I first became interested in Alan Bennett in my second year of college, when we were shown different monologues from his TV series “Talking Heads” as part of my English A-Level coursework. We then had to write our monologue in the style of series – in which a person recounts ordinary tales of their lives to the audience in a style that completely “breaks the 4th wall” (little drama reference in there), whilst at the same time subtly hinting towards a shocking revelation about their personality. So when I found out that one of his plays, The History Boys, had been made into a film, I was extremely curious to see how it had been done.
The film tells the story of eight sixth-form boys from a Sheffield grammar school who are persuaded to stay at school for an extra term in order to study for an entrance exam to get into either Oxford or Cambridge, where they would read history (hence the title of the film). Whilst staying on at school for longer than is required would seem like a nightmare these days, the boys revel in it, as they enjoy a special bond with their General Studies teacher Mr Hector. However, when the headmaster hires Mr Irwin, a contract History teacher, the boy’s worlds are turned upside down, as they are introduced to his exciting and innovative ways of teaching, and in turn they start to ask themselves whose methods are really going to help them in the long run.
I unfortunately haven’t seen the stage version, but after watching the film, I have been desperately looking for when it’s next on tour, as I enjoyed this film so much. All of the characters are portrayed with a dry and witty sense of humour, especially the boys themselves, who are not only studying for the biggest exam of their lives so far, but are also dealing with transforming from boys to men. At the same time, they balance this humour with poignancy, as they face the trials and tribulations of growing up. The boy who stands out the most in this case is Samuel Barnett’s portrayal of David Posner, the naive one of the group who seemingly has the most to deal with, especially his blossoming love for Stuart Dakin, the good-looking but arrogant one of the group, played brilliantly by Dominic Cooper.
Another dark horse to contend with in the role stakes is Mrs Lintott (played by Frances De La Tour), the History teacher who gives a refreshing, but at times sardonic view of events as she tries to teach the boys History, a subject in which she apparently has to teach “five centuries of masculine ineptitude”. However, it is Hector who steals the show, as Richard Griffiths (known as either Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films or Uncle Monty in Withnail and I, depending on your preference of film) lets the character embark on a personal journey of his own, one in which he feels liberated within his teaching, but at the same time feels rather repressed (the special bond he has with the boys can be seen as a little too special, but I won’t give any more away).
In my opinion, The History Boys is one of the best British films of all time, because as well as detailing the story of the characters as they come of age (no matter what age they are), it gives an insight into history that you don’t really think is possible – due to the fact that history, according to a beautifully summed up quote within this beautiful film – is just “one f**kin’ thing after another”.