The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett's strained 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 had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.
There are a couple of historical mistakes which the filmmakers perhaps missed, and which show the hazard of filming in today's environment. In one of the early street scenes, circa 1974, Miss Shepherd is seen walking away from a crossroads. The traffic signals shown there are a modern design, not introduced until 1997. In another scene where she is seen with Alan Bennett near the gates of the convent, the block of flats in the background have modern double-glazing. In the 1970s, this would either have been single-glazed with wood frames or light aluminium. See more »
The smell is sweet, with urine only a minor component, the prevalent odor suggesting the inside of someone's ear. Dank clothes are there, too, wet wool and onions, which she eats raw. Plus, what for me has always been the essence of poverty, damp newspaper. Miss Shepherd's multi-flavored aroma is masked by a liberal application of various talcum powders, with Yardley's Lavender always a favorite. And currently it is this genteel fragrance that dominates the second subject, ...
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During the first part of the credits, a young Margaret can be seen playing the piano at her concert in King's Hall. See more »
Piano Concerto 1
Written by Frédéric Chopin (as Frederic Chopin)
[The principal piano piece that recurs throughout the film is Chopin's Piano Concerto 1, using both the slow middle (second) movement "romanza" and the quick final (third) movement "rondo". Alfred Cortot was especially associated with playing Chopin's piano oeuvre.] See more »
Like all the best English comedies, the humor in "The Lady in the Van" is founded on character and in eccentricity but then we should expect nothing less from the pen of the great Alan Bennett. This is mostly a true story we are told and it's the story of a very eccentric lady and one, or is it two, quite eccentric men. The lady is Mary, or is it Margaret, Shepherd who might be considered homeless were it not for the van she lives in. The somewhat eccentric man is Bennett himself. I said two because in this case we get two Bennetts for the price of one, Alan the writer and Alan the householder and they are both played by Alex Jennings.
Miss Shepherd really existed and she's the lady who, at Bennett's request. moved her van from the street outside his house, where she had parked it, into his driveway. Initially she was due to stay a few months but ended up parking there for 15 years. Bennett turned the story of her stay first into a novella and then into a play and now, under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, into a film and a beautiful job he's made of it.
Of course, for the purpose of dramatic and comic effect Mr Bennett has taken liberties, adding bits here and there including a delightful phantasmagorical ending. He also surrounds himself and Miss Shepherd with a host of other characters, some almost as eccentric as they are. Recreating the part she played on stage Maggie Smith is magnificent in the title role. Of course, you could say Maggie has been playing variations of Jean Brodie for the past 45 years. It's easy to see Miss Brodie in the put-downs of the Dowager, Countess of Grantham had Jean been born into a different generation or class and it's not much of a step to see Miss Shepherd as an older, very much down-on-her-luck Jean Brodie. A third Oscar is certainly not out of the question.
Jennings, too, has Bennett off to a tee and there's lovely support from the likes of Frances De La Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay as sundry neighbors while the entire cast of Bennett's "The History Boys" manage to pop up in one form or another. If it feels slighter than some of Bennett's other offerings it may simply be because here he is writing about someone we would probably pass in the street without looking twice at. Of course, if on meeting Miss Shepherd in the street we knew what we know now, we might indeed give her a second or even a third glance; we might even invite her to move her van into our driveway. Slight? Not a bit of it.
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