Saturday, August 13, 2016

THE STORY BEHIND THE LADY IN THE VAN

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

My most recent MOVIE WEEKEND DVD review was of The Lady In The Van. Because the lady was a real person and the man whose driveway she inhabited is a real person and a writer, I want to give you some background on Miss Shepherd.

If you haven't yet seen the movie and don't want to encounter possible spoilers, then please don't read this post.

The Lady In The Van began as a 1999 play by Alan Bennett. Maggie Smith played Mary Shepherd--as she does in the film--who parked her van in Bennett's driveway and ended up staying for fifteen years. Bennett, played by Alex Jennings in the movie, adapted his play for the 2015 film.

Bennett gradually learns that Miss Mary Shepherd is actually Margaret Fairchild, who had been a gifted concert pianist. She tried to become a nun but her confessor told her she was not allowed to play the piano. She had a breakdown, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped in her van, which was hit by a motorcycle, but she thought the accident was her fault and she fled. From then on, Fairchild believes she's hiding from the police, and she's regularly fleeced by a retired police officer played by Jim Broadbent.

In reality, it was only after "Miss Shepherd's" death in 1989 that Bennett learned from her brother who she was. He allowed her to move her van from the street into his driveway because she was often terrorized by passersby, though he admits that the move was because of his own selfishness; that is, the bother to Miss Shepherd interrupted his work. After her van was in the drive for a time, she took up squatters' rights and would not and could not be moved.

Bennett first wrote her story as a long article, then a novella, and then the successful play. Behind the relationship between the comical timidness of the Alan Bennett character in the movie and the often hilarious pushiness of the Miss Shepherd character lies an indictment of Great Britain's failure to care for the homeless and the mentally ill.

As quoted on the Internet Movie Database, "At the Hay Festival on 27 May 2015, screenwriter Alan Bennett said 'The story told by this film took place 40 and more years ago and Miss Shepherd is long since dead. She was difficult and eccentric but above all she was poor. And these days particularly the poor don't get much of a look in. Poverty is a moral failing today as it was under the Tudors. If the film has a point, it's about fairness and tolerance and however grudgingly helping the less fortunate, who are not well thought of these days. And now likely to be even less so.'"

The film was shot in and around Bennett's former home. The one character in the film that Bennett acknowledges to be fiction is Underwood, the former police officer who threatens to reveal Miss Shepherd's whereabouts and thus demands bribes from her so she loses the bit of money she has.

Bennett also admits to inventing Miss Shepherd's inner life of the mind.

I like the movie very much, although it has some strange moments that, of course, did not occur. For example, when Miss Shepherd dies, she is resurrected for her ascension to Heaven. I haven't seen that happen to anyone in quite some time.

Perhaps I'll be next. Prepare for liftoff.


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug

Maggie Smith with the real Alan Bennett



23 comments:

  1. Mrs. C. Has expressed an interest in seeing this one so I'll wait to read this.

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  2. I have seen this film in the last. 2 months and we enjoyed it and were amazed that this playwright allowed her to stay in his driveway all those years. It does speak volumes about how little is being done for the people who are mentally ill. Maybe it has improved a bit better now but it still needs improvement. I loved that ending though....I thought it was just great and hopeful that she did really see this.

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    1. He couldn't evict her, so to speak. She had squatters' rights, so the van in the driveway became her residence. That's why a social worker comes out to talk to him about his attitude toward Miss Shepherd. He, in effect, became responsible for her, while at the same time he gave responsibility for his own mother to a nursing home.

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  3. So agree with his statement about the poor.
    I have much to say about the way we treat our, citizens of The United States and the poor treatment our government, political parties give them in the chase for the almighty dollar and votes. Border States are the worst. We have tossed aside our veterans, elderly and handicapped. all for pandering for votes.
    Ms. Shepherd can be seen on our streets everyday.
    Sorry went off on a tangent but nothing will change. Especially in a Border State, money for votes. It is very sad.

    I haven't seen this movie but it is on my list.
    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

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    1. I wouldn't describe your comment as a tangent, nice tall person who feeds thehamish. You speak the truth.

