Saturday, October 14, 2006

The History Boys (15)

When I studied Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues for A-level, I found his stories of isolated, introverted northerners fascinating. That may be something to do with the fact that I was an isolated, introverted northerner, but it’s also because I marvelled at the way he would sketch the cold and unfriendly Thatcherised world using the smallest details of the unravelling personalities in his stories.

More recently, Bennett’s play The History Boys has toured three continents and won a shedload of awards. However, though it is shot through with the writer’s trademark wit and intelligence, and though the entire cast is perfect in each of their roles, there seems to be something missing.

At a working class school in Yorkshire, the headmaster (Clive Merrison) is obsessed with getting more students into the posh universities. The History class has passed their A-levels with flying colours, thanks to their charismatic gay teacher (Richard Griffiths), and the fact that – for some apparently random reason – nine intelligent and enthusiastic students have ended-up in the same place at the same time. But the headmaster thinks they are a bit rough and unready, so he hires a young up-and-coming teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) to shepherd them through Oxbridge qualification. The styles of the two teachers clash wildly, with a world-weary female teacher (Frances de la Tour) playing referee.

So whose side is Bennett on? Pathetically, he seems to think that all sides have good points. Yes, it’s a shame that schools are like sausage factories, but on the other hand, you just have to swallow the nastiness of the modern world. Nothing can be done.

Even more annoyingly, though the soundtrack places the film firmly in the mid 1980s, this is only a minor detail, so it really could be any time in the last thirty years. There are no other cultural or political references of any substance. The school seems to exist in a kind of vacuum, albeit one where an entire class of students from a poor background qualify for Oxbridge and have no hang-ups about homosexuality.

Pressure from business has led successive governments to focus the schooling system on measurable results. Rather than encouraging young people’s natural curiosity, schools teach them to pass exams, memorising facts and techniques that will have little use in whatever career they go on to have. Forcing six year olds to prepare for SAT tests amounts to child abuse. How can anyone with an ounce of humanity not be furious about this?

Alan Bennett’s monologues succeeded because all his characters were so clearly extensions of his own personality. Trapped in their own alienated existence, they perfectly reflected the time in which they were set. However, stepping out of his comfort zone and into the world of human interaction has set new challenges for Bennett – namely to create believable dialogue, and express opinions about the wider society he finds himself in. This proves to be a task too far.

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