Ageism in Film #1 – The Lady in the Van

Welcome to the first edition of our new monthly series on ageism in film. This week Danny Elliott subjects The Lady in the Van to Peter Bradshaw’s Bechdel Test for Ageism.

Although Peter Bradshaw points out that older women are the social group that find it hardest to come by major roles,  the first film I’m going to look at stars, and is dominated by, Dame Maggie Smith. The 81 year old played Miss Shepherd in ‘The Lady in the Van’, 16 years after she first performed the role on stage in Alan Bennett’s play of the same name.

Maggie Smith is a ‘national treasure’. That may be slightly patronising, but is definitely heartfelt. Playing Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series endeared her to younger audiences and the Dowager Countess’ arched eyebrows in Downton Abbey cemented her place in the modern public consciousness. The first film I can remember seeing her in was Sister Act, playing the ever-so-serious Reverend Mother, but The Lady in the Van allows Smith to display her comic timing in amongst the more sombre scenes.

The plot, based on a true story, revolves around Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), who lives with all her worldly possessions in a van, as she temporarily parks on Alan Bennett’s drive, only to stay there for 15 years.

IMDB calls Miss Shepherd ‘transient’.  The truth is that she’s homeless. I don’t think the film sufficiently gets across how awful it is that an older lady, who is often very distressed, is homeless in London. Is a van a suitable home? I certainly don’t think so.

The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. Photograph: Allstar/BBC FILMS
The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. Photograph: Allstar/BBC FILMS

London has a housing problem, as well as an ageing population and an increase in older private renters; Maureen Crane & Louise Joly from the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, King’s College London, say there were 710 rough sleepers aged 56+ in London in 2014/15 – a 105% increase from 2004/05.

Remember that Miss Shepherd was a real person who lived on Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. She wasn’t being quirky, cool or awkward; it’s tragic.

In the film Bennett himself struggles with the fact that his own mother has to leave the family home and live in a care home. He talks to himself wondering whether giving Miss Shepherd a parking space will purge any guilt he has over his mother’s situation.

I really connected with his struggle. I’m a northerner living in London with ageing parents and in-laws. What does the future look like? I really don’t know.

maggie
Miss Shepherd was a real person who lived on Alan Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. She wasn’t being quirky, cool or awkward; it’s tragic.

A key question asked throughout the film is whether older people are a burden on individuals.

Bennett’s neighbours in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town initially try and engage with Miss Shepherd, bringing her homemade cakes and politely introducing her to their children. All is well while she is parked at the other end of the street…

Bennett himself has the heart to allow her to park on his drive (and sometimes use his facilities) but when a social worker quizzes Bennett about their relationship, Bennett attempts to distance himself from Miss Shepherd:

Miss Briscoe, Social Worker: She tells me you don’t encourage her to get out and lead a more purposeful life, and put obstacles in her way.

Alan Bennett: I don’t encourage her to think she can become prime minister. I *do* encourage her to try and get to the supermarket.

Miss Briscoe, Social Worker: Yes. A carer will often feel that…

Alan Bennett: Excuse me, may I stop you? Do not call me the carer. I am not the carer. I hate caring. I hate the thought. I hate the word. I do not care, and I do not care for. I am here, she is there. There is no caring.

Miss Briscoe, Social Worker: Alan, I’m sensing hostility again.

Bennett can be seen struggling with the potential responsibility of caring for two older women; his mother and Miss Shepherd. While he is sad when he no longer has responsibility for caring for them, he is also honest enough to admit that he is relieved.

Older people often feel that they are a burden to society. Alan Bennett is portrayed as an individual who sometimes feels burdened, often without any resentment at all.

Society as a whole must shoulder responsibility and ensure that older people do not feel they are a burden. The huge contribution of older people to our society is an issue Age UK London have campaigned on before, and we have seen recent pieces of work that encourage this idea.

More needs to be done to ensure that attitudes change in this area.

bennett
Alan Bennett is portrayed as an individual who sometimes feels burdened, often without any resentment at all.

I don’t want to post any huge spoilers, but it’s revealed that Miss Shepherd’s life has been full of great highs and tremendous lows. The film does a good job of showing us what effect the lows had on the character, but very few of her former glories are showcased. The one scene which shows Miss Shepherd reliving her younger years is tinged with sadness and becomes so unbearably hard for her that she can’t continue for long.

As this is based on a true story, one can’t complain either way, but I’m personally satisfied with how the film ends, rather than a Hollywood-style renaissance. Not every story gets a happy ending, and the fond memories and funny stories Alan Bennett has of Miss Shepherd, while something, don’t wipe out the terribly sad narrative that has gone before.

The Lady in the Van deals with some major age related issues, and stars one of the best older performers out there. Maggie Smith was nominated for both a Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance in the film, but ultimately won neither.

Second place isn’t bad for someone her age though, right?

Wrong – that’s just ageist.

Peter Bradshaw’s Bechdel Test Score: 2/6

Danny Elliott

Danny is the Communications and Fundraising Officer at Age UK London

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