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  4. Hi Janie - well done ... it's such a sad, but fascinating story ... and well worth seeing - as you say we can learn much from her life and treatment by others ... cheers Hilary

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    1. Thanks, Hilary. At the end of the movie they have a scene where the real Alan Bennett shows up and they unveil a blue plaque. I don't know if that really occurred, but have you ever done a post about the famous blue plaques? I know there's one on the house where Sylvia Plath died because Yeats had lived there. Another one about Plath is on a place where she and Ted Hughes had a flat.

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  5. I was actually pleased that some of the neighbors brought her food and things she could use. I hope that really happened. She'd have been a scary (and smelly) person to approach. It's a movie that stays with you. :)

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    1. It happened. People brought her gifts and food, and she yelled at them. She tossed aside Christmas gifts without opening them. She couldn't stand music, and when we learn her history, we know why. How horrible to be a gifted pianist and to have the piano snatched away. I wasn't nearly talented enough to become a concert pianist, but if someone had ever taken the piano away from me, I would have been bereft. I still adore my piano, although I can't afford to have it tuned at the moment.

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  6. I had never heard about this movie but before I left a comment, I went to ON DEMAND and took a couple of hours to watch it.

    Really an interesting movie. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Amazing that Mr. Bennett would of put up her her vile smell, nasty disposition and the invasion by her vans. (one would of had me sent her packing but when the 2nd showed up, I'd be calling the cops.) It's not that I don't have compassion but her temperament would of done me in.

    Still...very interesting story that had such highlights of human compassion and, of course, the intolerance of others.

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    1. He invited her to park in his driveway. Then he couldn't get rid of her because of squatters' rights. He admits that while the "person" part of him got sick of her, the "writer" part appreciated the fodder she provided.

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  7. Won't see it for about a month--I'll let you know what I thought about it!!

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    1. I look forward to your opinion, Madam Ducky.

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  8. I wish I had time to watch a movie. Packing the boy to return him to school!

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    1. The boy will return to school, and you'll relax with a movie when you get home.

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  9. You have a knack for finding the good ones, Queen of all Video.

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    1. Wow! My Queendom doth extend itself. If you haven't seen this movie, you might want to check it out. I think you'd like it.

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  10. The play is onion like, (Mary's own cure all remedy), in that the more one thinks about it the more layers there are to it. The writing of Bennett, (not a favourite of mine), excels. The gentle humour underlines the horrific tragedy of a lost life, and Bennett's talent as a writer makes the loss of Mary's talent to the world all the more tragic. In witnessing and recording the loss of his mother and the destruction of Mary by life and society Bennett releases himself and achieves salvation. And so, at the end his other self is put to rest and a real partner enjoined to his life. The social comment is obvious, but nevertheless cannot be ignored. Society does not like to be reminded of its failures. The failure to look after the weak is greater than for over half a century. It speaks volumes that the closest to a Christ like figure in the play is Bennett himself, albeit that the Christ like qualities of kindness, mercy, forgiveness and generosity are replaced with Bennett's pragmatic laziness and selfish desire to have peace to work, which is why he allowed her to move into his drive. An excellent piece of work in my humble philistine opinion

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  11. Just seen the movie and, having just read this site, it strikes me that no-one has picked up on the most probable cause of the poor lady's disruption to an otherwise very positive life and future ... the catholic church! Were she allowed to embrace and exude her beautiful talent, she may well have been able to bring joy to many, but no ..., the fanatics took another life.
    P.S. I have signed as 'Anonymous' as i don't want the zealots after me.

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  12. I have a question, I was wondering how she went from being an accomplished pianist, to a nun with the one thing that she loved most being stripped away? I only saw the movie tonight, and although I thought it was brilliant, this question bothered me. I can't find anything online that explains it.

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  13. Just watched it, behind the complaining about her think Alan was quite fond of her, he could've done what her brother did and had her put away as incompetent but didnt.

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  14. There's a suggestion she had a child who died - the "someone she used to know" who she goes to pray for. She says he is in purgatory, that he would have been in his 50s by now, and avoids the question of a name - perhaps because he was never baptised. If the child was illegitimate it would explain her abrupt life change. It's not explicitly stated, only implied very gently - possibly because Bennett considered it too personal a tragedy to dramatise or make assumptions about.

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