BBC Radio 4, 1 January 2011
First broadcast in February 2009, The Lady in the Van was
an adaptation of Bennett's own autobiographical memoir of the same name, describing the author's long-term relationship
with Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), a genteel vagrant who parked her van near Bennett's house in 1971 and eventually persuaded
him to move it into the driveway leading to his front door. She stayed there for eighteen years until her death in 1989, living
a quasi-independent life yet becoming ever more reliant on Bennett's help as she grew older. While the van became more
and more filthy, creating a smell that Bennett himself likened to "the inside of one's ear," Miss Shepherd resolutely refused
to do anything about. She inhabited her own world - part-fantasy, part-illusion, and part-refuge from a past (especially her
work during the Second World War) that she wanted to forget.
While The Lady in the Van is as much about Bennett himself (played in this
production by two actors, Adrian Scaborough as the younger Bennett, and Bennett himself as the narrator), as Miss Shepherd,
I couldn't help but think that Gordon House's production was actually a pretext for Maggie Smith to create another one of
those memorable, if slightly dotty vocal characterizations which have dominated her stage career over the last five decades.
Among these we might include the name part in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and Michael Caine's long-suffering
spouse in California Suite (1978), where she struggles to sustain a facade of respectability in spite of the fact
that her husband is gay.
While recognizing Maggie Smith's undoubted contribution to the British theatre, I
do feel that she has become something of a National Treasure, rather like Edith Evans, who achieved fame late in life with
regular appearances on the Parkinson show. This is no bad thing, but it sometimes means that she is allowed
to indulge in too many vocal mannerisms that prevent us from understanding and/or identifying with the characters she
is playing. We become aware that it is Maggie Smith Giving Another Memorable Performance. This is a pity, for The
Lady in the Van is a really sympathetically observed study of two lonely people trying, but continually failing to connect
with one another.