Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) had a secret in her past, and it is one that sent her into the depths of a troubled mind and eventual poverty, but writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) met her when he moved to London's Camden in 1970, when he was enjoying his worldwide success but staying very true to his English origins. Not so true that he was residing in his hometown of Leeds, but the subject matter he concentrated on was so mundane, finding both poetry and humour in it, that he was constantly arguing with himself about whether he should try and pen a play about, for instance, Russian spies, which would be more out of the ordinary than what he found himself often drawn to, such as little old ladies...
It was Miss Shepherd who was that titular lady in the van, and she started out parking along Bennett's street, to mixed reaction from the residents, including Bennett himself, but then managed to invite herself into his driveway where she stayed for fifteen years, time that surprised him when he realised it had gone by without any significant changes in his life. She was part of that life, not that he was as tolerant as he would have preferred to have been in retrospect, as he pointed out in interviews when this was a novella, theatre play and radio play before it was a film it was in his opinion a plea for being better behaved towards the poor who when he was adapting it were growing more demonised than ever.
Not simply the poor, either, any of the disadvantaged in British society who were being looked down on as a problem to be wiped out or forced out as the twenty-first century wore on, and though this was set around a twenty year period, more or less, from 1970-89, it was accurate to observe it was a story whose time had come when this was released in the cinemas. Smith inhabited the role so immersively that you would forget she was a Dame of the theatre and be completely convinced she was Miss Shepherd, the mentally damaged and financially hampered old woman who was stuck in her spiral of destitution with no hope of ever clawing her way out. All around her, she is complained about - she stinks, her van is an eyesore, and so on - and she has no power other than her own irascibility.
But this was about Bennett as well, and how the experiences he channelled into his work became as much part of his personality as his real life. Often he would remind himself in the story that various parts he referred to never happened, acknowledging he was adding the imaginative aspects to bring out the themes he felt were important, yet this was as telling autobiographically as if he were to write an account that was as true to the letter of what happened as it were to the spirit. If you were interested in the creative process, this did not bash you over the head with its technique, but it did elucidate on how real life events inform everything a writer puts to paper, and an artist of any stripe, really. The "little old lady" problems with Bennett's efforts extended to his own mother, and his guilt that he kept Miss Shepherd on his property yet left his parent in a retirement home.
His mother (Gwen Taylor) would have loved to have stayed with him - he had no one else in his house, so why was he so resistant? If he so wanted to live his own independent life, why have Miss Shepherd there who in spite of how bad tempered he could get with her, he was looking out for as much as he should have been with his mother? From a simple premise, batty old lady sticks her van in the driveway and will not leave, Bennett spun off all sorts of interesting questions, including ones about religion as his guest is a deeply Catholic believer, making her the modern equivalent of a medieval anchoress in her way, eschewing society to worship God in her particular manner but finding that outside world difficult to ignore when so many regard her as a problem to be solved rather than a person to be helped out. Her lack of hygiene dismays Bennett over and over (he complains about the amount of references to shit in the plot), but he eventually sees past that to the troubled soul he could not ultimately save until he redeemed her in his writings. Only the business with her secrets jarred an otherwise gently humorous, sad-eyed meditation on the underprivileged and their depiction by the creative. Music by George Fenton (which gets a shade over-jolly in places).