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The History Boys, and missing the point October 24, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books, Culture, Film and Television, Other Stuff.

John Sutherland is a bitter, bitter man.

Recently, he wrote a piece in the Guardian about The History Boys, the new Nicholas Hytner film based on the Alan Bennett play featuring the original cast, and a handful of new characters.  According to Sutherland, The History Boys ‘is a brilliant play, and a good film … (but) … is also permeated with odious class prejudice’.

Oh dear.

Sutherland sees the film as a paen to snobbery, a celebration of the educational values of Oxford and Cambridge which denigrates the quality of modern, provincial universities, the so-called ‘redbricks’ like Sheffield, Manchester or Bristol.  Now, I’m a bit worried.  Sutherland is clearly an intelligent, educated person.  He’s the Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, so he obviously must be have some skill at interpreting texts.  But his piece seems to me to completely miss the point of the play, almost as if he’d watched The Full Monty and decided that its essential point was that ‘stripping is good’.

It’s certainly true that the play abounds with ‘snobbery’, if one wants to use that term, about the redbrick universities.  There has to be – it’s one of the main themes of the play.  Oxford and Cambridge represent the kind of learning, or the use of knowledge, which the character of Irwin (a young graduate brought into the Sheffield school to tutor the eponymous boys in how to pass the Oxbridge matriculation exams) extols.  Irwin disparages the provincial universities.  At one point he’s explaining how to approach an essay on the origins of the First World War:

Irwin: So. Our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First

Timms (doubtfully): Yes. (with more certainty) Yes.

Others nod.

Irwin:  First Class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms.  Manchester longs to have you.  You can walk into Leeds.  But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I have just read seventy pages all saying the same thing and I am asleep …

Scripps:  But it’s all true.

Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?

Yes, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds don’t come out of the play very well, but neither does Oxford or Cambridge, or the kind of education of which Irwin is emblematic.  This is the conflict at the heart of the piece: the kind of sneakily clever, or flashy, use of knowledge to achieve a particular goal (in this case, entry into a top university) set against knowledge valued for its own sake, the position represented by Hector, played by Richard Griffiths .  If there is a most sympathetic character in the play, it must be clearly Hector, yet contra Sutherland, Hector’s attitude towards Oxford and Cambridge is, if anything, even more scathing than Irwin’s of everywhere else.  In one of the first scenes, Hector banters with the boys:

Dakin: You should treat us with more respect.  We’re scholarship candidates now.  We’re all going in for Oxford and Cambridge.

There is a silence and Hector sits down at his table, seemingly stunned.

Hector: ‘Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’.
I thought all that silliness was finished with.
I thought that after last year we were settling for the less lustrous institutions . . . Derby, Leicester, Nottingham.  Even my own dear Sheffield.  Scripps.  You believe in God. Believe also in me: forget Oxford and Cambridge.
Why do you want to go there?

Lockwood: Old, sir. Tried and tested.

Hector: No, it’s because other boys want to go there.  It’s the hot ticket, standing room only.  So I’ll thank you (hitting him) if nobody mentions Oxford (hit) or Cambridge (hit) in my lessons.  There is a world elsewhere.

Later, speaking to Mrs. Lintott (the only, actual history teacher):

Mrs. Lintott:  Didn’t you try for Cambridge?

Hector:  Oxford.
I was brought up in the West Riding.  I wanted somewhere new.  That is to say old. So long as it was old I didn’t mind where I went.

Mrs. Lintott:  Durham was good in that respect.

Hector:  Sheffield wasn’t.
Cloisters, ancient libraries … I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone.  If I had gone to Oxford I’d probably never have worked out the difference.

Hardly an unreserved celebration of the more prestigious institutions, I would have thought.  In fact, the Irwin of the play is a much less sympathetic character than the one in the film, perhaps because the stage Irwin is far more of a symbol of the tricky, conservative media historians like Niall Ferguson or David Starkey which The History Boys attacks (explicitly so in Bennett’s preface to the Faber and Faber edition of the book).  While Irwin’s later career as a media performer is only briefly touched on at the end of the film, it’s far more prominent in the play itself, and is used as a framing device around the other scenes.

