How an old lady in a van inspired a stage play in 1999 and now a magnificent film adaptation
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.”
“Every theatre director dreams of a relationship with a playwright that lasts through both of your careers,” says Hytner. “I had the biggest stroke of luck in my career when Richard Eyre, who was then my boss at the National Theatre, put me together with Alan to make a big children’s show of The Wind In the Willows. We got on together so well that Alan has shown me all his stuff since. My film career has essentially been about Alan Bennett’s material.”
Bennett provides a little more insight into their close relationship. “Sometimes I’ll offer a suggestion, and he’s already made the suggestion himself. In some ways it makes you feel a bit spare in a way but anything I’ve had anything to do with him has always been so easy and so and fun really. It’s not been like work.”
Shooting on the real Gloucester Crescent
As soon as Alan Bennett and Nick Hytner started thinking about a film version of THE LADY IN THE VAN, it seemed essential to shoot it where it had actually taken place. And Bennett still owned number 23.
“The whole point about THE LADY IN THE VAN, and the whole way the story is told, requires the point of view from the writer sitting as his desk, in the bay window, to the drive and the crescent. That’s the irreducible unit of the film,” says Hytner. “When you see it, you start to get a really clear idea of how it was and how he tolerated the story on his doorstep. The drama of it is not so much what actually happens but what the writer sees and how he then arranges it into first literature, then theatre, then cinema. It was essential we were there at the real desk, looking through the real window, at the real crescent. The added advantage is that the entire film is as authentic as any film you’ll see. These were real events that happened in this real street and we are watching what things looked like and what they felt.”
For Hytner, there is nowhere else in London quite like Gloucester Crescent. Aesthetically, it is interesting and beautiful and a film director’s dream. And importantly, it has barely changed in the nearly 60 years since Miss Shepherd first drove into the street. An early recce by Hytner, Bennett, Loader and production designer John Beard to see what would need to be done to take the street back in time confirmed the answer was: Very little. Instead, they found a wonderful continuity about the street. Bennett had done virtually nothing to modernise the interior or exterior of number 23 and few other households had added extensions or painted their houses. It helped that Gloucester Crescent is a conservation area, which makes those kind of changes very difficult to get authorised.
However, to shoot on the street required closing it for five weeks and the team were sensitive to the needs of the residents for whom filming would undoubtedly prove an upheaval. Location manager Dan Connolly first wrote a letter to the residents, setting up a channel of communication between them and the filmmakers, which included a website. Bennett then signed a letter to everyone in the street and gave them a copy of his original memoir of the The Lady In The Van. The filmmakers then invited the residents to a meeting in a nearby pub at which the residents responded favourably to the idea.
“Gloucester Crescent is still a street largely populated by people in the creative industries,” says Loader. “There are still some residents who were there at the time and who still live there and others who were the children of those who lived there. Once we realised it wasn’t full of foreign oligarchs and cosmetic surgeons we thought we were in with a chance. But they were all worried about how they were going to take their kids to school and how the on-line delivery was going to get through. All the important things about living in London!”
The production opted for a street closure rather than a pavement closure to prevent people from walking down the street. Alternative parking arrangements were made in nearby streets as the production filled the street with its own cars. The production design incorporated a subtle progression of period cars and the change in fashions to signify the passing of those 15 years.
Shooting in the Crescent and number 23 itself had a significant impact on the actors. “It helped me enormously that we were filming in the house and the garden where it all happened,” says Jennings.
Shooting in situ had a more complicated effect on Smith, for whose character the story was a much darker one. “It was not scary exactly but it’s always rather strange to be playing someone who was real,” Smith explains. “And Miss Shepherd lived in that place. Because we had everything there, the van, the driveway and Alan’s house, it really was strange. It sometimes spooked me out. So convincing was the van at times that I would look and think, ‘Perhaps she’s there and going to tell me something helpful’.”