The Lady in the Van

Film Review by Paul Guest

The Lady in the Van, directed by Nicholas Hytner

For me, this film was largely very enjoyable. Artistically, it is quite subtle. For a start, there is the device of the ‘two Alan Bennetts’ (Alex Jennings) on the screen. This struck me as a bit irritating at first, but it is effective. It may be taken as an ironic reflection of a reviewer’s comment, passed on to Bennett by a neighbour, that he can’t make up his mind – though the reviewer means that positively. The seated Bennett remarks that writing is talking to oneself, and is naturally answered by the standing Bennett. A remark by the great poet W. B. Yeats also comes to mind: that out of the ‘quarrel with ourselves’ we make poetry. Here, it could also apply to prose writing.

It is certainly not easy for Bennett to decide whether to help Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), as the ‘Lady in the Van’ calls herself. In fact he becomes more of a carer for her than for his own mother.

In the portrayal of Miss S, Roman Catholicism is a major theme. An ex-nun, she is still very devout, indeed to excess. When her first van is towed away, there is a big black cross on the back window – not, however, a Christian symbol but simply an indication that the van is disused.

That cross looks like a visual joke, and Miss S’s religious zeal is later satirised quite extravagantly, which I found a bit silly. The scenes recalling her convent life are, however, rather moving. We see that her considerable musical talent was cruelly stifled by a Mother Superior: she tells Bennett that she can’t bear listening to music.

Manners form another theme – or, rather, the lack of manners. Miss S has no use for please or thank you. Yet she isn’t the only ill-mannered character: her social worker is very abrupt, Bennett’s neighbour Rufus (Roger Allam) is offhand and two-faced, and the housekeeper who lets Bennett into Miss S’s former convent is downright nasty. Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, might look little better in these terms than Albert Square in ‘EastEnders’, though we needn’t take this seriously.

As stated in the opening credits, the story is mostly true. No doubt one needs to read Bennett’s book for background information. It would be interesting to know how much of her life Miss S related to him and also where her money came from: she was apparently able to run a car and drive over to see her brother in Broadstairs.

As Alan Bennett, both younger (in 1970) and older, Alex Jennings fits perfectly. Maggie Smith as Miss S is excellent as ever, though personally I was very conscious of watching her, not just Miss S. It was very clever to give cameo roles to actors from Bennett’s stage play and film ‘The History Boys’, notably Samuel Barnett, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Jamie Parker and Russell Tovey. Frances De la Tour, from the same cast, has a slightly bigger role as Ursula Vaughan Williams. Full credit to Nicholas Hytner, who directed both ‘The History Boys’ and this film.

As a Cockney market trader on Inverness Street, Camden Town, James Corden almost steals the show. That scene adds to the film’s local colour, though Gloucester Crescent is the main setting.


Film Review by Paul Guest

Hampstead, directed by Joel Hopkins

Superficially this film looks like a cross between Notting Hill (for older people) and The Lady in the Van. Below the surface, however, it is surprisingly substantial and even has some political implications.

I’d been expecting to like it simply for its local colour, which indeed is quite plentiful. Apart from the Heath, there are shots of Hampstead High Street, Flask Walk, some side roads and courts, and even (briefly) the 18th-century painter George Romney’s house on Holly Bush Hill.

The film has been accused of making Hampstead look permanently sunny. In fact, when Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) first appears there is heavy rain outside. Admittedly the weather brightens by the time she befriends Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson). These, then, may be examples of the pathetic fallacy, or may not.

Emily first sees Donald, symbolically, from a distance while surveying the local area with binoculars. The relationship between them develops in a fairly complex way. This is dramatically satisfying, and so is the underlying tension between Emily and Fiona (Lesley Manville), hypocritical cheerleader of Emily’s fellow residents. When Emily eventually loses patience with her, she reveals a steely side beneath her previous passivity.

