Dame Maggie Smith swaps Downton Abbey for Alan Bennett’s driveway


Instead of having to forever wonder just “What is a weekend?” or endlessly question the need for electricity, Dame Maggie Smith has opted to swap her trademark Dowager Countess hat and dress for a knit cap and dirty raincoat (just for a bit, Downton Abbey fans) for her forthcoming role in playwright Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. 

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In the film adaptation of his hit West End play, The Lady in the Van tells the real-life story of Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith), an eccentric homeless pensioner whom Bennett befriended in the late 60’s. Shepherd, who was frequently taunted by children and drunken revelers on the streets, was often seen by Bennett simply standing by her broken-down Bedford van. Bennett finally allowed her to ‘temporarily’ park in the driveway of his Camden Town home where she lived for 15 years during the 70s and 80s. Smith has played Shepherd twice before, the first time in the original 1999 theatrical production and then ten years later in 2009 for a Radio 4 adaptation.

In the film, Bennett is played by the stage and screen actor Alex Jennings, who previously played the author at a Bennett double-bill at the National Theatre, as well taking on the role of Prince Charles in The Queen. Roger Allam (Endeavour), Frances de la Tour (Vicious), Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge), James Corden (The Wrong Mans, Into the Woods, Gavin and Stacey) and Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia) also star. Bennett wrote the script, while Nicholas Hytner, who also directed Bennett’s The Madness of King George and The History Boys along with the original theatre production of The Lady in the Van, leads the project.

After Shepherd’s death in 1989, the playwright discovered that she was once a talented pianist, having spent time in a convent, and had, ultimately, succumbed to mental illness. Despite his generosity, Bennett admitted it was a somewhat strained relationship and that Shepherd had tried his patience to the very end. “One was seldom able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation,” he wrote.

The Lady in the Van premieres on 13 November in the UK with no definite release date as of yet for the U.S.