THE LADY IN THE VAN
About The Production
As a young director living in North London in the early 1980s, Nicholas Hytner
often used to walk down a glorious Victorian sweep of a street called Gloucester
Crescent. Then, as now, Gloucester Crescent was a pretty, leafy street on which
lived many famous names from London's stage and literary worlds, including
director and TV presenter Jonathan Miller, writer and journalist Claire Tomalin,
playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, novelist Alice Thomas Ellis and
playwright Alan Bennett. As Hytner strode through on his way to the urban bustle
of Camden High Street, he would try to work out who lived at which house. He
knew Alan Bennett lived at number 23. It was a lovely house not dissimilar to
others in the street. But what marked out number 23 was the entirely unlovely,
dirty and decrepit yellow van parked in its drive, under which was crammed
various layers of detritus, old shopping bags and bits of carpet.
Hytner was aware an old lady of indeterminate age lived in the van. She was a
well-known figure around Camden Town - what locals tend to call a 'character' -
sometimes mocked and persecuted by passers-by. Hytner also noticed a strange
system of wires running between the van and the house. What he didn't know was
what the van and the lady had to do with Alan Bennett.
"I could not work out what this yellow van was or who this old lady was. I
wondered briefly if she was his mother. But then I thought he can't be keeping
his mother in a van in the drive," Hytner recalls. "I would walk on by."
The director and the playwright did not meet properly until several years later
in 1989, which turned out to be just after the lady had died and the van had
gone. "I visited number 23 to talk about what became the first play [The Wind In
The Willows] in a long collaboration," Hytner remembers. "It didn't occur to me
to ask what that yellow van was. I later discovered nobody ever asked him what
the van was, even when it was there. The English are too polite."
When Bennett had first moved into the Crescent in the late 1960s, the woman,
whom he came to know as Miss Shepherd, was already living in the van, although
further up the street. He gradually became aware of her as she and the van
drifted down the Crescent, as she systematically outstayed her welcome outside
every other house.
"Over about a year or so she got to the bottom of the slope which is where
number 23 is and she was parked opposite," Bennett explains. "She couldn't go
any further as I don't think the van worked at that time. I got used to her
being in my eye line as I sat working at the bay window."
Slowly Bennett became the person she related to in the street. "Because I lived
just opposite," he says. "She used the loo once or twice, which appalled me
really and I think she once used the telephone. But she didn't ever want
anything, not food or anything like that."
For a while Miss Shepherd was parked legally on the street. An understanding
Camden Council painted yellow lines on the road as far as the van and then
started them again on the other side.
"But eventually they decided she couldn't be parked there and they decided they
had to move her on," Bennett remembers. "At that point I said she could put the
van in the drive, thinking it would be for a few months. It turned out to be 15
The first Hytner knew of the whole story was when Bennett published a memoir of
those years in the London Review of Books' 25th anniversary edition in October
1989. The LRB's editor, Mary Kay Wilmers, also lived on Gloucester Crescent.
Bennett had taken a slight hiatus from his theatre work to work regularly in
film and TV but in 1991 he returned to a productive streak on the stage, writing
The Madness Of King George, which was directed by Hytner and performed at the
National Theatre and subsequently turned into a feature, also directed by Hytner,
in 1994. In 1999, he wrote The Lady In The Van stage play, starring Maggie Smith
as Miss Shepherd.
It has taken another 15 years for Bennett to feel ready to revisit the material
as a feature film. In 2006, he and Hytner had transformed their hit play The
History Boys into a two-time BAFTA nominated feature, as they had with The
Madness Of King George, which garnered 14 BAFTA nominations, including a win for
the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, and four Academy Award
nominations and one win. So happy had been the collaboration on The History Boys
that Bennett and Hytner were keen to work again with the film's established
British producers, Kevin Loader of Free Range Films and Damian Jones of DJ
"Those of us involved in The History Boys had been looking for something to do
together again and it was suggested THE LADY IN THE VAN had film potential,"
says Jones, one of the UK's leading producers with feature credits that include
THE IRON LADY, BELLE, ADULTHOOD and KIDULTHOOD. "I turned to Nick, Alan and
Maggie's agent and said 'What about this?' They all said they would do if the
others wanted to do it, that if Nick thought there was a movie there, they would
sign up to it. And they did, thankfully."
"It was very much a case of 'Let's get the team back together!'" remarks Loader,
whose prolific filmography takes in some of the most successful British films of
recent times, including CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, IN THE LOOP, NOWHERE BOY and
LE WEEKEND. "A film made complete sense - providing you could get Maggie."
Hytner approached Smith and the signal came back she was very interested indeed.
The production quickly gathered momentum as, thanks to Smith's shooting
commitments on Carnival Film & Television's award-winning period TV series,
Downton Abbey, the team wanted to shoot in London in the autumn of 2014.
Jones and Loader, with executive producers Charles Moore and Miles Ketley of
Wiggin, took the project to BBC Films, with which many of the team have a long
relationship and which had backed The History Boys. At the same time they
approached Tom Rothman, the then-head of TriStar Productions who had revitalised
TriStar and was running it as a joint venture between himself and Sony Pictures
Entertainment (SPE). Rothman was appointed chairman of Sony Pictures' Motion
Picture Group in February 2015, continuing to oversee his TriStar features.
