Alan Bennett’s The History Boys has been one of the most successful plays of recent years. After opening in London in 2004, it transferred to Broadway, where it enjoyed even greater acclaim and picked up six Tony awards. As the eagerly awaited film adaptation is released, Kate Kellaway meets the eight ‘boys’ at the centre of the story.
The History Boys is - for its original cast - about to become history. Richard Griffiths and his class of boys are saying goodbye to a play in which they have been involved for almost as long as it takes to complete a university education. They have graduated. It has been the most extraordinary two-and-a-half years since the first preview, in May 2004, at the National Theatre, when the boys did not know whether what they were working on was funny and director Nicholas Hytner was uncertain how the play would be received. No one was prepared for the ‘wall of laughter’ that greeted the History Boys within their first three minutes on stage and that has, since then, echoed around the world.
The cast’s innocence was not surprising. On the face of it, a play about boys in a northern grammar school studying for an elitist - now obsolete - exam to get into Oxbridge might not be an obvious crowd-pleaser. Except that the play is by Alan Bennett and is a provoking, comic, sentimental education. A week ago the boys finished eight months on Broadway, where the show won six Tonys. On 21 December, a new cast opens in London’s West End. And best of all, the film version opens on Friday - and it is brilliant.
A circle of chairs. Ten people. All the History Boys, Nicholas Hytner and Richard Griffiths are in one room. This will not, I tell them, be a conventional interview. It will be more of a double period at the Dorchester (the boys are staying at the hotel and have been struggling in and out of hired Armani suits for the film’s premiere). It may be necessary, I add, to pick on people. There will be a little light homework. Richard Griffiths strolls in late. He stars as Hector, the teacher at the heart of the play. Hector is enthusiastic, shambolic, subversive and sad. He believes life is more important than passing exams. But unfortunately, he can’t keep his hands off the prettier boys in his class (when they ride pillion on his motorbike, going home).
Griffiths installs himself in an armchair, looking exactly as he does in the play, as if about to summon a poem that will tell us all what we are doing here. Nicholas Hytner sits beside him, like a particularly attentive pupil, with an unnerving stare. I hand round paper and pencils and ask each boy to do two things: to write down key adjectives to sum up the characters they play and, because this is essential to what Bennett is writing about, to think about what they learned at school that has been of use to them in life. And then I read out their names to check I know exactly who is who.
Dominic Cooper (26): Dakin
Cooper sums up Dakin as ‘charming, arrogant, manipulative’. He has also written ‘highly sexed’, then crossed it out. Dakin is the class sex object.
Posner is besotted. Hector, ditto. Dakin swanks his way through school: smart, funny, darkly smouldering. Unlike Dakin, Cooper does not seem to believe in his own good looks. There is a diffidence about him. Dominic went to a state comprehensive where he learnt nothing much. The classes were huge. But school was ‘socially useful’.
Samuel Barnett (23): Posner
'Gay, Jewish, soulful, sensitive, intelligent, vulnerable, poetic.'
Barnett in some ways resembles Posner, the appealing character he plays. He is gentle, focused, intelligent (but not as gauche). His experience of state school was the opposite of Cooper’s. He learnt to ‘think analytically’. But ‘I was totally socially unprepared when I left.’
Andrew Knott (26): Lockwood
'Confident, sharp, cool.'
'To be honest,' Knott says, 'going to school was for friends and football.' But it taught independence too. He has a laddish, sharp, friendly face. His character, Lockwood, according to Hytner, is the 'moral centre' of the class.
Jamie Parker (27): Scripps
'Blithe, indignant, loquacious.'
Parker went to an Edinburgh boarding school. He has an attractive, self-deprecatory manner. ‘It was a headmaster’s world of rigidity and quantifiability. It was about going to university, getting grades, filling in forms. I fundamentally mistrusted it. But two teachers - drama and music - taught me valuable things outside the rigidity of the educational system in corridors, apartments and pubs. They’re still my friends.’
Samuel Anderson (22): Crowther
'Relaxed, controversial, quiet.'
Anderson went to a Catholic school - it gave him ‘a standpoint from which to argue’. But he does not come across as a rebel. Like the character he plays, he’s quiet, though not altogether relaxed.
Russell Tovey (23): Rudge
'Straightforward, honest, not ambitious.'
I can think of other adjectives: ‘sporty, limited, dim’. But Russell Tovey likes his character. He’s a one-off with an eccentric prescription for school-leavers: ‘Everyone should go into therapy when they leave school because when you leave, you don’t know who you are.’ School was valuable because of his geography teacher. ‘I liked the world [the boys laugh at this] but didn’t want to be a geographer. But it was her approachable personality. I was naughty at school. She respected me.’
James Corden(26): Timms
'Fun, confident, good-looking.'
James, like Timms, was the class joker. He’s lively, likable and contributes almost too well to class discussion. ‘Unlike Russell, I left school knowing exactly who I was and what I wanted. I knew you could do almost anything if you were funny and confident: women … work … If you look like me at school, you are going to get bullied. But if bullies think you’re fun, you stay out of trouble. You can be the fun fat kid who snogs the girls. It is the basis I still work on today.’ The other boys roar at him. ‘Everyone in this room will go along with that.’