In siding with Donald against the odious snobs in her block of flats, she certainly isn’t passive. They are both outsiders: she as an American widow faced with finding a smaller home, he with his shack on the Heath. Though severely stigmatised by the local snobs, he is quite harmless. As he says, “I’ve always gone out of my way to keep out of the way.” This is a plea to ‘live and let live’ and thus for tolerance. He scores a surprising victory in the end, though, in fighting for his home – like the late Harry Hallowes, the ‘hermit’ of Hampstead Heath on whom he is modelled. Admittedly the film might stereotype Hampstead’s denizens.

Some critics seem to have thought the role of Donald unworthy of Brendan Gleeson. The actor, however, clearly respected his role and took it seriously. He “liked the idea that in a ‘fairy tale love story’ there was still room to consider vital issues over ownership of land, house prices and whether it is possible to live outside what society considers ‘normal’ today.” And he remarks, “The idea of providing or withdrawing shelter from someone in order to make money is just a crazy way of living.” (Reported in Camden New Journal) Gleeson does point out one limitation to the film: “There had to be an element of antisepticness applied when we made (Donald’s) home – we couldn’t make it like Harry’s, really.” Even so, it is truly shocking to see, at one point, that his home has been vandalised.

Sadly, James Norton’s role as Emily’s son Philip isn’t so worthy of him. Philip seems to serve no real purpose, except for disapproving of his mother’s plans. He plays a slightly comic role in one brief scene, when Donald suddenly appears before him and Emily just after having a bath. This, however, looks suspiciously similar to Spike’s (Rhys Ifans) shock appearance before the paparazzi in ‘Notting Hill’.

So Norton is under-used but Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson and Lesley Manville all give strong and memorable performances. It’s too easy to sneer at ‘Hampstead’. One reviewer calls it a “ghastly faux-mance” and remarks that the musical score “sounds like it was ripped from a feature-length insurance ad.” I think the film and the score deserve better.

Bloomsbury À La Mode

New in Bloomsbury

Even though my school days are long behind me, I always approach the summer holiday period with the same anticipation as a schoolboy, though these days my wife informs me that I can’t build a fort in the garden and that I have a job to go to. As a compromise, this year my wife and I were lucky enough visit Tuscany at the beginning of the holiday period, and then hike in the Yorkshire Dales shortly before the bank holiday weekend.

Such holidays, though brief, make one pay more attention to the places where we spend time every day.

Having worked in Tavistock Square for several years, I’m always keen to notice how the area changes with the times. The old wine bar on the corner of the Tavistock hotel, Jakes, has gone, and its customers grumbly donned their overcoats and set off in search of their new haunt. In its place is now a bright and busy Korean chicken restaurant called Wing Wing, which, after some necessary research, I discovered to serve rather good food.

There is a huge amount of building work going on with our university neighbours.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is celebrating its centenary and have had a complete refurbishment of one of their 1930’s courtyards, by covering the yard with a spectacular roof and providing brand new space for the student union. Luckily, Lyndales had a charming work experience chap who was a SOAS student and so I managed to have a look round and take some photos.

University College London (UCL) appears to be colonising most of the north-west side of Bloomsbury. The new architectural school has opened a beautiful testament to the subject taught within its classrooms. I popped in to see the Summer Show, which showcased the interesting, if sometimes confusing, work of its students. Its opening followed the Law Department conquering of a chunk of Camden’s old administration offices in Bidborough Street – the current eastern outpost of UCL.

What has not changed is the speed of the development at the back of King’s Cross and St Pancras Stations. It is astonishing to walk around the development a week after your previous visit and find new access ways and buildings have opened, and other parts of the site closed as the building works move round.

The latest arrival is the pedestrian-only Somers Town Bridge, which elegantly curves from just outside the Camley Street Nature Reserve across the Regent’s Canal, barely ten metres from St Pancras Lock. It deposits you on a new promenade, which leads you past the Fish and Coal Building back into Granary Square. You can see frantic activity surrounding the Cold Drops, the latest part of this amazing development to be transformed from decaying Victorian industrial structures to retail units housed in these grand old buildings.

