This is my review of The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett.
Already produced as a memoir and well-received play, the tale of the eccentric “Miss Shepherd” who squatted in a dilapidated van on the forecourt of Alan Bennett’s London home for fifteen years, has now become a film. It is marked out by Maggie Smith’s superb and flawless performance which captures a sense of the maddening, manipulative woman who is tolerated, and even helped in an ineffectual way, by a possibly somewhat caricatured group of comfortably off, self-styled liberal-minded middle class neighbours too polite to behave otherwise.
Commencing in the 1970s, the drama has the nostalgic air of past, somehow more innocent and less fraught times, predating the tight parking restrictions, health and safety concerns and care plans for the elderly (however inadequately implemented) of today. When the council comes round with a yellow-line painting machine, Alan Bennett caves in and allows the new van donated by a local titled Catholic do-gooder to be driven onto his driveway. It is not long before Miss Shepherd conducts her ritual of plastering the vehicle with yellow paint thickened with lumps of Madeira cake.
Alan Bennett’s kindness overlies the writer’s irrespressible urge to milk Miss Shepherd’s potential for future publication. Such is the old lady’s reticence that he does not discover the full facts of her life until after her death, which lead him to reflect that, despite her years of confined existence, she has in some ways had more firsthand experience than he has, relying on observing others from the safety of his comfortable and essentially conventional life.
The story is full of humour as when Alan’s assumption that Miss Shepherd’s claim to having been “followed home by a boa constrictor” is a sign of her madness is undermined by the discovery of a snake in a neighbour’s garden following a mass escape from a local pet shop. Yet beneath the laughter is the deep sadness of the wasted life of a talented pianist who was forced to give up playing following her insistence on becoming a nun, a calling to which she was clearly completed unsuited. There is also the tragedy of as society which cannot cope with an individual who is highly talented yet difficult to the point of being labelled mad – also the irony of the social services coming too little too late to the scene, and failing to understand Alan’s pragmatic, literally “hands off” support. Bennett pulls no punches over the squalor involved in van-life, and captures all too accurately the indignities of old age, the incontinence, increasing unsteadiness, aggravated by poverty. So, one ends up laughing but also sad for a tale of lost promise and over intimations of one’s own fate in old age, and guilt over not helping elderly people more.