The evening began wet and noisy. Rain bounced off the roof of The Times Forum tent at Cheltenham’s Literature Festival and almost as soon as she had begun, Sheila Hancock – OBE, CBE, actor, director and writer – was prompted to stop mid-sentence and thank her audience for venturing out to see her in such awful conditions. Collectively, her avid listeners laughed; Hancock, ever-youthful in a smart/casual ensemble, beamed genuine gratitude back.
It was one of the final days of the popular festival and Sheila Hancock, like so many others, was there to promote her latest book. But unlike her literary counterparts, the RADA-trained actress seemed almost embarrassed to be speaking at all, admitting that in the four years it took her to write her first novel, she suffered many crises of confidence. This in itself seemed surprising; what with three books and an Author of the Year award (for her 2004 double biography, The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw) already under her belt. Nevertheless, with an admirable degree of wit and self-deprecation, the eighty-one-year-old spoke frankly of her expectations for Miss Carter’s War in its early stages, including her desire to create a main character whose idealism would mirror the transformative mindset that was common during post-war Britain.
From 1948, the novel chronicles the life of Marguerite Carter, a half English, half French grammar school teacher, and it was clear from the outset that the influential significance of the teaching profession at that time was an important aspect of both the book and to the writer herself.
Of course the evening was not just about Miss Carter, and Hancock continued to delight her audience with humorous pearls of age-related wisdom that often left the lofty tent echoing with laughter. I was particularly impressed by the modesty with which she spoke of her career and the tender way she discussed her late husband, the actor John Thaw. Any predisposition I may have had (or had heard) that the actress could be ‘difficult’ was immediately driven away by her unpretentiousness.
As the evening drew to a close and the lights were lifted for audience questions, it seemed inevitable, in creating a fictional character who lives her life through real events (particularly when those events have had such a significant and lasting effect on the present day), that the actress would be drawn into a political debate. Questions on Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron, however, were answered with insightfulness and diplomacy and as we left the warmth of the tent and headed back out into the rainy night, I’m sure I was not the only one who felt inspired by this humble debut novelist.
• Miss Carter’s War is out now in hardback.