The play by Alan Bennett, was first performed in 1999 and was nominated for the Play of the Year Olivier in 2000. Having seen and loved the play all those years ago, I was curious to see if the film matched up. Well, I believe it does, but it does have a slightly different feel to it.
Miss Shepherd was a vagrant in a van who moved (mainly) around Camden Town and whom Alan Bennett invited onto his forecourt 'for a few months'. She stayed for 15 years until her death. In true Bennett self-deprecating style, he says he did this so that both of them could have a quiet life, 'rather like a marriage'. He did not consider it an act of charity: 'I was looking after myself, Miss Shepherd only incidentally; kindness didn't really come into it.' Bennett himself is represented by two characters: one the writing Alan Bennett and one living Alan Bennett's day to day. They bicker and argue. The writer is constantly telling the other AB that his life is boring and there is nothing to write about; he watches his other self deal with Miss Shepherd and his mother, he notes with wry humour the reactions of the neighbours; he observes his alter ego dealing with the social workers ('I am feeling some hostility here Alan'). They even argue about whether Miss Shepherd actually said something that the writing Bennett has put in the play. (Is this 'lying' or 'imagination' - a classic Bennett debate.) All this forms the humorous backbone of the story which I remember so well from the play.
What seems newer to me is the sadder, darker side of Miss Shepherd's life. It is an extraordinary story, much of which Bennett only discovered after she died in 1989. Her past and the effect it had on her life does seem to be a stronger element of the film.
The Lady in the Van is dominated by the peerless performance of Maggie Smith (our local girl made good) who plays Miss Shepherd in the film as she did in the play. She makes you want to laugh, she makes you want to cry. In the play, the two Bennetts are necessarily played by two actors: in the film they are both played by Alex Jennings, who has played Alan Bennett before and by now has him down to a T. The rest of the cast is largely made up of Bennett favourites who lend wonderful support, but the film belongs to Smith and Jennings. If you can, watch them on The Graham Norton Show. The warmth between the two actors is palpable. I recommend, too, reading Alan Bennett's diaries written for The Guardian during the film production. But above all else, go and see this film – it's a classic.