Tuesday 30 April 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: The History Boys, by Alan Bennett (4*)

I bought the movie version of The History Boys years ago - I think I was at uni, so it was probably when it first came out on DVD - but I barely remember a thing about it.  I think I attempted to watch it with my ex, who wasn't exactly keen on 'smart movies', plus I'd never actually read the play and struggled to keep up with the quick-fire banter and the many literary references!  In case you haven't come across it before, it's basically a play about eight boys trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge, under the watchful eyes of old romantic Hector and young tutor Irwin.  Anyway, I DO remember chuckling away at the boys' cheek, and Richard Griffiths being wonderful, so when I heard that he'd passed away recently it seemed like revisiting it would be a fitting tribute.  This time I hit the library and got hold of a copy of the book first, hoping that I'd maybe catch some of the wordplay and nuances better that way, and then I dug my DVD out again at last!

The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
(Faber and Faber, 2004)

"How do I define history?  It's just one fucking thing after another..."

The first thing I have to say about this book is that I really enjoyed Alan Bennett's introduction.  Obviously the point of a play is to be watched, and reading the script isn't for everyone, but a good introduction is always a valuable addition to the experience, as far as I'm concerned.  Bennett's is wryly amusing and very interesting, particularly for someone younger, like me, who tripped into higher education in the noughties when the whole process and meaning was rather different.  It explains the play's firm roots in Bennett's own journey through the education system, and points out little elements of various characters that come from the playwright's life and the people he knew.  It was nice having that context in mind when I started reading!

Now, onto the play itself.  I thought it was wonderful!  As with so much of Bennett's work, it managed to combine provocative thought and deep themes with giggle-aloud humour and irresistable literary eloquence.  Although several of the boys took a while to straighten out in my mind, the majority of the characters (both students and teachers) are larger than life and so utterly real that I felt like I was sitting in that classroom listening to the banter and the ribbing, rather than reading a script.  And it's so FUNNY!  I'm sure we all remember certain people - boys, in particular - who lit up a classroom with their sense of humour, were often a bit racy or pushed their luck on occasion, but who charmed everyone including the teachers.  These boys are like that, and it made reading the script such a delight!

In between the hilarity, there are also some really interesting points and discussions about education and history.  Irwin's introduction of original thought by asking the boys to turn questions and concepts upside down and attack them head-on taught me more about critical thinking than I ever learned at school; if I'd read this before university my essays might have been much better!  The tension between Hector and Irwin, between educational styles and purposes, between jumping through hoops and being deliberately provocative, all mixed together into one big discussion of what elements of education are more important - and indeed, whether the mad push to get to university is worth it at all.  What I particularly liked was the way the very moving ending suggested how meaningless much of the boys' education really was, yet the memories of Hector and Irwin and the underlying lessons they taught still stood firm.  I've found that to be quite true in my own life, and it felt like a fitting conclusion!

Favourite moment:  Probably Hector's lesson, entirely in French, where he takes Dakin's sly 'brothel and client' scenario suggestion and runs with it.  The boys all join in with some delight, until the headteacher arrives and they hastily switch to a very theatrical war hospital theme.  It reminded me of some of the most funny and memorable lessons I had with certain classes and teachers at school!  Fortunately I remembered enough high-school French to get all the jokes... :)

Notable Quotables:
  • "The wrong end of the stick is the right one.  A question has a front door and a back door.  Go in the back, or better still, the side.  Flee the crowd..."
  • "The heart has its reasons that reason knoweth not..." - Blaise Pascal
  • "I count examinations, even for Oxford and Cambridge, as the enemy of education.  Which is not to say that I don't regard education as the enemy of education, too."
  • "The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
  • "Our perspective on the past alters.  Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground.  We don't see it and because we don't see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past and one of the historian's jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be..."
  • "History's not such a frolic for women as it is for men.  Why should it be?  They never get round the conference table...  History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men.  What is history?  History is women following behind with the bucket."
  • "Clichés can be quite fun.  That's how they got to be clichés."
  • "I hadn't realised how easy it is to make things happen.  You know?"

The History Boys (directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2006)
Starring Richard Griffiths and Stephen Campbell Moore

A brilliant adaptation of a brilliant play.  It's a very faithful shift from page to stage to screen, only really diverging from the original in order to set up the construct properly (as you'd expect) and to take the action out of the classroom every once in a while.  Rather than a video montage, we actually get to see the boys exploring the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, for example. 

The genius of the film, in my opinion, comes from the decision to keep the theatre cast intact.  Because it's a fantastic ensemble piece, and these characters are perfect.  Richard Griffiths is a jovial Hector, Stephen Campbell Moore is the perfect mix of bold and nervous in his portrayal of Irwin, and Frances de la Tour's Miss Lintott is an absolute delight.  And then there are the boys, many of whom are now household names and familiar faces from television and film.  Dominic Cooper, who plays the cocky young stud Dakin, is a Hollywood actor.  James Corden is everywhere.  Russell Tovey is a popular television star.  Sam Barnett was a superbly naïve Millais in Desperate Romantics.  I could go on.  Thrown together as the History Boys of the title, they breathe such life and personality into a mismatched group of bright and quick-witted students.

Bottom line?  I laughed, I cried twice - at Hector's classroom breakdown AND at the deeply moving ending, which reflected the stage directions much more thoroughly than I'd expected - and I was SO GLAD to have gone back and revisited this film properly years after I first saw it.  I'll end by linking to James Corden's tear-jerking tribute to Richard Griffiths, which is one of the things that prompted to me to read and then re-watch this superb play in the first place.  It's a beautiful tribute, do read it...

The Verdict

So, should you read or watch this one?  I'd say to do both, if you don't mind reading scripts on the page.  When I was reading the book, I appreciated the wit more, enjoyed the copious literary references and had chance to 'get' the genius of Hector's French lesson, which was hilarious.  The film then brought it all to life (as a play deserves!), separated out the characters more fully in my mind, and was more moving than ever...  Both options come highly recommended, whichever you choose!