"Tom had been our patron at Fox Searchlight for The History Boys and he had been
the executive for Nick on The Madness Of George at Samuel Goldwyn Films," Loader
In fact, Rothman and Hytner are close and follow each other's work. Rothman has
distributed all of Hytner's films in the US and was familiar with the stage play
of THE LADY IN THE VAN. He was also very excited by the prospect of seeing
Maggie Smith in a leading dramatic role on film.
"It was a combination of the filmmaking team and the pedigree of the material,
at the right price," says Jones of the pitch.
Principal photography on THE LADY IN THE VAN began in October 2014 in North
London. Loader took on the day-to-day producing duties as Jones' was needed in
Yorkshire where production had also started on another film on which he was
producer, DAD'S ARMY.
"THE LADY IN THE VAN is a portrait of a powerful but puzzling, extraordinary
woman who arrived from nowhere and completely took over nearly 20 years of Alan
Bennett's life," says Loader of what he loves about the story. "It's the story
of their relationship and the strange connection they developed through
bad-tempered convenience and his curiosity into her life." "All the great
universal stories are universal because they are so particular," Hytner
suggests. "Most of this story happens on a tiny patch of land. That tiny little
drive outside a particular house in North London."
He points out THE LADY IN THE VAN is also a study of how an artist creates art
and how a writer writes. "The film is also about the act of creation," he says.
"It's about Alan's realisation you don't put yourself into what you write, you
find yourself there. While Miss Shepherd is living on his doorstep he slowly
realises this is what he's got to write about. And in writing about her, he
realises important things about himself."
Writing about Miss Shepherd
Remarkably, Alan Bennett is adamant the geographical living arrangements between
himself and Miss Shepherd did not greatly impinge on him.
"She kept herself very much to herself," Bennett explains. "But when I was
writing or trying to write, it was very often just staring out of the window.
And the van was in my eye line. Her day would begin with the doors of the van
being theatrically flung wide and then various bags, contents nameless, would be
hurled out. Two white legs appeared and she would come out backwards. I got used
to all that, and of the sound of the van door. And I was slightly accommodating
to her in the sense that I didn't make a row at night if I was coming in.
"But I don't think she accommodated herself to me," he laughs. "She did exactly
as she wanted. She also had no sense of humour at all. I never saw her laugh.
She did say things which were funny which I instantly wrote down. She talked of
herself in the third person, which is always a danger sign, I think, with
people. And she talked of the nation. She had a notion of herself as a person of
some substance and equated herself with the nation's leaders.
"She was very strong-willed," he admits. "Her will was much stronger than mine.
If I would have tried to get her out it would have been such a performance that
it just wasn't worth it really. Also, I wasn't bothered about the garden, I'm
not one of nature's gardeners."
Perhaps as equally remarkable was Bennett's ability to resist the temptation to
write about the curious woman who lived just under his nose for so long.
"Ha, I've never had to resist the temptation to write! " he guffaws. "It's quite
easy to resist the temptation to write. I could see she was an interesting
subject because she was very eccentric but there would be no question of writing
about her while she was there as that would focus attention on me as well. I
didn't want people coming to look at the van or coming to look at me."
After Bennett published his memoir in the London Review of Books, Miss
Shepherd's brother contacted Bennett and filled in the many blanks about his
sister's life and how she had landed in the van. He revealed Miss Shepherd had
been an extremely accomplished concert pianist before the Second World War who
had trained in Paris with the virtuoso Alfred Cortot. He talked about Miss
Shepherd's religious fervour and her desire as a young woman to become a nun.
The reality of life in a strict convent where music was forbidden nearly broke
her, something she would suffer from psychologically throughout her life.
Her brother also told Bennett about a hit-and-run road accident with which Miss
Shepherd had been involved and how she believed she had been solely responsible
for the death of a young motorcyclist.
The discovery of the sad but fascinating details of Miss Shepherd's life, gave
Bennett the colour and the texture he needed with which to write the play. But a
problem remained - himself.
"I could see how she would make a good character in a play but I couldn't see
how I could tell my own story. That made it quite difficult to write," Bennett
explains. "It was only when I thought of splitting myself in two that I could
see how I could do it."
Hytner explains how he sees it: "I think a lot of writers and creative people
see themselves as both the person who lives the life and the person who turns
the life into literature and into art."
When it came to the film version, Bennett and Hytner spent nine months working
on the screenplay together.
"The script was constantly being revised and improved and tinkered with," Loader
explains. "Alan and Nick have a shorthand and Alan trusts Nick's judgement so
Nick asks Alan for things he thinks are missing. It was a discovery of what had
worked in the play and would work on film and a discovery of what had worked in
the play and wouldn't work in the film."
The creative team discovered a freedom that came with distance. The script for
the stage play had been written 10 years after Miss Shepherd's death. Now a
further 15 years on and Bennett felt less of a need to hold certain things back
and less inclined to stick to a precise chronology of events. For example,
knowing what he now does about Miss Shepherd which he did not know when she was
alive, the Miss Shepherd of THE LADY IN THE VAN is infused with a real sense of
regret and of what might have been that Bennett does not claim to have noticed
during her lifetime.
"She was what I was given to write about," he says. "Some writers spend their
lives writing about going to Patagonia or their time between the thighs of two
dozen women. This was rather duller but nevertheless this is what I was landed
with. That's what you have to do when you write, you just have to play the card
next to your thumb, as it were."
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