Imagine Maggie Smith’s cantankerous dowager in ‘Downton Abbey’ as a bag lady – she's still lording it over everyone, but now she's dressed in a filthy too-big men’s coat with brown sticky tape patching up the rips and unsightly brown smears down the back.
Meet Miss Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who lived in a knackered campervan in playwright Alan Bennett’s front garden in north London for 15 years. Smith played Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s hit 1989 play and takes on the role again in this hugely entertaining, big-hearted and funny film adaptation directed by his long-standing collaborator Nicholas Hytner ('The History Boys'); it’s the movie equivalent of cosying with a warm buttery crumpet in front of a fire on a winter’s day.
The film was shot in the actual house on the street, Gloucester Crescent, in London's Camden Town where the real events took place. Alex Jennings plays Bennett, who buys his house in the late 1960s. His neighbours are writers and intellectuals – guilty liberals who put up with Miss Shepherd’s van parked outside their book-lined homes to prove how tolerant they are. When the local authorities threaten to move her on, Bennett offers Miss S the use of his front garden for a couple of weeks. She never leaves. His mum, visiting from Yorkshire, wonders what she does for a toilet. The answer involves ‘Stout carrier bags’, Bennett tells her (not stout enough we soon find out).
The film offers glimpses of Bennett’s private life – his crush on a cocky young actor starring in one of his plays and conversations with himself bemoaning his dullness, writing about his mum and a barmy old lady while others are off having proper adventures. Miss Shepherd is gloriously rude. Any whiff of charity ruffles her ego, so when a neighbour knocks on her window with a creme brulee, she accepts it with haughty contempt. Her delusions of grandeur are hilarious (she believes she’s receiving direct messages from the Virgin Mary). A wonderful Maggie Smith plays all this dead straight, poker-faced for maximum laughs. It’s a peppery, unsentimental performance. She’s hysterically funny, till she’s not – flooring you as the regret and tragedy behind Miss Shepherd’s vagabond life is revealed.