The Lady In The Van
WHEN Alan Bennett allowed a vagrant old lady living in a busted Robin Reliant to park in his Camden Town driveway, it was, what he called, an act of “writerly selfishness”. Mary Shepherd had landed mysteriously on his street and was attracting attention, both the wrong kind (hoodlums, authorities etc) and the more welcome sort (kindly neighbours gave her clothes and food). While perhaps not simpler, Bennett reasoned at the time, life would be quieter with the van parked safely in his driveway rather than out in full view on the pavement.
What was meant to be three weeks turned into 15 years and provided ample material for Bennett’s much-loved 1989 non-fiction work The Lady In The Van. Maggie Smith played Mary in the subsequent radio play and Bennett’s 1999 stage version, and is formidable here again as the hygienically suspect and wildly anarchic old bat about whom he observed with typical Leeds dryness: “One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.”
There is an unsurprising buoyancy about Bennett’s own screenplay that is very pleasing, especially in the nicely weighted sideways interludes where Bennett (Alex Jennings, superb) is bickering with himself, one half chiding from the desk, the other twitching the curtain in horror at Miss Shepherd’s latest perversity.
Longtime Bennett collaborator Nicholas Hytner directs a film as English as pasties and Pimm’s, but with a sting in the tail here and there that do the overall project a great service. Good work. 4/5
First published in the Sunday Independent