Half way through new film The Lady in the Van, Alan Bennett is asked if he is in two minds. As there are two identical Bennetts on screen, one says “Yes!”, the other “No!”.
Yes: Alex Jennings plays two Bennetts. This device is carried over from the stage play, an adaptation of Bennett’s memoir The Lady in the Van, and it’s remarkable that it made it into the film. But the fact that it did is what makes this movie so special. Bennett’s detailed self-examination takes the film beyond its feelgood marketing campaign to contribute to current debates around charity and its practical implications.
Together with Maggie Smith’s astonishingly detailed and nuanced performance as Miss Shepherd (the lady), this puts the film in a different category to the kitsch Hollywood trope of “impossible outsider descends on normal people and makes them rediscover their humanity”. It also places Bennett as someone who (very reluctantly) can be looked up to as living his political ideals, while not wanting recognition for doing so. Bennett has written a film which shows him as a quiet radical, beneath the well-loved façade.
Miss Shepherd (not her real name) first came to Bennett’s attention in the early 1970s, when he bought a house in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town. She eventually set up residence outside his house in her van when other neighbours (described as “liberal artsy types of the newly-gentrified neighbourhood”) were keen to move her along.
Miss Shepherd was a promising concert pianist between the wars, drove an ambulance during World War II, then was twice rejected from becoming a nun and developed mental health issues. Well-educated, cantankerously articulate and deeply religious, she lived in a succession of vans around Camden.
She had regular visions of the Virgin Mary, of other saints and some politicians in her local area, and founded a party that was, according to Bennett, “well to the right of UKIP”. Miss Shepherd’s complex past only became apparent to her patient but often exasperated neighbour after she died in 1989, 15 years after first having her van moved on to Bennett’s drive.
The film follows up on the consequences of charity and offers the honest assessment that such acts often come with feelings of frustration (or in Miss Shepherd’s case, “of strangulation”). You might take every human being at face value, background or odour notwithstanding, donate food and bring presents to a homeless lady who lives in a van, but she may just snatch the presents without saying thank you and tell you to shut the door – “I’m a busy woman!”.
Would this test your beliefs? Imagine returning from a celebrated performance in the West End and slipping on human faeces, chucked out of the window by the lady whose squalid van you have been tolerating outside your front door for a decade. Would it make you regret your gesture of humanity?
Bennett never wanted acknowledgement for his good deed; on the contrary, he has said that “it wasn’t, at the time, a humanitarian gesture”. His act of charity was prompted by the lack of humanity shown by others: people would smash windows and try to terrify Miss Shepherd “for a laugh” while she was parked in the street. Getting distracted and also depressed by this and being unable to work, Bennett invited Miss Shepherd into his drive. She was already spending nights in his garden hut and using electricity he ran to the van from his house, so moving her into the drive wasn’t as monumental a step as some have made out. Miss Shepherd reacted in her characteristic way: “You’re not doing me a favour, you know. I’ve got other fish to fry.”
Bennett’s alter ego in the film questions his compassion, hinting at ulterior motives, namely the plan of writing about Miss Shepherd. She died in 1989. Bennett wrote about her in diary form for the London Review of Books in 1990 – and then produced a play (1999), a radio play (2015) and a film from the material.
His work has often focused on the relationship between authorship and exploitation, picturing the author as an outsider, drawing on the lives of others as a means of self-expression. Instead of waiting for critics to do so, Bennett has always voiced ethical implications himself:
One glibly despises the photographer who zooms in on the starving child or the dying soldier without offering help. Writing is no different.
But one of the broad messages emerging from The Lady in the Van is about making protagonists out of characters whose voices would normally not be heard. This power of the individual voice, claimed by the real Lady in the Van in her lifetime, is something with which Bennett has consistently been concerned. Miss Shepherd joins a long list of fictional Bennett characters in the same line – some we would be amused to eavesdrop on, some eccentric, some so normal they would hardly ever be noticed.
We mostly engage with these people at arm’s length. We can like comments on Facebook, we can retweet pertinent articles. We can virtually welcome refugees, we can donate to hostels and buy homeless people hot drinks in passing – this is admirable charity, but it generally doesn’t impinge on our daily lives. How many, like Bennett, go further? How many are generous enough to deal with the fact that homeless people might neither be salubrious nor always grateful for our efforts?
Bennett has on occasion agreed with Kafka, who called writing “the devil’s work”: observing without joining in, drawing attention without actively helping, exploiting what is happening to others by writing about it under one’s own name. But The Lady in the Van is not the devil’s work. It is the artist’s necessary work.