Talk about a truly odd couple: ‘The Lady in the Van’ is the true story of Mary Shepherd, an elderly, eccentric woman who lived in a dilapidated van, on playwright Alan Bennett’s driveway in outside of London for 15 years. The story is closely linked with Maggie Smith, who portrayed Shepherd thrice, in the original 1999 theatrical production (which earned her a Best Actress nomination at the 2000 Olivier Awards) and in the 2009 BBC Radio 4 adaptation and in the British big-screen comedy-drama, to be released by from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on April 19. Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. The Blu-ray and DVD editions of “The Lady in the Van” include a Maggie Smith profile, making-of featurette, deleted scenes and visual effects piece.
Bennett had a strained friendship with Shepherd, whom Bennett befriended in the ’70s before allowing her temporarily to park her van in the driveway of his home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild, 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. Fairchild died in 1989.
The film makes it obvious that Shepherd never saw Bennett and never saw him as doing her a kindness. Says Smith: “I think she would never have thanked anybody. I don’t know if it was because that’s how far she got in her existence that she was completely single-minded. I don’t think she thought or cared about anybody. I would imagine she was so desperate to just exist. And she must have existed in this completely separate world. Her main interest seemed to be God. I don’t think she thought about other people very much.”
Yet Smith cared about the woman she was playing, especially after a chat with the film’s director, Sir Nicholas Robert Hytner. “When I first spoke to him, he was talking about how she played piano,” Smith recalls. “And he played this beautiful, very sad Chopin. And it kind of gave me a way in because I hadn’t really thought about that so much because it seemed in the past in her existence. But then to realize that she was a concert pianist type and had studied the piano and Cortot, one of the most brilliant pianists and most brilliant players of Chopin, was her teacher made me feel incredibly sad about her to think that there was that amount of talent and this great gift that she had, and that it had all gone to waste. And I often wondered if she thought about that when she was in isolation in this van.”
Smith fans will find this tidbit of interest: In a moving scene towards the end of the film, Shepherd goes to a residential day care center and she sees a piano. That is when all her memories come flooding back and she plays “Piano Concerto No. 1.” It appears Smith’s hands play the piano. No, she had a hand double—talented pianist Helen Davies. It was a role which came about by “chance”. Says she: “ friend of a friend of mine fixes musicians for film sessions and recordings and things like that. He was looking for a pianist; obviously it could not be anybody young. “They needed somebody who had old looking hands to play the part of Miss Shepherd when she gets to the day care center in the film. “You see Maggie Smith playing the piano, but they have cut it so it looks as if she is playing when it is actually my hands,” Davies says. “It was amazingly done.”
Just as true with the film.