The Lady Behind The Van

Maggie Smith is Miss Shepherd in ‘The Lady In The Van’

Maggie Smith did an amazing job in 2015’s ‘The Lady In The Van’. In the movie, Maggie is Miss Shepherd, an eccentric, arrogant, homeless woman who lives in a van, parked in a driveway of a house, and stayed there for 15 years. That house belonged to someone called Alan Bennett. They became friends and Alan discovered that Miss Shepherd had a couple of secrets buried in herself. Her name was one of them. Her actual name was Margaret Fairchild. Oh, all this is based on a true story, by the way.

Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings in ‘The Lady In The Van’. By the way, that guy in a red sweater is James Corden.

Alan Jennings did a play based on ‘The Lady In The Van’ back in 1999, already with Maggie Smith in the lead role of Miss Shepherd, which earned her a nomination at the 2000 Olivier Awards for Best Actress.

Miss Shepherd, or Margaret Fairchild, wanted and tried to become a nun. But she wasn’t allowed to play the piano. Because of that, she had a mental breakdown, who made her brother commiting her into an institution. Later we found out, through the movie, that she escaped from there in her van, which was hit by a motorcycle. She thought the accident was her fault and ran away from the scene, believing for a long time that she’s hidding from the police. A retired police officer, played in the movie by Jim Broadbent, knew what happened and he kept visiting her, wherever she was. She met Alan Bennett, an author and a screenwriter, who lived in the same street she was at the time. Because she was often terrorized by passersby, he let her parking the van in his driveway, and stayed there until the day she took the last breath.

Miss Shepherd’s Travel Permit.

Contrary to what is told in the film, Alan Bennett only discovered who she really was after her death. And because of that and their unique relationship, he decided to wrote about her. Alan was shy and Miss Shepherd was not. And that is why the movie is also funny. She just didn’t care. Unless you’re talking about her past. In that case, she would get scared and hide in the van.

Maggie Smith and Alan Bennett at the BFI London Filme Festival 2015

According to this article, Bennett wrote in London Review of Books abouttheir first encounter when she coaxed him into pushing her van to Albany Street. The experience left him with the unsettling feeling that “one seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.””.

This is an excerpt of that same book:

She must have prevailed on me to push the van as far as Albany Street, though I recall nothing of the exchange. What I do remember as I trundled the van across Gloucester Bridge was being overtaken by two policemen in a panda car and thinking that, as the van was certainly holding up the traffic, they might have leant a hand. They were wiser than I knew. The other feature of this first run-in with Miss Shepherd was her driving technique. Scarcely had I put my shoulder to the back of the van, an old Bedford, than a long arm was stretched elegantly out of the driver’s window to indicate in textbook fashion that she (or rather I) was moving off. A few yards further on, as we were about to turn into Albany Street, the arm emerged again, twirling elaborately in the air to indicate that we were branching left, the movement done with such boneless grace that this section of the Highway Code might have been choreographed by Petipa with Ulanova at the wheel. Her ‘I am coming to a halt’ was less poised as she had plainly not expected me to give up pushing and shouted angrily back that it was the other end of Albany Street she wanted, a mile further on. But I had had enough by this time and left her there with no thanks for my trouble. Far from it. She even climbed out of the van and came running after me, shouting that I had no business abandoning her, so that passers-by looked at me as if I had done some injury to this pathetic scarecrow. ‘Some people!’ I suppose I thought, feeling foolish that I’d been taken for a ride (or taken her for one) and cross that I’d fared worse than if I’d never lifted a finger, these mixed feelings to be the invariable aftermath of any transaction involving Miss Shepherd. One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”

This is also a way to think about ourselves. What if we had a homeless person, like Miss Shepherd, living in our backyard? What would be our attitude towards her? Were we able to let her live there for as long as she wanted? Alan Bennett showed us how we all should be in a perfect world: do not judge, just act. Behind every sad face there is a reason, there is a history, there is something that we can learn. And this exactly situation is not only dedicate to you. Does your village, city, country or government know how to deal with Miss Shepherds?


This article is part of (the beginning!) of a series of articles dedicated to movie fans and knowledge geeks.

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