Alan Bennett is a renowned British playwright, screenwriter, actor and author, who gained instant fame co-writing and performing with Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook in the 1960 satirical revue “Beyond the Fringe”. The show was an international comedy success.
Over time, the busy Bennett has generated a bushel of plays; 80 as of this year. He’s adapted his 1999 stage success, “The Lady In The Van” to the big screen starring the magnificent Maggie Smith, who also headlined the original West End theatrical production.
Based on actual events, the plot tells of Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins who “temporarily” parked her van in Bennett’s London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. What begins as a begrudged favour becomes a relationship that will change both their lives.
Filmed on the street and in the house where Bennett and Miss Shepherd lived all those years, the film reunites Bennett with acclaimed director Nicholas Hytner in bringing this unusual and touching portrait to the screen.
Then, as now, Gloucester Crescent was a pretty, leafy street on which lived many famous names from London’s stage and literary world. Bennett’s house (number 23), was similar to others in the street, but what marked it out was the entirely unlovely, dirty and decrepit yellow van parked in its drive, under which was crammed various layers of detritus, old shopping bags, bits of carpet and a strange system of wires running between the van and the house. An old lady of indeterminate age lived in the van. She was a well-known figure around the area–what locals tend to call a ‘character’–sometimes mocked and persecuted by passers-by.
When Bennett had first moved into the Crescent in the late 1960s, the woman, whom he came to know as Miss Shepherd, was already living in the van, although further up the street. He gradually became aware of her as she and the van drifted down the street, as she systematically outstayed her welcome outside every other house. “Over about a year or so she got to the bottom of the slope which is where number 23 is and she was parked opposite,” Bennett explains. “She couldn’t go any further as I don’t think the van worked at that time. I got used to her being in my eye line as I sat working at the bay window.” Slowly Bennett became the person she related to in the street. “Because I lived just opposite,” he says. “She used the loo once or twice, which appalled me really and I think she once used the telephone. But she didn’t ever want anything, not food or anything like that.”
As a young director living in the general area in the early 1980s, Nicholas Hytner often used to walk along the street. He knew Alan Bennett
lived at number 23. What he didn’t know was what the van and the lady had to do with Bennett. “I could not work out what this yellow van was or who this old lady was. I wondered briefly if she was his mother. But then I thought he can’t be keeping his mother in a van in the drive,” Hytner recalls. “I would walk on by.”
The director and the playwright did not meet properly until several years later in 1989, which turned out to be just after the lady had died and the van had gone. “I visited number 23 to talk about what became the first play (The Wind In The Willows) in their long collaboration,” Hytner remembers. “It didn’t occur to me to ask what that yellow van was. I later discovered nobody ever asked him what the van was, even when it was there. The English are too polite.”
The film doesn’t fall neatly into the comedy category, and while there are plenty of moments of humor, ”The Lady in the Van” mixes some sadness into its story, building on social observation.
The showpiece is an incomparable lady played by another incomparable lady, the always awesome Dame Maggie (appointed as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990). Most recently seen as the dowager matriarch of “Downton Abbey,” Smith casts off her aristocratic raiment and demeanor to inhabit a character living in filthy squalor and clothed in several soiled layers of cast-off garb. Maggie endows Miss Shepherd with the same uncompromising truth she displayed as Downton Abbey’s austere Countess Violet Grantham.
From aristocratic height to cantankerous bag lady low, there’s no denying Maggie’s magnetic magic. Mixing whimsy with perceived reality, this lady and her van offers satisfying cinematic pleasure.
Maggie Smith and fellow thespian Judi Dench are two mighty Dames defying age with artistic integrity. Acknowledged poster heroines, they represent a challenge to movie makers who overlook actresses of a “certain age”.
“The Lady In The Van” is on screen in selected markets.
Written by: Alex Reynolds