The pace of change can sometimes leave one feeling a little lost. Winding my way back through the shops at St Pancras Station towards my office one day, I crossed back over the road and thought I had found a nice place to have a coffee – the building on the corner of Mabledon Place and Euston Road. Embarrassingly, it turned out to be the Unison HQ, now called the Halo Building only open for Halo office owners only.

Change to our local landscapes reminds me how London never stays still, and how the same area can be explored again and again.

Stan Harris OBE

No Escape from Mr Dickens

My wife and I are standing in a long queue of hot, sweaty passengers unhappy at the delays caused by Italian traffic security at Pisa airport. I strike up a conversation with a smiley lady in front of us who, I find out very quickly, is from Sydney, Australia flying to Bristol by EasyJet and has six children scattered around the world. We exchanged pleasantries and she tells me that she has been at an international conference in nearby Carrera – the famous marble quarrying area near Pisa.

“Conference on what?”, I ask.

“Oh, I have just attended the Charles Dickens International Conference, as part of the International Dickens Society”.

“Why in Carrera” I ask. Michelle (we were on first name terms by then) reminded me that Charles Dickens spent a couple of summers in this part of Italy in the 1840s. I then can’t resist telling her that I am a Camden guide and that it is virtually impossible to do any walk in Central London, but particularly in the Bloomsbury area without mentioning the great Charles Dickens.

Michelle then got quite excited when I told her that my offices were actually next door to Tavistock House, an old home of Charles Dickens, where he wrote Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Hard Times. She has travelled all over the world with the Dickens Society and next year the International Conference was meeting in her home town of Sydney, Australia. She pretty much told me that I needed to be there!

She said that she has been president of the Society for a year then gave me her card – it turns out she is a member of the New South Wales Dickens Society.

For those that do guiding, it is impossible to avoid Mr Dickens. On reading the latest edition of The Big Issue, there was story about one of The Big Issue vendors, Dave, who sells the magazine near the Charles Dickens museum. As a result of the museum’s intervention, he met a lady called Marianne Lloyd, who turns out to be none other than the great, great granddaughter of the famous novelist.

In Camden, Mr Dickens is everywhere. He is in Somers Town, he is in Cleveland Street, he is in Tavistock Square and of course, mostly he is in Doughty Street – the only original house that Dickens lived in, which still exists and which houses the Charles Dickens’ museum. I also now know that Mr Dickens is truly everywhere, inspiring people across the globe with his much-loved fictional characters and gritty depiction of Victorian London. He’s even in Pisa airport.

info@londonpersonally for information on Charles Dickens Walking Tours in London.

Stan Harris OBE

Bloomsbury Eats

Like many people, I look forward to lunchtimes not only as a chance to get out of the office and stretch my legs, but also to explore the area and eat in one of Bloomsbury’s numerous cafes. Even in a relatively settled Bloomsbury, things change at an amazing pace. A much loved restaurant, Balfours, which was always packed out with business people and students at lunchtime and with locals and tourists in the evening has become La Bonne Vivant and seems to be rather empty most days I go past.

On the other hand, the Bloomsbury Café in its basement premises at the bottom of a small hotel in Tavistock Place continues to thrive, although sometimes finding a space amongst all the laptops and mobile phone devices in exchange for a very good flat white or cappuccino can prove to be difficult.

As with many other parts of London, the number of places where you can eat seems to grow organically every time I wonder around the area. New coffee places seem to open up with the regularity and speed of the hour hand on the Dent clock at St Pancras station.

When I moved in to the area 22 years ago, I found 50 eating establishments within 10-minutes’ walk of the office – effectively in a half-mile radius of Tavistock Square. It took you to Tottenham Court Road in the West, half-way up Evershed Street towards Mornington Crescent station to the North, Grays Inn Road in the East and as a far South as High Holborn. The result of that methodical slave-ish obsession of trying every single sandwich bar and restaurant, I found my favourites.

