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.”