I remember when I first read about Ms Shepherd, the subject of Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van. I was living in Brighton at the time and reading and reading. It was great. Books in the UK are relatively cheap, Radio 4 offers an almost inexhaustible supply of suggestions to keep you busy, I had plenty of time of time on my own to occupy with reading. In addition to these factors was also the fact that this was a couple of decades ago and I did not need reading glasses, so pretty much always had a book with me – even when walking – and also I did not own a tablet because they had not been invented yet and even if they had been, there was virtually no internet to connect to and nothing like the amount of content we have access to these days if you did.
These were the days when you you heard something on the radio and made excuses to keep pottering about, extending the tasks you were engaged in so that you could carry on listening. This was how jam used to get made. One year, Radio Four decided to broadcast Stephen Fry reading the first Harry Potter book, unabridged. I was literally stuck in the kitchen for hours, even though I had read the book before. Happy times.
The story of The Lady in the Van formed part of a book of memoirs called Writing Home, and I can still remember how much I enjoyed the book (which I still have) and how clearly The Lady in the Van was the stand-out section for me. The whole idea seemed insane, that someone would allow a vagrant woman – and an ungrateful one – to live in a van in their driveway for fifteen years seemed insane. I am not sure what the streets of London were like in the mid-seventies, but the streets of Brighton in the 90s were fast filling up with lost beings, sleeping rough. Brighton, being a tourist town not only attracted refugees who could afford a roof over their heads like me, but plenty who figured the resort would provide rich pickings and charity – only to find a huge number of people had already had the same idea.
I am always really wary of seeing film adaptations of books I have enjoyed, but as this was a memoir, and as Maggie Smith was playing the Lady – and you can pretty much work out how that was going to go – I was looking forward to it. Plus. I have not read the original for pretty much two decades so I thought enough time had elapsed to prevent me getting too enraged.
The film opens out the story a bit – drawing on other areas of Bennett’s life from the same era that is recorded in the rest of the book, in particular the changing relationship he is expereincing with his mother, who develops dementia. The diary has more than the film to say about this, and the film includes it more to make the point that he inadvertently becomes the unwilling carer for this stranger, while his mum ends up in a home miles away, finally unable to recognize him.
It also invents a couple of characters- or at least fleshes them out, who act as a sort of Greek Chorus on the saga as it unfolds, and it also follows Ms Shepherd when she leaves the street from time to time, which of course does not happen in the book, as the entries are recorded from his home.
The other thing the film does – and I am still not sure about this – is to create two characters for Alan Bennett: Bennett the writer and Bennett the man who is living in the house, and the two bicker constantly about the nature of writing, the level of his involvement and why he is involved at all. I guess this device allows for the sort of internal musings that the diary form allows, but I found it a bit distracting. I find this happens quite often. My mind starts to split off from the story as I step back and watch it more as the result of a problem-solving exercise. How they have adapted one form into another. I am looking forward to watching it again now I have the ‘technical’ viewing over with and can enjoy the Englishness of the film and its story.
The film makes more of Ms Shepherd’s musical history and her twice-failed attempts at joining the nunnery down the road than the book, which offers these as part of an epilogue, based on information that Bennett learned after her death. Indeed, he remarks in his diary that he learned more about her in the few weeks after she died, than in the fifteen years she lived in his front garden.
I re-read the diaries when I got home and one thing the film got absolutely was the lack of over sentimentality that Bennett has towards his guest. Having said that, while other liberals in the street are offering up leftovers from supper or Xmas presents from their kids to teach them about charity, it is ultimately Bennett, who with one gesture, offers what no one else has been able to: the purest and most practical of assistance to this estranged and abandoned woman – sanctuary.