Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The History Boys (film)

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.
The West End/Broadway cast starred in the film version which has been playing across the UK in October. I got to see the late showing after dinner at Ultimate Burger.
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 ...

‘… 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."’
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.
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.

5 comments:

John Self said...

Mutual tiredness prevented us from getting up off our backsides and seeing The History Boys last night, and as it's currently on only at Dublin Road Moviehouse once a day, it's likely to have gone by tomorrow. Perhaps on DVD then.

I read mixed reviews from trusted people, but generally I am one of those who is happy to accept Bennett's status as National Treasure. Most of the Talking Heads are still tremendously impressive, including the one where he 'did' what one might call 'proper paedophilia', Playing Sandwiches. As in Kevin Bacon's film The Woodsman, I think it's always more interesting and worthwhile to have a portrayal of a child abuser which is, if not sympathetic exactly, at least presenting them as a real person rather than a monochrome monster, which is what's needed to understand and prevent their actions in real life.

Alan in Belfast said...

> presenting them as a real person rather than a monochrome monster, which is what's needed to understand and prevent their actions in real life.

Yes. It's disturbing as a "modern" viewer to feel too much empathy and sympathy for Hector. But then if art and the media is to challenge culture and behaviour, then this is valid to make us think.

Which leads to some of the arguments around the Jerry Springer Opera - whether the stage version (which I saw in London and nearly walked out at the interval but stayed to the end) and the BBC2 showing.

John Self said...

Now I think about it there's a history of sympathetic child abusers in literature: most notably Nabokov's novel Lolita, which ranks in or around my all-time top ten. Perhaps great art can only ever challenge our assumptions.

I enjoyed Jerry Springer: the Opera both on stage and on screen, with my only reservations being that (given librettist Stewart Lee's record of highly intelligent comedy, usually with Richard Herring) it wasn't quite as funny or sophisticated as I thought it would be, and often the words were difficult to make out. Obviously I'm unqualified to comment on offence to religious sensibilities, though I do know of one Anglican vicar and family who thought it superb and highly Christian.

Curious_tan said...

I did watch in Grand Opera House. It was sold out, but I was able to get a ticket one hour prior to the show aat half the price. It was an interesting play. Unfortunately, I havent seen the film yet. Rey

jamesewan (demob happy) said...

Alan, I have to agree that the production was very flat, not just stagey but sub-soap opera standard. I don't think plays can automatically become films just by sticking a camera in front of them, and the fact the film was directed by a theatre director was telling. They failed to compensate for the fact that plays depend in part on that special tension between the performers and audience at the theatre, of course absent in film. I agree also that I wasn't really comfortable with the way the play excuses Hector's touching up his students.