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 The depiction of Oxford is hideously out of date, even for the 1980s, but Bennett’s introduction detailing his own application experiences is worth the cover price alone.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.