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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The History Boys – a review

We were at The Lowry, Salford Quays, to see Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. This was one of the last performances on the road before the company settle into London’s Wyndham’s Theatre until the middle of April 2007.

The school gives them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it. Examine a boy and he is tamed already. Only examine him and you can tax him, empanel him, enlist him, interrogate him and put him in prison. You have only to grade him and you have got him.

An unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university. A maverick English teacher at odds with the young and shrewd supply teacher. A headmaster obsessed with results and a history teacher who thinks he’s a fool. In Alan Bennett’s play, staffroom rivalry and the anarchy of adolescence provoke insistent questions about history and how you teach it; about education and its purpose.

Stephen Moore is excellent as Hector, the eccentric and old-fashioned teacher, who believes that education should be about nothing and everything, and is quite capable of importing a French lesson into his English teaching period. He is a man who has no time for the curriculum or for examinations and thinks that a good education should teach a person to resist whatever it is the state thinks he should consume.

Orlando Wells is Irwin, the modern teacher who sees his role as getting the boys through their examinations and interviews whatever it takes.

Bennett is a political playwright and he has mastered his craft well. He doesn’t come at you head-on, but, as it were, from the sides, like a wolf snapping at the legs of its prey. He sets up both sides of the argument and lets the protagonists fight it out; he shows how these arguments affect the boys and the reactions of the headmaster and staff, and then sits back, confident that we, his audience, will come to the right conclusion.

This is a great production, thought-provoking, nourishing and touching. Although I have picked out the nominal leads it is, nevertheless, an ensemble piece and the whole cast work together seamlessly.

Go see it; you’ll laugh and you’ll learn all kinds of things and it won’t hurt even a tiny bit.

9 Responses to “The History Boys – a review”

  1. I’m really pleased you enjoyed it, John, I was kind of worried you wouldn’t. Good review, perceptive; got me thinking about the play again and how Bennett achieved his dramatic effects. Thanks.

    jb says: It would be difficult not to enjoy it, Bill. I also enjoyed (at least the first series of) Talking Heads, and The Madness of King George. But there are plays by Bennett that I could easily have missed.

  2. jayswift says:

    Is teacher student sexual activity permissible?
    Do these boys really consent to the behavior of their teachers?
    Do they react to their own sexuality so freely?

    Is this reality or the wishful thinking of the author?

    We have all seen the “get them into Oxford” tales – from “the Corn is Green” onward. This is NOT one of them. What none of the reviews tell you is that this is that this film/(play) about sexual abuse.
    How is it that a teacher who sexually abuses bus students is portrayed as a hero?
    Thus film suggests that not only is sexual abuse tolerable, but that the students themselves consent to being the object of a teacher’s predilection.
    The story as a whole is repugnant!
    then, we have as an addition, two gratuitous tirades: one, on the neglect of women in history and two, on the horrors of the German killing of the Jews. Now, not that the latter two items merit consideration, but in this story they are purely pulpous additions for the sake of stirring response.
    It is clear why this play was a hit – all the proper elements – gay, women, Jews!
    Am I being prejudiced or bigoted? I think noy. face the reality of what is Broadway fare and what is filmdom’s pablum.

  3. Greg Byles says:

    I have been searching for a translation of the French dialogue in the classroom scene with the head master but am not having any luck.

    Do you know where I could find it.

    Even the subtitles on the DVD leave this scene blank.

    jb says: Hi Greg,
    Sorry, I can’t help with this. Anyone?

  4. GuyHenri says:


    fascinating to read your comments. As for myself I discovered the DVD really by coincidence and the English education system has always got a special attraction on me. The homosexuality in college schools, the sexual awakening from these young lads in their school uniforms, and the comedy in the movie make me really want to see the play. So it’s great for me, I am Belgian, that when i come to London for Christmas shopping I can go watch this play at Wyndhams. But I did enjoy the movie, picking up a show when i come to London is always great!

  5. GandalftheGreat says:

    Yes well, i wenteth to see this at the Wyndhams Theatre, London. It was vair bon but a bit rudeydudey at times. Also in the scene just before the interval, you could hardly hear what they saying. (conversation with the weirdo teacher and Jakins)

  6. nicole says:

    I realise this is nearly two years after your review posted, but I am so pleased there are other people out there that enjoyed this. Some may consider film entertainment to be the poor relation or opium to the uncultured masses, and although I did not have the benefit of seeing the ‘play’ I was rewarded with the film which is one I could watch repeatedly. Again, another example of quality UK production, actors, and script. Full of themes to talk about for hours. Young people at such a wonderful age, on the spring board of life, having already gleaned an education beyond the sciences, more importantly about real people. The constant minuet between maturity and adolescence was delightful. While their teacher overstepped his mark in taking them on his bike for not so ultruistic reasons, the boys took it in their stride to protect each other, weigh up whether they were really at risk, or just accepting human eccentricity, good with the bad etc – not that the gentlement was ‘bad’ per se, just needed to control himself better. I assume some debate would have arisen when the play and film aired about the sexuality of teachers, adults in positions of trust etc, but my view is if the teacher inspires the student to want to learn, to get up out of bed each day and go to school (which can be quite a battle if they know the experience is going to be as exciting as watching snails mate), to appreciate imparted knowledge on range of subjects, and to embrace maturity with the associated responsibilities it brings, then we have a good teacher. Lets face it, the students spend more time at school (if the aforementioned elements are present) than with their parents, so if the students have been taught well, and their parents have done their job introducing some of the risks inherent in human relations, then we parents need to trust that whatever the teachers sexuality is, then the importance is whether they are good teachers/role models, not their sexuality. From the view of a budding writer, there was so much more that could have been jammed into the story, some characters I wanted to know more about their personal stories etc, but the writer did well in knowing just when it was enough – keep the reader/audience thinking even once the lights come up (or curtains close). Thanks John, for another good topic.

  7. kate says:

    I just bought tickets to this for the local theatre near my house. thank you for the write up and I am looking forward to it. This will be the 3rd UK film I will see this year at the theatre house and can’t wait, thanks again.

  8. car dvd says:

    Bennett’s The History Boys! I like it

  9. Will says:

    Hi, just a question – I’m thinking of using this essay to talk about British identity in a Euro film course that I’m doing.

    Any thoughts? Do you think that there is anything to talk about in regards to British identity?