Saturday, March 10, 2007

The History Boys

It’s the sparkling dialogue and cracking one-liners (‘History is just one f’ing thing after another’) that carries the film of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’.

A boys’ grammar school in Yorkshire during the 1980s is trying to prepare its most talented cohort for Oxford and Cambridge. In attempt to give them some ‘polish’ the acerbic head recruits Mr Irwin. His moral relativism and intellectual detachment stands in contrast to Hector’s (played with gusto by Richard Griffiths) liberal, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, ‘pass it on, pass it on’. There’s a memorable conflict over the Holocaust.

However grammar schools those pale imitations of the independent sector – houses, masters in tweeds, classics – were largely gone by the 1980s. And Yorkshire in the 1980s? The social and economic background was the backwash from the Ripper trial, industrial decline and the miners’ strike. Cutler’s Sheffield Grammar School exists in a vacuum. See David Peace’s brilliant novels for the backdrop.

‘The History Boys’ fails to explore the tensions between the boys’ own home life and the faux public school values, something that Alan Bennett wrote about extensively in his autobiography (see also Richard Hoggart in ‘The Uses of Literacy’). Most teachers will be uncomfortable with the attempt to justify paedophilia as Hector having a grope with the boys on his motorbike; after all they even have a rota to enjoy this privilege.

Some of the comic acting is first rate; the re-enactment of ‘Brief Encounter’ by two of the boys was worth the ticket price, but the film does struggle in adapting from the stage, consequently the ending looks contrived.

Rating 7 out of 10.


Yorkshire is one of those pockets (like Buckinghamshire) that still operates a Grammar School system. - or at least were toward the end of the 80s when I met some people from there...

And I've always thought Alan Bennett's world a little... detached from the one I inhabit (still love it, though)
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