Drawing: Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith001

Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van opened at London’s Queen’s Theatre in late 1999 with Dame Maggie Smith in the lead role as Miss Shepherd, an eccentric bag lady who lived in a van.

Bennett first became aware of ‘the lady in the van’ in the late sixties. She died in 1989, after spending two decades living in her broken down Bedford van in his driveway. She could most kindly be called eccentric, hearing voices and the Virgin Mary appeared to her on a regular basis. The play is the story… or, more accurately, a series of incidents… between the playwright and the delusional, failed nun, Miss S, who was reclusive but not opposed to publicity.

Dame Maggie is once again nominated for another primetime Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the ITV drama Downton Abbey. She is one of the few people to win the ‘triple crown of acting’ (Emmy, Oscar and Tony). Her impressive list includes seven BAFTAS, two Oscars, three Golden Globes and a Tony. She is the only person to receive an Academy Award for playing an Academy Award nominee – Diana Barrie in California Suite (1978).

Despite being nominated six times, she has never won the Olivier Award, the highest honour in British theatre. Her last nomination was in 2000 for her role as Miss Shepherd.

I was fortunate enough to see the play just before it ended in July 2000. Dame Maggie signed my sketch last week at her London office.

Drawing: Alan Bennett and Alan Jennings

Alex Jennings as Bennett

Winner of three Olivier Awards, Alex Jennings is one of Britain’s most revered actors and has been lauded as the new John Gielgud. His latest stage appearance was in the National Theatre’s critically acclaimed double bill, Untold Stories by Alan Bennett. Alex plays Alan in two autobiographical recollections “Hymn” a touching story of music and childhood and “Cocktail Sticks” which revisits some of the themes and conversations of the author’s memoir A Life Like Other People’s.

It transferred to The Duchess Theatre in April this year and completed its run last Saturday evening.

On press night, Alex stopped the curtain call applause to recall his old friend and colleague Richard Griffiths. He delivered a tear choked address and reminded the packed auditorium that the lights had been dimmed across the West End at 7.28pm in honour of the actor who had died the previous week following complications after a heart operation.