A lesson for the History Boys





Alan Bennett, commentators like to say, is heir to Betjeman as the nation's teddy bear. On the evidence of his all-conquering play (and now film) The History Boys he is also the outright winner of the Evelyn Waugh memorial "Brideshead" award for the nation's arch-educational snob.

I watched the film in the Odeon, Camden Town. As readers of Bennett's diaries will know, it's home ground - opposite Fresh and Wild, where the playwright likes to shop. To say the audience was friendly to their Parkway Laureate would be an understatement. There were anticipatory titters as the credits rolled round. The aisles, thereafter, were scarcely wide enough for all the rolling around in them.

The plot of The History Boys is simple. It is 1983 - the Thatcher years, and the industrial north. Think Billy Elliot, think Full Monty. At a modest grammar school in Sheffield, a group of sixth-formers haul in a batch of unusually good A-level history results. They are streamed off as an elite set, to stay on an extra term and sit Oxbridge entrance exams. Not a route their predecessors have taken, apparently (and unconvincingly, if this is 1983, and this is a grammar school)....

The History Boys is a brilliant play, and a good film. It is also permeated with odious class prejudice. The tittering, at the Odeon, for example, reached gale force with every appearance of the headteacher, played in grotesque caricature by Clive Merrison - a portrayal which actor and dramatist seem mutually determined to steep in contempt.

An oaf, a bully (and, as we eventually discover, a groper of his secretary), the head stumbles hilariously when trying to join in suave French conversation that Hector is conducting with "his" boys. Ignorant buffoon. His English accent (scarcely better than his French) betrays vulgar origins. He believes in one thing only: "results". A philistine.

And then, the shameful confession. He "tried" for Oxford. But he has a geography degree from - wait for it - Hull. At this revelation, the audience exploded with mirth. Why? What's funny about that? Those who care to check will see the department which the headteacher attended was rated top in the official 2005 student satisfaction survey and, as its website proudly proclaims: "We are now ranked amongst the top 20 geography departments in the recent Guardian national league tables." Not Oxford, certainly, but neither the academic pits.

Is a geography degree from Hull an intellectually shameful thing? Should those who have earned one, and reached a top post in a grammar school, wear a scarlet "H" on their breasts, carry wooden clappers, and shout "Uneducated! Uneducated!" whenever Oxonians are sighted? It's not just Hull. The film is punctuated with sarcasms against municipal, provincial, and redbrick institutions. Loughborough (all those bone-headed rugby players) gets its sneer, as does Leeds (a scrap heap for those who fail Oxbridge entrance), Manchester and Nottingham....


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