A lot of newspapers and radio programmes have been talking about The History Boys over the last month or so. It was a very successful Alan Bennett play – originating on the small screen, performed at the London West End before moving to New York’s Broadway.
It was as if the actors were still on stage. Despite being on film, the backdrops to each scene were static and looked staged. The only movement came from the pupils and teachers walking across the stagnant set. Yes the school boys didn’t look as old as they are. Yes the casting is perfect. But no, it still feels like a stage play or TV drama.
If you’re planning to get last minute tickets to see the current run at the reborn Grand Opera House, there are only seats available for the matinee and evening shows tomorrow (Thursday). And don’t read on … in case I spoil the plot.
Following their successful A-level results at a state grammar school, the boys are being crammed for the Oxbridge entrance exams and interviews. The teachers think they know each other, but don’t. The headmaster demands results, and under-appreciates his current staff. There’s a clash between old fashioned teaching methods and young whipper snappers just out of teacher training.
The main educational theme running through the story is one of rounded education and motivation leading to big results. But the story also raises awkward questions about standards and how society’s opinion of wrong and inappropriate changes over time.
Hector is fat, gay, entertaining, and enjoys giving pupils a ride home on his motorbike so he can have a quick feel at some point during the journey. Today most kids would have him reported to the police before they got in the front door. Back in the 80s, the boys in the story have all warned each other that it would happen; they have strategies for getting in his way and frustrating his wandering hands.
Is it abuse? Yes. It was in the 80s. And it still is now. But Bennett seems to condone Hector’s flaw, underplaying its significance and how it takes advantage of the boys. But then they are over 18 and only back at school to apply to Oxbridge, and their prior awareness does point to informed consent … is it that actually still part of the abuse.
Alan Bennett was interviewed in the Guardian ...
All the same, it’s still uncomfortable viewing at times, mixed in with the music, the song, the poetry, the culture that enriches every other scene.
‘… The History Boys also scratches the surface of a subject most prefer to ignore. Hector's flaw is to grope his pupils while they ride pillion on his motorbike - "I only discovered it's an impossible manoeuvre after I'd written the play," says Bennett - while Irwin succumbs to pupil Dakin's offer of a quick blow-job (though an accident prevents it from happening).
Bennett laughs off any suggestion he is condoning paedophilia. "The boys are all consenting adults," he says, "and Hector's behaviour is very unthreatening. The boys all consider him to be a bit of a joke and just tolerate it as part of the price of his eccentric teaching style. I didn't write in his death to redeem his transgression, I did it to make the drama work."’
As well as the oft-quoted
“How do I define history?
It’s just one f***ing thing after another.”
there are other gems scattered throughout the film.
Mrs Lintott - “History is a commentary on the various continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with a bucket?”
One to go and see – but keep your eyes and brain open – and let me know how you find it.