Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd
Even by the standards of Maggie Smith, one of the great actors of the 20th Century, The Lady In The Van, is a high point in her career. Smith uses everything we now know about Miss Shepherd to slowly unfold her inner life. At the same time she also gives her character a devastating awareness of the fulfilment that was open to her, of what might have been.
After playing Miss Shepherd on stage and now on screen, Maggie Smith knows her as well as anyone. “Loud and ghastly though she was, there’s a terrible tragedy there. She isn’t subtle, she just isn’t,” says Smith of the part that was written for her. “ She drove them mad, up and down the street, although they were much too nice to say. And they wanted to keep up with Alan I suspect, to make themselves look as tolerant as he was.”
“Maggie has been a great actor on stage and on screen since the early 1960s,” Hytner emphasises. “She was one of the shining stars of the original National Theatre Company under Laurence Olivier. She played Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello and was winning Oscars in the 1960s for films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And what she does with THE LADY IN THE VAN, scene by scene, over the architecture of the movie, the way she slowly reveals the sense of waste and the sense of regret, it’s something else. It’s something completely remarkable.”
Although Smith never met the real-life Miss Shepherd, several people involved with the production did and they all remember the cantankerous, unlikeable, unhygienic old lady with something of a shudder.
“It’s quite a brave thing for an actress who could now be retreating into the role of national treasure, to come out and play this rather, grumpy woman,” Loader suggests. “Maggie is brilliant at riding the line between being Miss Shepherd in all her unapologetic grumpiness and breaking our hearts when she peels back a layer or two.”
One of things Smith brings to the part which Miss Shepherd herself certainly had, is a fierce independence.
“This woman was wretched and she was living a vagrant’s life. But she did not feel sorry for herself and she took orders from nobody,” says Hytner. “She was abysmally ungrateful and magnificently contemptuous of any attempts to show compassion. And that’s what makes her sympathetic. She never attempts to excite our pity or looks for our sympathy. She didn’t look for Alan Bennett’s sympathy; she looked for a patch of ground. And she worked the situation for everything she could. What Maggie has is the ability to find the regret, particularly towards the end of the film.”
The role was a physically demanding and an uncomfortable one for Smith. But she used the difficult conditions to find an empathy with Miss Shepherd.
“Shooting in the van was hideous but that really made me think what she lived through,” Smith explains. “Just a day filming in the van was a long time. When you think how long Miss Shepherd was in there, it is mind-blowing.
“Alan says, ‘well she didn’t really impinge’. And I thought, ‘ well, what do you have to do to impinge on Alan?’ I think it must have been very strange for his mother when she visited him.”
Bennett sings the praises of his leading lady. “I couldn’t imagine anybody doing it better. But Maggie has got a sense of humour whereas Miss Shepherd didn’t at all.”
Hytner picks up on this point. “Maggie has a ferocious wit but Alan is looking for an actor who can suggest how funny they are without acting funny. That’s one of the things Maggie does better than anyone else on the planet.”
Working with Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner
Although Smith had of course worked with both Hytner and Bennett on stage, THE Lady In The Van is the first time the trio have made a feature film together.
“It’s very interesting doing a film with Nick, particularly of a thing you’ve already done,” Smith explains. “Film is such a tight compact unit and you’re all very close together for hours and hours a day. I got to know Nick when we were filming more than I had all the other times we had worked together. I found it terrific one could trust somebody as much as that. You’re left very isolated in the theatre. Once you’ve opened in a play, you’re on your own. It was a great treat to have a director there. And he was absolutely stunning. I think he knew more about Miss Shepherd than I did.”
She points out the two Alans need a good director to illuminate the path ahead “We all have that other person, don’t we? Who’s telling herself, for God’s sake, pull yourself together. What did you think you were doing there? They’re irritating. One’s other person. And you think, ooh, no. Go away. Which is why you need a Nick. To say, trust this person, rather than that.”
But of Alan Bennett, the famous memoirist, she is more wary. “He makes you feel unsafe in his presence,” she admits. “You’ve got a feeling he’s going to wait until you’ve turned around and he might write anything.”