. I was exhausted by the time we got there. But it's the most magnificent landscape. It's not beautiful, it's the wilderness, but it's breathtaking. You can't see a road or a building or anything."

Her family and friends are used to her doing "odd things", but those who didn't know her were worried she might not make it up the mountain itself.

"The director took me aside when we reached the bottom and said, 'Sheila, this is your last chance to pull out, if you really think you can't do it, we need to know now because we can't turn back once we start up there'. I looked up and some of the crew were already going up, and I thought, 'well, I can't let them down'."

Her fear of heights isn't an abnormal one, she insists, it's just the kind of fear anyone might have when faced with a sheer drop on either side of them.

"The Health and Safety people were beside themselves because we weren't roped," she snorts.

"It was alright going up, because someone would be ahead of me, saying 'look at me, don't look down'." But when you have to do several takes, you have to look down to get back to the start. That's when the adrenalin kicks in."

Watch the trailer for Edie here

About Sheila Hancock CBE: Hancock's  extensive  career  spans  theatre,  radio,  television  and film,  and  she  is  also  now  enjoying  a  career  as  a  writer  and features  presenter.  She  has  been  honoured  with  two  Lifetime Achievement  Awards:  Women  in  Film  and  Television,  and  The Lady Ratlings as well as an OBE for services to drama in 1974, with a CBE following in 2011. As well as performing extensively for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, Sheila was the first woman Artistic Director of the RSC tour, and the first woman to direct in the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre.  She was also associate Artistic Director of the Cambridge Theatre Company. Her work as an author includes The Two of Us, (Author of the Year Award); its follow up Just Me; Ramblings of an Actress, and most recently her debut novel Miss Carter's War.

She is currently in France writing another book.