Written by Alison James
Just like the Dowager Countess of Grantham, the formidable character she’s played for six years in Downton Abbey, Dame Maggie Smith doesn’t sugar-coat her words.
“I’m just surprised that I got to the end of Downton Abbey because just before it, I’d done about ten years with Harry Potter – the curious thing is, I’ve been doing things that go on and on,” she says matter-of-factly. “So I felt very old indeed by the time I got to the Dowager. I honestly am surprised that I got through it and I’m still here.”
But thankfully she’s very much still here. Dame Maggie may be 80 but she is as busy as she’s ever been. In addition to filming Downton this year, she also fitted in a feature film, The Lady in the Van, released on November 13, whose stellar cast also includes Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Gwen Taylor and Frances de la Tour. It’s an adaptation of writer Alan Bennett’s memoir of the same name and tells the true story of a Miss Shepherd who, during the Seventies and Eighties, lived in a Bedford van opposite Bennett’s house in Camden Town. After a series of attacks on her van, he suggested she move, with her van, onto his front drive. Initially reluctant, she agreed – and Bennett landed himself with a tenancy that went on for 15 years.
Dame Maggie plays Miss Shepherd, a role she originally played on stage 15 years ago. In true Maggie Smith style, she says she preferred playing Miss Shepherd to Downton’s Dowager Duchess. “While I don’t really feel close to either character, curiously I feel more at ease with The Lady in the Van than the lady with the hat on.
“It was much easier, as an actor, to be Miss Shepherd because she didn’t mind about how she looked and that was such a relief. Lady Violet was forever in those corsets and things that Miss Shepherd would never dream of getting into. For comfort alone, it was better to be Miss Shepherd!”
However playing the character did have its less comfy moments. “The van wasn’t the most comfortable of places but it was where I spent most of the time,” she reveals. “It was not very easy being constricted in a van – getting in and out was particularly difficult when it rained. The rest of the cast were in luxury in a real house.”
Playing a van-dwelling vagrant has made Dame Maggie really appreciate her own home.
“Having had a practice at not living in a house, I’m just so glad I’ve got one,” she says. “There’s no way I could live like Miss Shepherd did – I know people do live in cars and the like but surely not for as long as 15 years. I’ve lived in my home for a very long time and I dread to think what life would be like without it. It means everything to me.”
It’s highly likely Dame Maggie will be taking a well-earned break after publicising The Lady in the Van. Speaking recently she spoke of the demands of film making. “Wherever I got the idea that working on film or television would not be as stressful as the theatre I don’t know. Bette Davis was right – old age is not for sissies,” she said.
But we’re hoping it won’t be too much into the distant future before we see Dame Maggie in another iconic role. And not too long before she is interviewed on television again about her amazing career. Unbelievably, her recent appearance on Graham Norton’s chat show was her first on British television in 42 years.
And of course we will see her in the final Christmas episode of Downton Abbey!
- The last ever series of Downton Abbey is now out on DVD and BluRay
- There's more star chat in every issue of Yours, out every fortnight on a Tuesday