Saturday 28 March 2009

The History Book On The Shelf...

Sorry to start this post by setting the cultural barrier quite low... if you don't recognise the lyric in the post title, then consider yourself much more highbrow than me.

As promised, The History Boys by
Alan Bennett. I did the unthinkable and came to this play through the film first - in fact, I still haven't seen it on stage, but I have read it. What first attracted me to the film was the shots of Magdalen in the trailer - I thought it would be fun to see my place of residence on the big screen. As it turned out, the shots from the trailer were about all you saw of Magdalen in the film. Which makes sense, as they only go to Oxford towards the end...

A bit of plot synopsis, for those who don't know. It's a 1980s boys' school, and eight students are going for a place studying History at Oxford. They have a wise, quirky, lonely teacher Hector - and in is brought a savvy, slightly awkward teacher Irwin. In between is the quite wonderful feminist teacher Mrs. Lintott. The play is really about different styles of knowledge and uses of it, and the purposes of education. Hector has taught them enormous amounts of interesting facts, but focuses equally on re-enactments of famous film scenes, and practising French through rather bizarre scenarios. Irwin is all about getting them into Oxford, teaching them the way to answer interview questions which is a little edgy, a little conspicuously different. Hector thinks examinations 'the enemy of education', and thinks with the boys that he has 'lined their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact' - Irwin sees this trivia as 'gobbets' to be sprinkled into any exam or interview answer.

I didn't think much of the film. All the acting was great, but the fact that almost everyone was lusting after each other (which I missed out of the synopsis because it's complicated and quite dull) rather ruined it. Reading the play, there are so many fascinating ideas in it - alongside genuine wit - and it isn't all clear-cut. It seems that Hector is right to start with - but so much of the entertainment of the play comes from these 'gobbets', out of context, out of passionate discovery. Tricky. The depiction of Oxford is hideously out of date, even for the 1980s, but Bennett's introduction detailing his own application experiences is worth the cover price alone.
Bennett's major achievement is having so many distinct schoolchildren. So many in fiction are good or disruptive or clever-but-misunderstood, and so forth - these are all intelligent creations and memorably characterised. Dakin - cheeky, bright, canny - is the most impressive, perhaps, but I grew fond of vulnerable Posner and authentic Scripps. Having seen the original cast members in the film, they are inextricably linked in my mind - especially Frances de la Tour's beautifully sardonic portrayal of Mrs. Lintott - and this helped a reading of the play.

Do seek out a copy to read, or hopefully a local theatre will put it on (is someone still touring with it? I don't know. Obviously the original cast aren't). And you could watch the film, but it doesn't do The History Boys justice at all.


  1. I saw this play performed last year here in Washington DC, and it was great. I had seen the movie and wasn't particularly impressed although, as you say, the acting is very good. I think that because this is a story about ideas it just works better on a stage where thinks are not expected to be realistic and where characters can launch into monologues to the audience. I imagine it would be a great read--after seeing it, I wished I had a script so I could reread parts of it and really mull it over.

  2. Probably best of all is the radio version broadcast by the BBC. I think my husband must have listened to it about 6 times by now.
    Although they are poles apart, did anyone else see a similarity between Hector and Miss Brodie?

  3. Simon, I haven't seen this on screen or stage, but I did enjoy the radio version to which ctussaud refers. Stories about ideas, to borrow Tereasa's phrase, work very well on radio. This BBC version, which features the original National Theatre cast, is available on CD. The cheapest place I've seen a brand new copy is the Book Depository, but a certain store named after a river has used copies starting from under £4 (before postage). You may even be able to get it from your local library. I'm assuming that the Bodleian doesn't stock audio books.

  4. You're spot on about the film, and whats sad is that the cast in it were the cast on the tour and then in the west end and when it was on stage it was ten times better!

  5. Did you read any Umberto Ecco for your semiotics?He's so very clear in his explanations. I got quite lost in Derrida I'm afraid.

  6. My husband (who is actually a history teacher) and I went and saw a professional touring production (though not the orginal cast) in Leeds a couple of years ago. We both thought it wonderful, especially as, you say, the characters of the boys, and the leaver, compelling and often conflicting ideas of what education is about.

    Films of plays are so often disappointing. I was amazed at the difference in quality between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the film and on the stage. Like you with The History Boys I saw the film first (which I thought was weak) before seeing an unknown professional cast do a fantastic job with it in Bradford.


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