DuJour Navigation

A Tony-Winning Playwright Seeks Inspiration from His Own Backyard

Alan Bennett’s very personal new film is based on a real-life experience spanning 15 years

When the Tony-winning playwright Alan Bennett first met Miss Shepard, he had no idea what their relationship would bring. At the time, Bennett was a London homeowner and Shepard was a neighbor of sorts, a local institution who lived in her van, parked on his street. When her four-wheeled domicile began to cause trouble, Bennett invited Shepard to move her van into his driveway, a situation that lasted for 15 years. Bennett wrote an essay about the arrangement for the London Review of Books and would pen a play on the same subject. Now, a film version of the story starring Maggie Smith is set for release. Here, Bennett explains the situation behind the story and reflects on the years he’s spent writing about it. 

This movie is based on your real-life experience, but before it was a movie it was an essay and then a work on stage. How did it end up on film?

Well what happened was, Miss Shepard, who was in my drive, died in 1989. That happened to be the 10th anniversary of the London Review of Books, and they asked me whether I would write something. And I thought about writing about Miss Shepard. So I then wrote a very slim volume about her, not thinking it would make much of anything. Then over the next 10 years—I’m a slow worker—it gradually sort of gelled. And I thought I could make it into a play. So that happened in 1999, and Maggie Smith played Miss Shepard. I think at that point there was some talk about it coming to Broadway. Maggie said she’d only do it if I played myself, and I couldn’t really face playing myself. So then it went into storage, and then it just happened that Nick [Hytner, the director] was talking to Maggie a couple of years ago and asked was there anything she wanted to do. She said she always regretted not doing this, and that’s how the film started.

Was it something you wanted to spend more time with?

If Maggie Smith says she wants to do something—and I’ve worked with her four or five times and it’s always a joy—I’m very happy to turn it into a film script. 

Did that require much heavy lifting on your part? 

The first script I wrote was more about me than about Miss Shepard. And although Nick and I only live about five minutes from each other, this was done by correspondence. I put the script through his letterbox and he put notes on it and put it through my letterbox. But anyway, he said, “If Maggie Smith was in the film, the audience would want to know more about Maggie Smith than they would about [you].” And so, I then re-wrote it and sent it—as it should be anyway—with much more on Miss Shepard. 

How much—content wise—has everything shifted from what you originally wrote for the Review of Books? 

Well, I think what happened in life is that I didn’t know anything about Miss Shepard until she died, and then she’d left a note in the van about who her next of kin was. This turned out to be her brother, and I went to see him. And he filled me in on the details of her life—none of which I knew. He told me that she’d been a very good pianist when she was young, and had been a pupil of Cortot in Paris before the war. Then she’d become very religious. The prayers edged out the playing. She stopped being a musician and tried to become a nun. She didn’t succeed in becoming a nun. I think because she was quite a difficult woman and quite argumentative and found it difficult to submit to any religious rules. Or any rule at all, really. So they had kicked her out. Then at some point, when she was driving her van, a motorcyclist had crashed into the side of her, which wasn’t her fault. But the motorcyclist had been killed. And she left the scene of the accident. Now, technically speaking, that’s a felony. You’re committing a crime if somebody has died and you don’t wait for the police. Then you’re likely to be charged. So, technically speaking, she was, thereafter, always on the run. So these pieces of her life are much more threaded through the film than you could do on the stage. 

It’s a life that doesn’t require much embellishment. 

Oh, no. I reflected when I was writing it—her life had been much more adventurous and eventful than my own life, really. I just sat there in my house and there she was, as it were, under my nose. Very much under my nose and she’d had this eventful life. 

Have your own feelings about the real-life situation changed at all?

I don’t have any feelings about her, really. What keeps coming up is that people imagine, if you tell them the outlines of the story, they think somehow it’s a case of simple kindness of heart on my part. And it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t see myself as being a Good Samaritan. 

What is in your driveway these days?

I’ve moved out. I don’t live there anymore.