Monday, 27 June 2016


“A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.” - Robert Frost

Maggie Smith is an accomplished veteran actress and her work is quite exceptional in her long and very successful career. I enjoy most the movies and series she has played in and I have watched. When for my birthday I was given a copy of Nicholas Hytner’s 2015 movie “The Lady in the Van” I was very pleased and saved it to watch on a special day as a treat. Well that day came last weekend and yes, it was a good movie and we enjoyed seeing it, but somehow it was a little disappointing too. I guess I da raised my expectations quite a great deal and when the film failed to deliver fully, it was a little bit of a flat feeling.

First let me say this was Maggie Smith’s movie and she played her role with relish and great gusto. It was as if the role was written for her and she performed with her usual aplomb and panache, greatly enjoying playing the down-and-out Miss Shepherd. Beside her, her co-star Alex Jennings faded into the background, even if there were two of him on the screen most of the time (a cheap, gimmicky device where one of his selves was the “doing” part of him and the other the “writing” part of him). The other actors were competent and did a good enough job of supporting Maggie Smith’s performance.

The plot is based on the “mostly true” story of Alan Bennett’s curious relationship/friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild (died 1989), a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot. She became a concert pianist, had played Chopin in a promenade concert, but things went wrong, she tried to become a nun, was committed to a mental institution by her brother, escaped, and then things went downhill and full of guilt for a “terrible sin” she had committed became the vagrant that Bennett unwittingly becomes associated with.

The plot is thin and depends very much on what the characters say rather than what they do. The “mystery” of Miss Shepherd’s identity is thinly veiled and the “surprise” ending where we learn the truth about her “terrible sin” is rather predictable. However, the viewer does get involved, does sympathise with Miss Shepherd in one scene and in the other becomes as infuriated with her as Alan Bennett does. There is poignancy, gentle humour, pathos, bathos and bombast. It is a very “English” movie which reeks a little of the stage, one thinking on many an occasion whether this would have made a better play perhaps?

Nicholas Hytner, the director, who also made “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys” amongst others, is better known as a regular director for National Theatre productions in London. This may explain the “staginess” of the film. I often felt uncomfortable during the parts where Alan Bennett spoke to his alter ego in a greatly contrived manner.

Overall this was a gentle, slightly humorous, slightly melancholy film, a great showcase for Maggie Smith and a little bit of a bragging piece for Alan Bennett – there was a certain smugness about him whenever he was on screen. The subplot with his mother was a little perplexing, especially given the way he interacted with Miss Shepherd, but still overall the film was entertaining and well worth watching.


  1. Ha...I bought this video this afternoon . I am going to have a movie binge this weekend, blocking out all things 'election'... Also bought Suite Francaise, Wolfhall and Brooklyn.Have you seen 'Being There"? Peter Sellers was absolutely brilliant in it.

    1. That's the way, Rall. We'll be blocking out all things election right after we've voted as early as we can! Agree that Peter Sellers is fantastic in "Being There", but my absolute favourite movie of all time of his is "The Party", see: