THIS is a tale of two tramps: The Lady in the Van and The Man in the House.

I interviewed Alan Bennett at his house on a rare free day during the filming of The Lady in the Van last autumn. He lives in the middle of a tasteful London crescent – pastel pink to the left, pastel blue to the right. His house in the centre is pared back to the stone, exposing dark, menacing greys, browns and maybe half a dozen different hues of black.

It looked like just the sort of place that would attract The Lady in the Van, Miss Shepherd, a bag lady who lived in Alan Bennett’s drive for 15 years, but he put me straight on that. “No, the episodes with Miss Shepherd happened when I was living in Camden. I’ve since moved to a house without a drive.

“I doubt if she or we could get away with it now for all the health and safety regulations. It was a period piece for the seventies. I wonder if Maggie Smith knew she was exchanging one period piece for another. I think Maggie wanted to play Miss Shepherd in my drive to escape from the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey.

At about the same time Alan Bennett was dealing with his ‘Lady’, an Oxford couple were playing host to The Man in the House, but with a subtle difference.

Vanessa and Michael Pickwoad bought a four-storey student house in the autumn of 1977 with around a dozen rooms in Warnborough Road, North Oxford. On the day of the viewing several of the student rooms were locked, so the Pickwoads bought the house, if not blind then with one eye closed.

The building was, as Vanessa said “in a very apologetic state and needed a lot of work. One of the students was rather militant, probably saw us as enemy capitalists and trashed her room bringing down the ceiling.

“We moved into what was then a building site when I was seven months pregnant with our second child and managed to carve out areas for a kitchen and a bedroom for a baby. The district nurse came by to inspect and asked if we really thought this was an acceptable environment for a newborn.

“We kept our nerve and slowly started making the house into a home for our third daughter, Amy, in 1979. We took our time and it was still pretty much a ‘work in progress’.

“During my third pregnancy Michael was often away working. I started to notice strange things happening. Food would go missing and I couldn’t understand why he would not tell me when he was going to polish off the cheese in the fridge and drink all the milk.

“I was getting more and more irritated and larger and larger by the day. I didn’t mind Michael doing it, but I had to waddle down to the shops with two little kids in tow to replenish the larder. It wasn’t fun.

“Then money started to go missing from my purse which I often left somewhere downstairs. I didn’t mind the money if Michael was short of a bob or two, but he could have the courtesy to ask me before he took it.

“Finally my purse went missing altogether.

“We rang the police and they took hours to come. In the meantime our next door neighbour rang and said they’d found a bag in their back garden and thought it looked remarkably like mine.”

When the cops arrived they asked if things had gone missing before. Vanessa frankly admitted that yes, there had been a long string of problems without pointing the finger at Michael.

One of the cops muttered, “He must have been doing it for years. Lady I’m afraid you’ve been living with someone, an unacknowledged lodger, since you moved in.”

Oxford Mail:

  • Interview: Bill Heine with Alan Bennett

Vanessa did not see how that could have happened.

“We’ve changed the front door locks and surely we would know if someone was living here.

“We would have heard them and there’s also the little matter of the loo.

“Of course we do not bolt the side door and it has a single Yale lock which we don’t use because… well, this must be one of the safest streets in England. The head of MI6, Colin McColl, lives just down the road. The place is crawling with Secret Service men, plain clothes officers – all wearing black.”

The policemen had a word of advice. “Bolt the side door tonight and let’s see what happens.”

Vanessa said: “Shortly after we turned the lights out, we heard someone trying to get in, then a rattling of the door and a scuttling of feet as the would-be intruder drifted away.

“In the time this was a student house there must have been umpteen sets of keys cut. I can imagine being colonized by a quiet, well-mannered student not leaving any signs of life behind – a kind of “snotter”, a snobbish person not exactly a squatter.”

Now that the culprit was ‘identified’ they both had confessions. Michael said “I thought Vanessa had maternal amnesia. She was barmy and difficult because she was pregnant.”

Vanessa said: “After all that cheese and my small change, I thought he was most inconsiderate. But we were very reassured when we found out it was only ‘The Man in the House’.”