British actress Sheila Hancock has been with a man for most of her adult life. At 21 she married actor Alec Ross, with whom she lived happily for 17 years until his death of cancer of the oesophagus. Two years later she married actor John Thaw, of The Sweeney and Inspector Morse fame, who had declared his love for her while she was still married to Ross. They were together for 28 years, a passionate, sparky relationship she wrote about in her memoir, The Two of Us, published in 2004 - two years after Thaw's death at the age of 60, also of cancer of the oesophagus.
The Two of Us was a number one best-seller in Britain, selling close to three-quarters of a million copies and around 20,000 in Australia and New Zealand, earning Hancock the British Book Awards Author of the Year Award in 2005. But with the charismatic presence of Thaw gone, these days the big man in her life is her personal trainer. He must take some of the credit for helping Hancock, who is 75, look so fit and fabulous in what she calls "my last lap" in her latest memoir, Just Me.
The trainer does the shouting; she does the work. "People always say that I look fabulous but I think it's a matter of keeping fit," she says on the phone from London. "I work very hard at being fit and I think that's the most important thing, especially the way you move. My personal trainer is always shouting at me about it. The other day I was getting out of my armchair and I pushed my hands on the arm and he said, 'Don't do that! That's what old ladies do. You'll lose the muscles of your legs if you behave like an old lady.'
"I always choose to go up stairs, I never take lifts if I can help it and therefore I think I move like a young woman. I am not bent over but it is bloody hard work." She may be fighting fit but for a long period after Thaw's death, Hancock suffered debilitating depression which she describes in the first chapter of Just Me. Her mental state became very dark during a break in the house in Provence where she and Thaw had spent so many holidays together. She describes feeling "feeble and stupid and utterly miserable", a state of mind she felt was moving dangerously towards a chronic condition. So she made a decision to change her life and try and find contentment on her own terms. "I think it was quite normal to feel depressed, it was a process of bereavement. But it was inevitable that I had to move on.
There is a point where you have two choices - you either give in to grief and you become miserable and spend the rest of your life grieving, or you gather up all the energy you have and recreate your life, which is what I have tried to do. Now I have a very different life. I am living on my own and I have learnt to like that." Hancock says part of the key to that is work.
A regular on the BBC Grumpy Old Women TV series, she played Junie Taylor on The Catherine Tate Show and won a Laurence Olivier Award in 2007 for her role as Fraulein Schneider in a West End staging of Cabaret. She is a member of the Quakers and last year, she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.
"I never stop working but actors do that," she says. "You can be going through awful things and you still get on the stage or in front of the camera, and you do it. That applies to any job really. Most people work and they can be suffering but you do your job. Mercifully, that is very often your salvation."
Hancock also started travelling, alone. Her first trip, to a resort in Puglia, was salutory. Surrounded by "ravishingly beautiful" young couples, she realised "it is a proven fact that after 50, women do dissolve". She had become invisible. Her solution was to get out of the resort each day and explore the region's culture and history, an interest she has developed as her travels continue. "I recommend travelling alone to everybody," she says firmly. "In my travels I have bumped into many older people and I do think it's a damn good way of kick-starting yourself into action. Curiosity is a great driving force. If you are curious then you never get bored."
In Just Me, Hancock describes her travels in places as diverse as Budapest, where she was the thorn in the side of a dour guide, and Bangkok, a city she found "very disturbing" because of the sex trade.
A child during the blitz of World War II, she forced herself to confront her phobia of Germans by visiting a rural area near Munster as research for Who Do You Think You Are? when she was trying to trace her ancestry. The German hospitality was frosty, to put it mildly, and when she encountered some workmen, one of them actually drove a digger straight at her. She stood her ground and he veered away at the last minute. "I wasn't scared at the time but when I look back, I realise I was in jeopardy there," she recalls. "I was very silly but I just felt bloody angry."
Berlin, she is pleased to say, is now one of her favourite cities and she has become so interested in travelling, she has been asked to write articles. "I can choose to go to some extraordinary places - I might even attempt to go to some of the war countries and see what's going on. I will grab every opportunity to do something new. I would like to go to Iraq, to the bits where you are allowed to go and I'd quite like to go to Israel and Palestine to see both sides of it, areas I've read about which worry me. I always find that if you confront things, like my German thing, if you look it in the face, then it ceases to be frightening or upsetting."
As a Grumpy Old Woman, what drives Hancock mad at the moment? "All sorts of things," she says with a laugh. "I think it's everybody's duty to be grumpy, to complain and try and put things right. I don't regard grumpiness as a vice as long as you do something about it and don't just sit there moaning. If something is wrong I usually steam in and say so. But as my children [she has three daughters] constantly remind me, there is a Quaker saying - consider the possibility that you might be wrong."
Just Me ends on an extremely positive note, with Hancock reflecting on her marriage to the famously grumpy Thaw as "blessed". "I was very lucky to have been married to John and, indeed, with my first marriage," she says. "I wouldn't deny that for a minute, especially when I compare my marriage to some people's and it was a wonderful chance that we met. We were very much in love with each other." She concludes by writing, "I am having a ball. At my age, I can get away with anything ... my last lap is going to be hair-raisingly exciting."
What an inspiration.
* Just Me (Bloomsbury $39.99)