Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie The Lady in the Van.
Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith in a scene from the movie The Lady in the Van. Photo Nicola Dove

The curious tale of The Lady in the Van

ALEX Jennings didn't have to look far for inspiration for his latest film role in The Lady in the Van.

The actor plays his friend, playwright and author Alan Bennett, in the comedy drama based on Bennett's book of the same name.

The heartfelt and charming film tells the true story of how Bennett formed an unexpected relationship with a transient elderly woman Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith).

Bennett allowed Shepherd to park her rundown van in his driveway and she stayed there for 15 years, only learning of her tragic life story after her death.

"Alan's been a friend for a very long time," Jennings tells Weekend.

"We first worked together as actors in a BBC series called Ashenden 25 years ago.

"I played Alan in two short pieces he wrote… so I'd already had a go at playing him and I had been sanctioned by him."

But it was the involvement of Oscar-winner Smith, who had already played Miss Shepherd in Bennett's radio play, that convinced Jennings, a three-time Olivier Award-winning stage actor, to sign on to the film.

"I've worked with her before, so having Maggie's blessing as well enabled me to do the film," he says.

"I've done movies but never had any kind of movie profile really. It was an amazing experience."

Smith's marvellous performance earnt her recent Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations.

"Maggie is awesome to work with. She makes you want to be better," Jennings says.

"The lack of vanity of this performance, it was a privilege to be a witness to her creating that character."

To portray his character's inner monologue, Jennings plays two Bennetts on screen. One is the timid writer who observes Miss Shepherd curiously and the other is the day-to-day Bennett who is more practical and analytical.

The result is Jennings having conversations with himself on screen as Bennett learns to live with and tries to get to know his squatter.

"He absolutely insists he didn't do it out of kindness," Jennings says.

"He did it out of laziness. She was a distraction out on the street, getting hassled, and he offered her space in his driveway not thinking she'd be there more than a few weeks or so. She had a will of iron and it became impossible to shift her, but he didn't really try. He muddled along … and she turned out to be a fantastic source of material really.

"One of the great strengths of his writing is his observations of the small things in life, the quirkiness in life, and she was providing him with some rich material."

There is now a blue plaque on Bennett's old Camden home honouring the street's strange resident.

"To film it in the house where it all happened was an extraordinary gift," he says.

"Neighbours in the street who remembered her were telling us their memories of this pretty demanding, extraordinary and eccentric woman.

"She was also quite magnificent. She had chosen that path and she was going to play it to the end on her own terms."

The Lady in the Van opens nationally on Thursday.

The Lady in the Van

Stars: Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Deborah Findlay, Roger Allam

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Rating: M

Reviewer's last word: Maggie Smith is outstanding as a stubborn homeless woman who is reluctantly tolerated by a playwright and his London neighbours.

Star profile: Maggie Smith

Quirky fact: Her twin brothers Ian and Alistair are six years older than she is. They are both architects.

Best known for: Downton Abbey, the Harry Potter franchise, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

If you like this movie you'll like these: The Dressmaker, Joy, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies.

Quote: "I tend to head for what's amusing because a lot of things aren't happy. But usually you can find a funny side to practically anything."

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