More to the point, how could anyone NOT ❤️ Alan Bennett? The Lady in the Van is in cinemas today, giving Karen Campbell the perfect excuse to wax joyous about this gem of a wordsmith.
I am one of the very many people who bloody love Alan Bennett. His foppish blond hair, oversized glasses, shuffling, slightly awkward demeanour and his vast array of V-neck jumpers.
This wonderful northerner has always told it as it is in the most wonderfully poignant, humorous and frank way possible. I’d really like him to be my uncle, sharing tales of Pete and Dud, Frances and Richard and good old Thora, while we sat in front of a fire (full three bars) with a cuppa, Bennett in his favourite cardi and slippers.
Today is the big-screen release of The Lady in the Van, Bennett’s much-loved tale of his relationship with Miss Shepherd, a woman who lived in a van on his driveway in Camden for 15 years. Bennett has said taking her in (or more accurately on) wasn’t out of goodwill; rather he thought her story would make good copy fodder.
How right he was: The Lady in the Van first came to life as a memoir in 1990 and had its first stage production in 1999 starring Dame Maggie Smith and directed by the other half of the Bennett dream team, Nicholas Hytner. Ten years later, it was adapted for the radio, with Smith reprising the role.
“The women he has worked with read like a who’s who of the UK’s best actresses: Alison Steadman, Julie Walters, Frances de la Tour, Patricia Routledge.”
The film version has Hytner holding the directorial reins once more and Dame Maggie Smith playing Miss Shepherd for the third time. Miss Shepherd is a cantankerous old sort with a zest for life who forges a unique relationship with Bennett (played by Alex Jennings). Bennett looks out for and after her, and, as often with Bennett, his story feels quintessentially British: what other nationality would be too polite to tell a grubby, bossy old lady to get off their drive after 15 years? Makes you proud, don’t it?
Another thing that makes Bennett such a smasher is that he writes so beautifully for middle-aged and older women. Part of the excellent Talking Heads series, A Cream Cracker under the Settee (1987) saw Thora Hird play the disgruntled, nagging and lonely Doris in a heart-wrenching tale of loss, loneliness and how we face our inner demons. It is arguably one of the most powerful and well-performed pieces of television in recent memory.
The women he has worked with read like a who’s who of the UK’s best actresses: Alison Steadman, Julie Walters, Frances de la Tour, Patricia Routledge. All of them give not just good, but outstanding performances when it comes to a Bennett script. Let’s not leave the blokes out: who can forget Michael Palin’s turn in A Private Function or Richard Griffiths’ film-stealing role in The History Boys and – my favourite – Dave Allen in One Fine Day.
A true pioneer and national treasure (he reportedly hates the term), it’s great to see a bit of Bennett lauded among big-budget Bonds and the like, especially after his hiatus for the past couple of decades. His hiatus included a very serious cancer scare (referred to in typical Bennett fashion as “a bore”), and prompted him to write his intensely candid collection of essays, Untold Stories in 2005.
Written to be read posthumously, the essays deal with his sexuality, his family’s history of mental illness, and record the frank and open daily musings of a man who excels at squinting in the mirror. Luckily for all, Bennett’s cancer went into remission and he lived to physically tell the tales, albeit in a slightly embarrassed way.
Now 81 and living with his partner of 23 years, Rupert Thomas, in Primrose Hill, Bennett can say he has been there, done that and got the V-neck tank top. He seems contented with his lot: “I’ve been very lucky in everything really – in my career and in finding someone to share my life with, and in not dying.” Love him. (National) treasure him – even if he’d really rather we didn’t.3746 Views
Karen Campbell is a life coach at www.your-dreamcatcher.com. She likes gin, James McAvoy and pretending she's not from Scunthorpe.