The British love Alan Bennett. One of the top ten living icons, according to the BBC, the Yorkshire native is celebrated for his combination of sharp wit and dead-on observation of British society. With The History Boys, the film based on his award-winning play, Bennett casts his satirist’s eye on the educational system, and though his work seems quite culturally specific, you don’t have to be English to appreciate Bennett’s humor, as jokes about everything from the Crucifixion to masturbation pepper what is in essence a universal story about growing up.
In the northern industrial city of Sheffield circa 1983 (think The Full Monty), a class of precocious teenage boys vies to become the first students from their school ever to be accepted to the illustrious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. While Americans might not appreciate the difference between the new British universities of the 1960s, to which most working-class Sheffield boys would have been destined, and the ancient institutions of Oxbridge, it’s clear that it would be akin to comparing a community college with the Ivy Leagues. In order to make the boys’ bid successful and improve the school’s status in the national standings, the headmaster (Clive Merrison) recruits a young Oxford graduate to polish the boys’ rough edges. Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) is “five minutes older” than the boys themselves. He immediately upsets the balance in what had become a comfortable academic environment ruled by the history teacher (and only authoritative female presence) Mrs. Lintott (the formidable Frances de la Tour), and the eccentric Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose classes—a hodgepodge of poetry, role-playing, and music—are generously titled “General Studies.” A figure of fun to the boys and an embarrassment to the administration, Hector has a penchant for motorbikes and awkward gropings of whichever boy he convinces to ride pillion. But Hector’s expansive approach to learning provides the real conflict as he is expected to concede to Irwin’s no-nonsense, goal-oriented teaching style. More alike than they realize, each teacher has his own interpretation of success as they prepare the boys for what is supposed to be the most important test of their lives.
Yet the entrance exams merely provide a focal point in the boys’ attempts to define themselves and their world. Questions of who is or is not Oxbridge material lead to interrogations of religion, sexuality, authority: Scripps (Jamie Parker), the sensible one, tries to reconcile a potential career in the Church with a teenage boy’s sex drive. Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the charmer, though carrying on an affair with the school secretary (Georgia Taylor), discovers an unwonted desire to please wherever Irwin is concerned, and Posner (Samuel Barnett), the runt of the litter, comes to terms with being both the only Jew and the only openly homosexual student at the school. There’s never a false note sounded as the boys struggle to puzzle out their future, nothing forced as there so often is when a piece is translated from stage to screen (see, for example, the over-acted adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent). This is surely due, at least in part, to the fact that most of the cast originated their roles in the first run of the play at London’s National Theatre so that they have now become, two years on, like second skins. As well, the film marks the second time Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner have teamed up to bring their production from the National Theatre to the screen (after The Madness of King George in 1994), and clearly, the collaboration works: the adaptation is both faithful to the spirit of the original and able to stand alone as a cinematic creation in its own right.
Ultimately, whether the boys get into their chosen schools almost (almost!) ceases to matter as the connections between teachers and students and between the boys themselves are brought to the fore, and the strict distinctions on which they based their assumptions—between boy / man, straight / gay, Sheffield / Oxbridge—are challenged, and begin to melt away. What makes this enlightenment possible, Bennett suggests, even while highlighting the absurdity of academic institutions, is learning and knowledge for their own sakes. It is Hector who identifies the joy inherent in the learning process as he explains, “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. And 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.”
Bennett’s text, both the literary artifact and its performance, are full of those ‘best moments.’ Whether it’s the questioning of one’s sexuality, the pining over an unattainable crush or just general adolescent angst, a hand is extended in solidarity. We’ve all been there, The History Boys seem to say, no matter where we’ve come from.