The Lady Never Vanishes: Nicholas Hytner brings Maggie Smith’s indelible squatter to the big screen

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How far is it from Downton Abbey to Down-and-Out? For Maggie Smith, the Emmy-winning matriarch of the manor, it was merely a matter of months. In the summer of ’14 (2014), she ended her series reign as Dowager Countess of Grantham, lording over the family’s handsome Georgian country estate, and by autumn she was making do in a broken-down, ramshackle mini-bus on the streets of London—albeit, a posh, celebrity-studded street in North London named Gloucester Crescent—as Miss Shepherd, an elderly, eccentric bag-lady-on-wheels, a.k.a. The Lady in the Van.

One could get the bends from such a creative plummet, but Dame Maggie has seen no reason to forfeit her regal bearing and pristine diction just because of a kink in her kismet, so she carries on accordingly, outrageously, despite her squalid situation.

This ditzy, delightful, deeply moving portrayal won her an Olivier nomination 15 years ago when she presented it on the London stage, and it will likely work similar wonders for her in this year’s Oscar race. Nobody’s better at addlebrained hauteur.

Miss Shepherd comes from real life, by way of playwright Alan Bennett. He introduced her to the world in bits and pieces in articles for The London Review of Books, which were then assembled into book form for a published memoir, which Bennett, in turn, translated into a stage (and, now, screen) vehicle for Dame Maggie.

When he first moved into his Crescent residence in the late ’60s, Miss Shepherd’s decrepit, hideously yellow van was the eyesore at the top of the hill, but over the years residents shooed it farther downhill until it finally came to rest in front of Bennett’s home at number 23. When police threatened to tow it away because of a zoning violation, she asked him if she could park it in his driveway. Thinking it a temporary arrangement, he agreed. Fifteen years later, she left—or, rather, died.

During this time when Bennett’s juices were bubbling with plays like The Madness of King George and The History Boys, he would peer pensively out his bay window and be at eye level of the unsightly (and, frankly, smelly) spectacle in his front yard.

For Nicholas Hytner, who helmed it on stage and screen, The Lady in the Van took him home—or, at least, a three-minute walk from home. “Almost since I first came to London, I lived near that neighborhood, and I used to walk the Crescent because it was a detour on my way to the train station,” the director recently recalled. “I knew who lived on the Crescent. There were so many distinguished, theatrical, literary types—Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin, Max Stafford-Clark, Jonathan Miller, novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, artist David Gentleman”—and then there was Miss Shepherd.

“I had no idea who she was. There was this horrendous van—it looked exactly the way it does in the film, with electric wires leading up into Alan’s second floor—and this extraordinary old lady, whom I really never got close enough to speak to or even to smile at. It was just impossible to work out what was going on. I remember once wondering, ‘His mother? Does he keep his mother in the van?’ Seriously?”

Miss Shepherd’s true identity was not known until Bennett began writing about her. Even after he and Hytner had become collaborators, the subject was not broached.

Being British and polite, “people who used to come to visit the house when the van was still there didn’t ask him, ‘What is that? and ‘Who is that old lady?’ Occasionally, she would waylay journalists and imply—he wrote this in his diaries—the real creative voice around here was hers and it was being suppressed by the landlord.”

In time, Bennett began to see Miss Shepherd as material, triggering a debate within himself—the artist vs. the person. Both Bennetts were represented in the play and in the film (on stage by two actors and on screen by the inestimable Alex Jennings).

“I think you get a really accurate idea of what he was thinking in the film. One of the truest things in the film is his slow realization that she was material. Then came the struggle with himself about how much he was permitted to fictionalize in order to turn her into a play. The answer is not very much, because he is very scrupulous.”

It was Jennings who got The Lady in the Van back on track to become a film. “Two years ago, Alan wrote a short autobiographical play, Untold Stories, which we did at the National with Alex playing Alan. We both thought Alex’s performance of Alan was a lot better than Alan’s, and that kind of brought us back to The Lady in the Van.

“Nobody can remember why we didn’t make the movie 15 years ago, but I’m glad we didn’t,” admits Hytner. “I think it was because we just couldn’t afford to make it.”

Its eventual film version, opening Dec. 4 from Sony Pictures Classics, didn’t set anybody back a king’s ransom, but it does preserve a great Smith performance, flanked by two excellent ones from Jennings.

“I’ve never come across anyone who can play an audience the way Maggie Smith plays an audience,” Hytner observes. “It was a brilliant performance on stage, and the film gives her more opportunity to explore her vulnerability and a sense of waste.

“She’s also a star. She has a history in the movies second to none. There is nobody in the movies, British or American, who goes back farther than she does, and she has worked with so many extraordinary people. She knows what she’s doing.”

To support the 80-year-old star, all of The History Boys—from James Corden and Dominic Cooper to Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett, plus their teaching faculty, including the elegant, Tony-winning Frances de la Tour—showed up for cameos.

“There’s a kind of Alan Bennett repertory company,” Hytner points out. “It would have felt odd not to give them each something to do. Just going through all those small character roles, we thought it would be fun to put the people we knew into it. I knew they would all want to come and do it. All I had to do was pick up the phone.”

Even the real Alan Bennett showed up, riding a bike, in the long crane shot that closes the film with a scene unveiling a plaque noting that the lady in the van lived there.

Like the movie ads of old that used to vow “Filmed where it happened,” this movie really was. Bennett currently lives a good five-minute walk away from the house, but he lent some added realism to the project by renting it out for the filming.

Hytner may have gotten a little high from the authenticity of it all: “It had been so long since we had done the play that it was like starting again, and because we were making the film exactly where it all happened, it felt as if this story was emerging out of the very surroundings where it had originally emerged. Alan’s study was unchanged, the house was unchanged, the Crescent was unchanged, and many of the neighbors—past and present—were there. They all came out for Miss Shepherd.”