Maggie Smith Is Deft, Daft And Driven In 'The Lady In The Van'

Dec 3, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 2:06 pm

Looking for evidence that truth is stranger than fiction? Alan Bennett has a story for you: The Lady in the Van, about a writer named Alan Bennett who let a homeless woman move her van into his London driveway for "a couple of weeks," only to have her stay for 15 years.

This was, by his own account, awkward while it was happening, but from that awkwardness has come a best-selling book, and a splendid part for Maggie Smith on the radio, in a hit London play and now in a movie.

Bennett first became aware of Miss Shepard, an elderly habitue of a neighborhood he'd just moved into, when she approached him in front of a church asking if he was "St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved."

Assured that he's not the least bit saintly, she then asked for a push. Her van wouldn't start, possibly because of the battery, she said, though she'd recently added water.

"Distilled water," he wondered.

"It was holy water," she replies. "So it doesn't matter if it's distilled or not."

He gave her the push, only to have her settle on his block, becoming a fixture at the curb for several months. She did not precisely endear herself to his neighbors, grousing when they brought her food and clothing, complaining about the quality of the gifts the neighborhood children gave her at Christmastime. She annoyed almost everyone ... but Bennett, being a playwright, ever on the lookout for a good character, thought her eccentricities intriguing, and her position on the curb possibly dangerous, so he made a modest proposal: She could park in his driveway until she got settled.

"It might not be convenient ... for me," she replied.

"I was about to do her a good turn," he says, turning to the camera, "but as ever, it was not without thoughts of strangulation."

That little audience aside is a pretty representative sample of the mild-mannered wit that's served Bennett well since his days with the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His persona is ever erudite, ever timid, and Miss Shepard has proved an excellent foil, both in real life and in the art he's made of their relationship.

There is more to this story than jokes. Bennett and his director, Nicholas Hytner, excelled in bringing out undercurrents of frailty and loneliness in forceful personalities in The Madness of King George and The History Boys. And they do it again here.

Maggie Smith, who's re-creating her stage performance as the peppery Miss Shepard, has figured out where every laugh is in this material. Also every tear. She gives us a woman who's deft and daft, driven by a private guilt that Bennett spends most of the film trying to get to the bottom of.

The author, played by Alex Jennings, is pictured as a man of many minds on most issues, and the screenplay occasionally goes meta with his writer-and-subject obsession, splitting him in two so that he can debate all sides with his guest in the driveway.

"Will you write about me," she wonders, assessing correctly that he's observing her as a character. "You use your mother ... me next, I suppose."

Happily for audiences, it turns out The Lady in the Van got that right.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You don't have to look far to see that truth is stranger than fiction. Playwright Alan Bennett only had to look at his front window. His new movie, "The Lady In The Van," is about a writer who let a homeless woman move her van into his London driveway for a couple of weeks only to have her stay for 15 years. Critic Bob Mondello says it was clearly awkward while it was happening, but from that awkwardness came a best-selling book, a hit London play and now a movie starring Maggie Smith.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Writer Alan Bennett first became aware of Miss Shepherd, an elderly habitue of a neighborhood he just moved into, when she approached him in front of a nearby church.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY IN THE VAN")

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) You're not Sinjon, are you?

ALEX JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) Sinjon who?

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Sinjon, the disciple in Jesus, love.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) No. The name's Bennett.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Oh, well, if you're not Sinjon - I need a push for the van. It's cold, child. The battery, possibly - I put some water. It hasn't done the trick.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) Well, was it distilled water?

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) It was holy water so doesn't matter if it's distilled or not.

MONDELLO: He gave her the push only to have her settle on his block, becoming a fixture at the curb for several months. She did not precisely endear herself to his neighbors, grousing when they brought her food and clothing, complaining about the quality of the gifts the neighborhood children gave her at Christmas time. She annoyed almost everyone. But Bennett, being a playwright, ever on the lookout for a good character, thought her eccentricities intriguing and her position on the curb possibly dangerous. So he made a modest proposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY IN THE VAN")

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Put the van in your drive? That never occurred to me. I don't know. It might not be convenient.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) No, I thought it over. Believe me, Sheperd, it's all right just till you sort yourself out.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Not convenient for you - convenient for me.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) I was about to do her a good turn, but, as ever, it was not without thoughts of strangulation.

MONDELLO: That little aside to the audience is an example of the mild-mannered wit that's served Alan Bennett well since his days with the comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His persona is every erudite, ever timid, and Miss Shepherd has proved an excellent foil, both in real life and in the art he's made of their relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY IN THE VAN")

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Put on the hand brake - I am about to do so.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) Where upon she applies the hand brake with such determination that, like Excalibur, it can never afterwards be released.

MONDELLO: There is more to this story than jokes. Bennett and his director, Nicholas Hytner, excelled in bringing out undercurrents of frailty and loneliness, in forceful personalities and the madness of King George and the history boys, and they do it again, here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY IN THE VAN")

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) Now she's on the premises. I sometimes get a glimpse of Miss Shepherd praying, and it is seldom a tranquil or a meditative process.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) I hunger and thirst for the fulfillment of...

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) The fervor of her intercession is rocking her to and fro.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) ...Impossible life received.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) What is it she's wanting forgiveness for?

MONDELLO: Maggie Smith, who's re-creating her stage performance as the peppery Miss Sheperd, has figured out where every laugh is in this material. Also every tear - she gives us a woman who's deft and daft, driven by a private guilt that Bennett spends most of the film trying to get to the bottom of. The author, played by Alex Jennings, is pictured as a man of many minds on most issues, and the screenplay originally goes meta with his writer and subject idea, splitting him in two so that he can debate all sides with his guest in the driveway.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LADY IN THE VAN")

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Will you write about me?

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) I don't know. She never said this.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Oh, I've heard you on the wireless. Using your mother. You should be ashamed of yourself.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) She didn't say this. No, but why shouldn't she?

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) You write about her all the time one way or another. You use your mother.

JENNINGS: (As Alan Bennett) That's what writers do.

SMITH: (As Miss Sheperd) Me next, I suppose.

MONDELLO: Happily for audiences, it turns out the lady in the van got that right. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.