The director and leading man discuss their joyful collaboration with national treasures Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith, in a sublime skirmish between a cantankerous woman and a gentle man.

The screen adaptation of The Lady in the Van has been a long time in the making.

The film is based on events from the mid-seventies. Alan Bennett allowed the homeless, eccentric Miss Shepherd to park her derelict van on his drive—and there she stayed for 15 years.

A brief memoir first appeared in the London Review of Books, giving rise to a book, and then stage and radio plays in 1999 and 2009, both starring Maggie Smith. Now Dame Maggie reprises the role.

I caught up with director Sir Nicholas Hytner and Alex Jennings, who plays Bennett in a split role that separates the writer from his conscience.

 

Revisiting Miss Shepherd

Lady in the van
Image via The Lady in the Van 

“Knowing that Alan was writing about himself in a different way than he did 15 years ago,” says Hytner, “suggested to both of us that this would be worth revisiting. And Maggie was eager to revisit it. One very useful advantage of doing it now rather than then is that delivering two Alex Jenningses in the same shot is now straightforward.”

“That device wouldn’t necessarily have come immediately to mind if it had been a film before it had been a play. But to me it carries a lot of the particularity of the story, and it certainly carries a lot of the way Alan sees himself, because he knows himself to be both supine and ruthless. The supine, passive Alan is the one who allows himself to be pushed around by this magnificently cantankerous, unbending old lady and who allows himself to be patronised by the neighbours.”

“The ruthless one is the one that’s always standing to one side, wondering how he can turn it into something, how he can exploit what’s happening to him for his own literary or dramatic purposes.”

The bulk of the action takes place in and around Bennett’s real-life house on Camden’s Gloucester Crescent, which the author still owns.

“Filming in the house where it all happened,” says Jennings, “sitting at his desk with the van just outside his window, the claustrophobia of it, it’s sort of incredible. Even though all of us were very familiar with the story, we asked how he could have stood it and he said, ‘Well, she didn’t really impinge.’”
 

“He won’t have it that any of it was to do with kindness, only laziness, but there is compassion there. She also had a will of iron and became impossible to shift, and he found a way of kind of muddling along.”

 

What’s it like working with Maggie Smith?

maggie smith lady van
Image via The Lady in the Van

I ponder whether the film could have been made if Maggie Smith had not been available.

“Alan wrote it for Maggie,” Hytner asserts. “I think as he was writing the play, Miss Shepherd morphed into Maggie, so we couldn’t have made it without her. There are elements of Miss Shepherd which obviously Maggie seizes on and knows how to manipulate; the strength of Miss Shepherd’s will—what Alan calls her ‘vagabond nobility’—that’s something that is innate to Maggie. But I think we can probably all of us just about imagine what it might have been like if we’d gone off the rails, if we’d fallen through the cracks.”

“She’s an incredible personality, a great actress,” says Jennings. “She is rigorous about what she does, she’s completely professional and collaborative in a very positive way, and witnessing and being a part of what she does in this film was extraordinary really, the lack of vanity in this performance and the stamina, because it was hard, in and out of that van, in the cold and wet. It was pretty damn impressive what she did, and with such energy and vigour. And what she can do with a line and what she can do with a look, it’s a real education.”

 

Gloucester Crescent retains a strong affection for Miss Shepherd

Lady in the van

“They all had their own memories of her and their own stories about her,” Jennings recalls. “We met people who were kids then who remembered sitting on the wall outside Alan’s house encouraging each other to sit closer and closer to the van to try and provoke her to come out and chase them off, and they were scared of her… It’s ceaselessly amazing that it happened.”

One animated encounter with locals during the course of filming is especially memorable for the cast and crew. Hytner takes up the story:

“The van had been locked up for the weekend, but obviously not locked up securely enough, because when it was opened up, two kids who’d been partying the weekend away in the clubs in Camden were found having a good time. We had to chase them away, take out all the contents of the van and deep-clean them, and then filthy them back up again and return them.”

“Nobody dared tell Maggie. I had to cook up some completely dishonest reason for swapping the day’s schedule around. We were due to start in the van, but I had some bullshit like the light isn’t right, or we’re afraid it might rain, or some nonsense like that. But by the afternoon everything was OK.”

“I finally told Maggie a couple of months ago, and she thought it was really funny.”

 

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