Sacha Dhawan (22): Akthar
'Vulnerable, sharp, arrogant, articulate, insecure.'
Sacha remembers his ‘lifestyle’ at school. ‘What was great was that you were in a safe environment.’ He’d like to hang on to that secure light-heartedness. ‘Once I started playing the game of life, I questioned a lot of things, took myself too seriously.’ Akthar gets one of the play’s biggest laughs (asking the younger teacher Irwin whether he is on his ‘gap year’).
Who was happy at school? A show of eight hands. Two out of 10 were unhappy: Jamie Parker, the only privately educated boy (‘I’m the upper-class toff’) and Richard Griffiths, who went to a Catholic school. ‘The religiosity was repellent and alienated me from the whole system. I thought it educationally subnormal. My education did not begin until I left the church and school. It was a complete waste of 15 years.’ Of those present, Nicholas Hytner is the only one to have been a History Boy himself. He went to ‘target-driven’ Manchester Grammar. His target was Cambridge. No one else went to Oxford or Cambridge - or to university at all.
So what? Why should their education matter? Only because, at the heart of Bennett’s play, there is a question about what it takes to be a good teacher and what it is that we need to be taught. Although the play is set in the early Eighties, it taps our contemporary obsession with education and touches a national nerve. But the interesting thing about Bennett’s play is that neither of its teachers are ideal. Stephen Campbell Moore’s Irwin is a contrast to romantic Hector. He is slick, clever, bogus. He has a technique for getting boys into Oxbridge: originality is more important than truth. Who is the better teacher, Hector or Irwin? A vote, please. Irwin? One hand is raised: Hytner’s. ‘Irwin has been misunderstood. There is a self-conscious irony in him. But virtually everything he says is stimulating. He has a wit that qualifies his cynicism.’ The History Boys look shifty now. They have voted with their hearts. Now they want to abstain. ‘That vote wasn’t fair,’ James protests.
Looking back, The History Boys has been an education in itself that can, roughly, be divided into three acts.
Act one: The national curriculum
Before the show opened, Hytner turned the National’s Rehearsal Room One into a school. Being a director is, he acknowledges, like being a teacher. He particularly loved teaching Auden’s poetry. Would Hytner have made a good headmaster? Griffiths answers loyally: ‘Oh yes. A really good one. He is not an alienator.’
There were ‘terrible gaps in everyone’s knowledge’. Griffiths remembers: ‘Alan would come in every day with his beetroot sandwiches and he would either sit on a chair being quiet or roll on the floor, howling with glee or weeping copiously. He taught Philip Larkin.’
The boys chorus: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ A lesson well learnt.
Act two: On Broadway
'We did 500 performances and I am really glad it didn't disintegrate,' Griffiths says. 'Mrs Clinton' came to see the show more than once, so did Paul Newman and his wife. But the high spot, for Griffiths, was a visit from Julia Roberts. 'Julia Roberts kissed me. She must have been looking for some tabloid action.'
Hytner looks restive when I ask him to explain the success of this quintessentially English show in the US. Russell indicates it was precisely because it was so English. Hytner scolds: ‘The more specific the world of a play, the more widely it will travel.’ Griffiths believes it was the play’s ‘literacy’ the Americans loved. The Americans, all agree, are every bit as obsessed with education as we are. But there is, Hytner adds, a single word that sums up the play’s success wherever it goes: ‘Vitality.’
Act three: School on screen
The film version of The History Boys was shot mainly in Watford Grammar School for Girls. And it involves two wonderful new cameo roles. Penelope Wilton plays Mrs Bibby, an art teacher with a donkeyish smile and disappointed air. Adrian Scarborough is an aggressive, God-bothering PE teacher, Wilkes, another great newcomer. The boys explain that what was strange about filming (liberation and deprivation) was no longer to have an audience. But they found a new take on the play. You might expect film to open the story out. Actually, it makes it more claustrophobic and intense. Irwin is more sympathetic. And Griffiths is the camera’s quarry, with nowhere to hide.
The final live performance of The History Boys was on 1 October. Griffiths’s voice cracked as he said his final words: ‘Pass it on.’ It was the moment at which the play itself would be passed on. ‘Sam did a backflip on stage,’ James said, ‘I high-fived the front row. No one would leave the theatre.’ Everyone wept. Griffiths feels ‘torn’ to be giving up the role, he ‘adored’ it. Hytner feels even more ‘desperate than they do. These are the nicest, funniest guys.’ The American stage hands were distraught, there was ‘gnashing of teeth’ from dressers who had ‘never known a company like this’.
As a parting shot, I ask the boys to write down (with no conferring) a line about what they will miss most. I read their pieces of paper at the bus stop outside the Dorchester - and it is moving partly because, although the voices are so different, the message is the same. Dominic Cooper wrote: ‘I already miss delivering the lines and experiencing a different tension each night. I will miss so much being surrounded by these friends I have grown to love.’ And Samuel Barnett wrote: ‘I’ll miss saying Alan’s words. I’ll miss working with a group of people who are brilliant at what they do. In any production, there is often a weak link. But not in this one. I shall miss the comfort of the family unit we have become over the past two-and-a-half years. We all get on so well.’ And Russell Tovey simply wrote: ‘The end of an era. I’ll miss being around my mates 24/7.’
That’s how it feels to make history.