Over The Rainbow: meet Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock is one of the UK’s best loved and most prolific actors. Her work spans theatre, radio, television and film and she is also a successful writer. Sheila is currently performing as Mother Superior in Sister Act to rave reviews.

Her other theatre credits include: The Birthday Party at the Lyric Hammersmith, the role of ‘Fraulein Schneider’ in Cabaret in the West End, for which she won an Olivier Award, and the Clarence Derwent award.

She played ‘Mum’ in the Liverpool Playhouse production of The Anniversary (a role played by Bette Davis, while Sheila played the daughter-in-law, in the original film version), which then transferred to the West End and appeared in The Arab Israeli Cookbook at the Gate Theatre, Under The Blue Sky at the Royal Court Theatre, Vassa at the Albery Theatre in the West End and In Extremis at the Royal National Theatre.

Earlier work includes Annie (Original London ‘Miss Hannigan’) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Original London ‘Mrs Lovett’). At the National Theatre, The Cherry Orchard and The Duchess Of Malfi and at the RSC, The Winter’s Tale, Titus Andronicus, A Delicate Balance and Peter Pan. Other credits include Gypsy (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Entertaining Mr Sloane (New York) and The Way Of The World (Lyric Hammersmith).

Sheila has worked as a director and her productions include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she was the first woman Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tour. She was also the first woman to direct in the Olivier, National Theatre with Sheridan’s The Critic.

She was Associate Artistic Director of the Cambridge Theatre Company, herself directing The Constant Wife, Dandy Dick, In Praise Of Love and The Soldier’s Fortune.

Her most recent television appearances include Moving On, Before I Call You In (written especially for her as a monologue for television by Hugo Blick), Dickens’ Bleak House, New Tricks, The Catherine Tate Show, Fallen Angel, After Thomas, Feather Boy, Bedtime (three series), Fortysomething, Bait, The Russian Bride and EastEnders.

Recent television guest appearances include Grumpy Old Women, Have I Got News For You and Room 101. Her films include: Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, Yes, Hold Back The Night and Love And Death On Long Island.

Sheila is the author of Ramblings Of An Actress, The Two Of Us (Author of the Year award) and published last year, Just Me. She is working on her first novel.

She is Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

Interview with Sheila

Why did you decide to join the panel for Over The Rainbow?

I thought long and hard about doing this show. Having talked to people involved in previous series, and learning that there is a proper ‘process’ to the show, a proper ‘training’ if you will, and hearing how well the contestants are looked after, coached and advised, it felt like something I’d like to be involved in.

Of course it’s a TV show, and family entertainment, but its roots are in the casting process and an acknowledgment of how hard a career in musical theatre is going to be. It’s also one of the only shows on television that show off live musical theatre and how great it can be.

Are you looking forward to working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Of course, in this field he is a world leader, so it’s lovely to be working with him.

What are you looking forward to most about working on the show?

Watching the contestants evolve, being there for them and the possibility that Dorothy and some of the other girls will have successful careers I can follow.

What kind of qualities are you looking for in the contestants?

You have to believe her. That’s it at the end of the day. It’s difficult for someone like me who remembers seeing the film originally to erase the image of Judy Garland so I will be looking for someone who can bring a believable new characterisation to the role. Technically there’s a long list of things she has to be able to do but what I want to see is someone who makes every audience member, night after night, care about Dorothy and her journey.

What is your role on the panel? What kind of panellist are you?

I hope I’ll be fair and honest, and be able to detect potential.

How do you know when you’ve found your ‘Dorothy’ – who is your ideal Dorothy? And Toto?

The thing with Dorothy, and I think one of the essential reasons both the character and film have become so iconic, is that she is a good person. She loves her family, she cares about the people around her, she’s open to the world despite being naive to it and she is almost entirely positive, all wonderful qualities.

To find an actress who can convey that, combined of course with talent that’s required of a huge part like this, is the ultimate aim.

Toto is a sticking point for me, I’m not a great fan of dogs, they tend to bite me! I’ve suggested my cat Stanley does the role, in a dog coat!

You’ve had a hugely successful theatre and musical theatre career. Which was your favourite role to play?

To play Mrs Lovett in one of the best musicals ever written, Sweeny Todd, at Drury Lane was hugely fulfilling but on the whole my favourite roles are the ones I’m currently playing so at the moment it’s the Mother Superior in Sister Act at the London Palladium.

How do you think your experiences of musical theatre will help budding performers on Over The Rainbow?

I always approach musicals as an actor who sings so I hope that I’ll be able to help with really interpreting the lyrics. The other two judges have different experiences so I hope we can all complement each other to guide, support and be honest with the girls.

What character out of the Wizard of Oz would you like to be?

The Wizard-ess of Oz!

Lisa McGarry

Lisa has been watching reality TV for too long now. She won't do any housework unless 'Big Brother' announces it over the tannoy and everything she does has to be put to a public vote!