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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 years."

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 Films.

"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 explains.

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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