Sheila Hancock was born on the Isle of Wight in 1933, the daughter of a publican.
She attended RADA before embarking on a successful career in acting, both on stage and screen, beginning in the 1950s with work in repertory and making her West End debut in 1958.
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 the revue ‘One Over the Eight’ with Kenneth Williams in 1961 and starring in ‘Rattle of a Simple Man’ in 1962.
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’.
A critically acclaimed classical actress, she has appeared in ‘The Winter's Tale’, ‘Titus Andronicus’ and ‘A Delicate Balance’ for the Royal Shakespeare Company. At the National Theatre she appeared in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.
She directed ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ for the RSC on tour and was the first female director at the National, with ‘The Critic’.
In 2006 she played the role of Fraulein Schneider in the West End revival of the musical ‘Cabaret’ at the Lyric Theatre. For this role 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.
There has been sadness in her personal life. Her first husband, actor Alec Ross, died of cancer in 1971.
In 1974 she married John Thaw. At that time Sheila was already the star of the TV series ‘The Rag Trade’. She was married to John for 28 years until his death from cancer in 2002. Theirs was a sometimes turbulent, always passionate relationship, and in her book ‘The Two of Us’ published in 2004 Sheila describes their love – weathering overwork and the pressures of celebrity, drink and cancer.
Sheila herself was diagnosed with breast cancer during the late 1980s but made a full recovery.
Her follow-up book ‘Just Me’ published in 2008, tells of her life after the death of John.