Friday, October 13, 2006

THE HISTORY BOYS - the play's the thing

THE HISTORY BOYS is a little bit like NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD. By which I mean that the stuff of which it is made is of such high quality that the resulting movie is almost bound to succeed no matter what the competence of the team behind the camera. Neil Young anchors a great live concert and with THE HISTORY BOYS - the award-winning play written by Alan Bennett and staged by Nicholas Hytner at the National - we have a superb piece of theatre.

The play is superficially extremely English and for the benefit of overseas readers I'll go into some details. (Apologies to the locals.) THE HISTORY BOYS is set in a grammar school (a state-funded school that selects pupils on the basis of academic ability and gives them a classic humanist education.) The boys have just passed their A-levels (school-leaving exams) with flying colours. As a result, instead of going on to any other university or starting work they are returning to school for yet another term in order to cram for the entrance exams to get into Oxford and Cambridge - then and arguably still the best universities in the UK. This might seem quaint but the old "Mode E" entrance was only scrapped ten years ago, although it had already been changed so that you could sit the papers in your final year of A-levels rather than returning for another "seventh" term (semester). The entrance exams tested not just Gradgrindian facts - it assumed that anyone sitting the papers would be full of facts . Rather, the exams aimed to test the capacity for original and clear thinking, personality and flair.

And of course this opens up a conflict of interest. Given the time pressures these boys are under - should they continue with their lesisurely pursuit of authentic learning for its own sake - or should they hastily bluff contrary opinions just to stand out from the crowd? Mr Hector, the history boys' teacher believes that the boys should learn for the sake of learning and be honest in the interviews. But the Headmaster - eager for quantifiable results, not inspiration - hires a young tutor to get the boys to jump through the hoops.

The mechanics of getting the boys into Oxbridge might seem anachronistic but I think the issues it touches on are absolutely relevant. The Gradgrindian headmaster wants to do well in the league tables - a rather Blairite concern - and the boys are merely cannon fodder for his campaign. I also wonder how much room there is for the sort of indulgent liberal arts degree that I enjoyed in a world where students are accumulating debt. To be sure, if I knew I was going to start my working life in considerable debt I might have been more keen to study a practical degree than waste time reading eighteenth century French utopians. These days universities are vocational training courses for investment bankers and management consultants - doctors and lawyers. Gone are the "well-rounded men".

The high drama of THE HISTORY BOYS arises from the conflict between these two modes of teaching, mediated by a third teacher - a woman who bemoans history as the study of the incompetence of men. But the real heart of the play - the real emotional drama - arises from its treatment of homosexuality. For Hector is a man whose homosexuality is an open secret and who has a penchant for being overly affectionate with his boys. And one of those boys is in love with another of them - something everyone knows.

The comedy of the piece - and it is very, very funny - arises from peculiarly English concerns. Alan Bennett is a master at ridiculing the particular class preoccupations of English society. So there are jokes at the expense of Hull and Sheffield and the best anti-Welsh joke on film since A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. There's also an absolutely hysterical five-minute skit that is entirely in French. Oddly enough, there are no subtitles which suggests to me a certain presumption about the audience on the part of the film-makers. One wonders whether they will subtitle it when the movie goes to the US. I also wonder how the US market will take to the play's rather indulgent treatment of a teacher who is, after all, fondling his students, especially after the recent peadophila scandals in the Church.

I am not sure if THE HISTORY BOYS is great cinema in terms of the camera angles, sound editing etc. I was too busy laughing hysterically or sympathising with Hector and Posner to care. It was an absolute pleasure to be in the midst of some bloody good writing and acting. And if the movie was explicitly theatrical in its staging - and especially in the denouement - this was not an issue for me at all.

THE HISTORY BOYS opened today in the UK, opens in the US on November 21st and opens in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in Spring 2007.


  1. Finally I actually know what the film's about. I keep hearing about this film without ever being told what it's about. Anyway, it sounds like it'll be worth watching.

    By the way, what does "Gradgrindian" mean?

  2. Yo Stoogy, Gradgrind is, for me, the archetype of the mean teacher. He is a character in Dickens. He doesn't believe in getting kids to think for themselves or getting them interested. He just wants to indoctrinate them with "facts, facts, facts". Laters, Bina

  3. still waiting for the review of m-antoinette,but i suggest don't bother cos' i saw the film and its nothing close to what coppola's capable of.t field's 'little children' perhaps?

  4. I wondered why Gradgrindian wasn't in the online dictionaries! lol

  5. @Insaneal. I actually rather liked M-A! Laying off the reviews though until tomorrow - after that it's 2 to 4 a day coz of the filmfest....Do you want to review M-A for this site? If so, send me an email to and I'll let you know how