The Lady in the Van: Maggie Smith's piano playing hands

The Lady in the Van Image copyright Nicola Dove
Image caption Dame Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van

Dame Maggie Smith could be celebrating on Sunday when the BAFTA awards are handed out.

The 81-year-old actress has been nominated for best actress for her latest role as the feisty Miss Shepherd in The Lady in the Van.

But if Ms Smith is triumphant, she may be grateful to a woman from Anglesey.

In a moving scene towards the end of the film it appears Ms Smith's proficient hands, as Miss Shepherd, play the piano.

However, close up shots of her hands were performed by the talented pianist, Helen Davies from Menai Bridge - a role which came about by "chance".

She told BBC Wales: "A friend of a friend of mine fixes musicians for film sessions and recordings and things like that. He was looking for a pianist; obviously it could not be anybody young.

"They needed somebody who had old looking hands to play the part of Miss Shepherd when she gets to the day care centre in the film."

Image caption Shots of Dame Maggie's hands playing the piano were performed by Helen Davies

The film tells the true story of the relationship between Alan Bennett and Miss Shepherd, a woman of uncertain origins.

She "temporarily" parked her van in Bennett's London driveway and proceeded to live there for 15 years. It is a tale that is funny, poignant and life-affirming.

He learns Miss Shepherd was a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot and had played Chopin in a promenade concert when she was younger.

Miss Shepherd tried to become a nun, where she was not allowed to play the piano, before having a mental breakdown.

When the character goes to a residential day care centre, she sees the piano. That is when all her memories come flooding back and she plays Piano Concerto No. 1 (Chopin) on the instrument.

"You see Maggie Smith playing the piano, but they have cut it so it looks as if she is playing when it is actually my hands," Ms Davies said. "It was amazingly done."

Image copyright Nicola Dove

She went to Harrow, north London, to shoot the scene in a former elderly residential home with Ms Smith, where she had a "wonderful" morning.

"Obviously I had to wear the same clothes and she just sat and observed me playing so she could copy movements," Ms Davies added.

"She said she used to play the piano when she was young, but like a lot of girls in school, she gave up and acting took over."

Ms Davies was born in Southport into a musical family. She studied piano first at the Academy of Music, Vienna, and then at the Royal Manchester College of Music.

A busy career has followed as an accompanist, chamber musician and teacher. She has given recitals on Radio 3 and has appeared many times on BBC TV, ITV and S4C.

Ms Davies also accompanies regularly at festivals, eisteddfods and international competitions.

Image copyright Nicola Dove

With more than 60 years of acting to her name, Ms Smith is almost seen as a national treasure. Ms Davies was not disappointed following their encounter.

"She's just amazing, fantastic and was very kind and lovely," she said.

And there was no question of who was in charge on set. "She is the boss, there is no doubt about that. We probably filmed the scene four, five times, at least, and (the production team) asked 'can we do it again?'.

"She said 'no, I am sure you have more than enough material already. I am not doing it again!'"

Ms Davies also met Ms Smith's understudy. "She blocks out the moves, for example, she will work out how many steps it takes to walk across the room to do a particular scene and she did all the Downtown Abbey stuff."

Ms Davies is very proud of her role in the film. "I feel very privileged and honoured actually to have been able to a part of it," she added.

And what about the claim Dame Maggie would not have been nominated except for the talented pianist from Menai Bridge's appearance in The Lady in the Van?

"Oh, I don't know about that, I think that's probably going a bit too far," Ms Davies said.

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