As a young director living in North London in the early 1980s, Nicholas Hytner often used to walk down a glorious Victorian sweep of a street called Gloucester Crescent. Then, as now, Gloucester Crescent was a pretty, leafy street on which lived many famous names from London’s stage and literary worlds, including director and TV presenter Jonathan Miller, writer and journalist Claire Tomalin, playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, novelist Alice Thomas Ellis and playwright Alan Bennett.
As Hytner strode through on his way to the urban bustle of Camden High Street, he would try to work out who lived at which house. He knew Alan Bennett lived at number 23. It was a lovely house not dissimilar to others in the street. But what marked out number 23 was the entirely unlovely, dirty and decrepit yellow van parked in its drive, under which was crammed various layers of detritus, old shopping bags and bits of carpet.
Hytner was aware an old lady of indeterminate age lived in the van. She was a well-known figure around Camden Town – what locals tend to call a ‘character’– sometimes mocked and persecuted by passers-by. Hytner also noticed a strange system of wires running between the van and the house. What he didn’t know was what the van and the lady had to do with Alan Bennett.
“I could not work out what this yellow van was or who this old lady was. I wondered briefly if she was his mother. But then I thought he can’t be keeping his mother in a van in the drive,” Hytner recalls. “I would walk on by.”
The director and the playwright did not meet properly until several years later in 1989, which turned out to be just after the lady had died and the van had gone.
“I visited number 23 to talk about what became the first play [The Wind In The Willows] in a long collaboration,” Hytner remembers. “It didn’t occur to me to ask what that yellow van was. I later discovered nobody ever asked him what the van was, even when it was there. The English are too polite.”
When Bennett had first moved into the Crescent in the late 1960s, the woman, whom he came to know as Miss Shepherd, was already living in the van, although further up the street. He gradually became aware of her as she and the van drifted down the Crescent, as she systematically outstayed her welcome outside every other house.
“Over about a year or so she got to the bottom of the slope which is where number 23 is and she was parked opposite,” Bennett explains. “She couldn’t go any further as I don’t think the van worked at that time. I got used to her being in my eye line as I sat working at the bay window.”
Slowly Bennett became the person she related to in the street. “Because I lived just opposite,” he says. “She used the loo once or twice, which appalled me really and I think she once used the telephone. But she didn’t ever want anything, not food or anything like that.”
For a while Miss Shepherd was parked legally on the street. An understanding Camden Council painted yellow lines on the road as far as the van and then started them again on the other side.
“But eventually they decided she couldn’t be parked there and they decided they had to move her on,” Bennett remembers. “At that point I said she could put the van in the drive, thinking it would be for a few months. It turned out to be 15 years.
Read the full story & interviews in the November edition of the Showfilmfirst Magazine…