Three of them still exist, so I am sharing them with you. In Chalcot Street, just north of the Euston Road is Albertino’s. It was pretty much a sandwich bar originally. Now it is a fully fledged restaurant that serves some of the best pizzas and pasta in the area and where not only the food is first class but the service remains as friendly as the welcome I received the first time I ate there more than 15 years ago. Family run, I take clients and colleagues there regularly to dine. An added bonus during the summer is that there are a dozen tables outside so you can watch the interesting life that Somers Town provides, drift past as you tuck in to your delicious chicken Caesar salad or Albertino’s homemade chicken escalope.

“Wot The Dickens” in Woburn place is one of those places where I can’t quite put my finger on why I go there. Perhaps its familiarity is as comfortable as a soft blanket. As a Spurs man, I shouldn’t go there at all. Dino, a “Gooner” runs the place and can usually be spotted in the summer months in shorts texting somebody on his mobile phone. Partly I go there for the banter and partly for Dino’s half-decent sandwiches. It is the nearest of my favourite places, and whilst I can’t endorse the blackboard outside which says “the best coffee in London” they do make a decent cup of tea.

Whilst I was striding through Bloomsbury a few years ago, I found Onion’s Snack Bar on that exquisite Edwardian shopping mall Sicilian Avenue. Taylor is very much “a front of house man”. If you are walking past and he is outside, he will invariably try and tempt you in. It’s the only sandwich bar I know that serves fresh salmon and some delicious salads that go with it. Again, there is outside seating which I like as well as the invariable warm welcome from everybody at the place.

We all have our favourites, and I try and avoid the chains but I admit that having a Pret on the ground floor of my office does occasionally lend itself to a quick convenient purchase.

Some of my old favourites have stood the test of time which says something about them and the established, mixed with the new, reflects what has been going on in Bloomsbury for the past two decades.


Wanstead United Reformed Church

Looking at this imposing Grade II listed church in the east London suburb of Wanstead it would be hard to imagine its very unusual history.

Now well-connected by the Central Line and popular with young families, Wanstead in the 1860s was an Essex village with an expanding population and a growing  community of religious non-conformists without a purpose-built place of worship. They had been offered land by a Mr GH Wilkinson, but rejected as too costly the plans drawn up for building on it.

Wanstead Congregational Church Plan

The non-conformists knew a bargain when they saw one, and the bargain they saw was nine miles away on the Euston Road where the junction with Midland Road is now.  Here was a ready built church, only a few years old but already doomed by the onward march of the railway.

St Luke’s on the New Road (now Euston Road) was part of a Victorian church-building boom: 2,438 churches were built or re-built in England between 1851 and 1875 and St Luke’s was one of several planned to serve the needs of the ever-expanding  population in the large urban parish of St Pancras.

Money had been short and work was slow.  It took five years to complete the project and even then funds were insufficient for the tall spire on top of the tower.

The smart new building of Kentish ragstone with Bath stone dressings, designed by architect John Johnson, finally opened in 1861.  However, the church was no competition for the might of the railway companies.  A mere two years after the church was completed, the Midland Railway Company secured an Act of Parliament that would allow it to extend its line down to London, compulsorily purchase the land in its way (including that occupied by the church) and replace it with the cathedral-like splendour of St Pancras Station.

Pragmatically, the church quickly capitulated, accepted £12,500 for their early surrender of the land and were allowed to keep the fabric of the building.

At this point those astute non-conformists in Wanstead made an offer of £526 to buy the fabric of St Luke’s.  This was accepted: Mr Reed a Walthamstow builder dismantled and transported the materials to Wanstead  at a cost of £2,000.  Even the crypt under the church was brought from the original site!  John Johnson, the original architect, was commissioned to adapt his design to fit the rather different shaped and sized plot of land available.

As for St Luke’s, they had enough money from the deal to commission Basil Champneys to build a replacement safely out of the way of the railways in Oseney Crescent, Kentish Town.

Part of St Luke’s parish church, Oseney Crescent, Kentish Town, London NW5, seen from the south CC BY-SA 2.0