While Bennett is obviously making a stand for a particular kind of education, the triumph of the play (and the film) is that it isn’t a completely one-sided fight.  He doesn’t stack the deck in favour of Hector, or portray Irwin as a pantomime villian.  Irwin is a genuinely interesting character, and his approach does succeed in exciting and stimulating the boys themselves.  The play is a debate about ideas, very specific ideas, not just vague Dead Poets Society-type platitudes.  One of, to my mind, the most interesting and intriguing points is where Hector says:

I didn’t want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words.  Words said in that reverential way that is somehow Welsh.

It’s this kind of sentiment that provokes to audience to think and reflect, not just to wallow in the wordplay, and in a world where the Wayans brothers continue to make films, the existence of a film like this is something for which we must be thankful.

Sutherland’s problem is that he takes it far too literally. If someone sneers at Sheffield, the entire play must be sneering at Sheffield.  He also makes the same mistake that I’ve seen repreated by number of critics: pointing to the anachronisms as if they’re flaws, as if the film should be realistic.

Clearly it’s very far from reality, both the reality of the mid-eighties or of today.  The boys are absurdly erudite and their views on sexuality would likely be too liberal for the Harvey Milk school, let alone a conservative boys’ seconday twenty years ago.  But that’s not the point.  It’s not supposed to be real; it’s the Alan Bennett universe, no more real than the universe of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett or David Lynch.  Of course, nobody talks like the characters in the play (except, perhaps, for Alan Bennett).  But the dialogue would be much less rich, or memorable, if realism was the key objective.

But, for Sutherland, the anachronisms are flaws, rather than elements which make the film great.  He feels that something by Culture Club would have been a more appropriate song for Posner to sing than ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ (why – just because he’s gay? Sutherland seems to be showing his own prejudices there).  But if Dakin had been serenaded with ‘Karma Chameleon’, the scene in question would have descended into farce and wouldn’t have had the power it actually retains.

“Why did Alan Bennett chose to soak his film The History Boys in snobbery and sarcasm against municipal, provincial and redbrick institutions”, Sutherland asks. Because that’s what the damn thing is about! He wonders why one of the boys wouldn’t have considered going to a different college, without considering that if that had happened, there would have been no play.  One can imagine Sutherland sitting through ‘Waiting for Godot’ shouting at the actors – ‘He’s not coming. Just leave!’.

Poor old Sutherland.  His chip on his shoulder about where he went to college has clearly overwhelmed his critical faculties (although the fact that he’s so incredibly wrong about the play, to my mind, calls into question his actual ability as a critic).  He makes clear the link between his anger at Bennett and his own educational experience:

… the only university that would offer me a place was – Leicester. I accepted my sorry destiny and discovered what, in retrospect, I would judge as the best English department in the country at that time (1959). Richard Hoggart (riding high on The Uses of Literacy) taught me, as did the greatest British Dickensian of our age, Philip Collins. The department was headed by the distinguished Arthur Humphreys. Monica Jones (Philip Larkin’s muse and consort) took a Hectorish interest in me (no groping, though). The cleverest woman I have met in any university, she believed, given the garbage being produced in the name of scholarship, it was more distinguished not to publish than to publish.

Had I gone to Oxford I might have been taught by Lord David Cecil and Dame Helen Gardner. I don’t regret missing that privilege.

Unfortunately, if he had paid more attention to the film and wasn’t so consumed by his own feelings of inferiority, he’s realise that Bennett is making pretty much the same point, but making it a lot better.


1. WorldbyStorm - October 24, 2006

Whetting my appetite to see the movie. Sutherland can be good, can be bad…


2. WorldbyStorm - October 25, 2006

This merely whets my appetite to see the movie. Actually John Sutherland seems to have good days and bad, mind you be careful, anyone would think between this and earlier posts on Madeleine Bunting we had a vendetta against the Guardian.

It’s not true, we love it…


3. Paul - October 27, 2006

And what, pray tell, is wrong with the Wayans brothers?


4. Miss Austen - April 22, 2007

Congratulations on this shrewd assessment of “poor old Sutherland” as well as this truly brilliant play. I might mention that I was admitted to UCL for a PhD after obtaining a First at Bristol and kept being told (and by the man himself, at that) that I would find that UCL offered something clearly superior. Alas, it turned out I didn’t.


5. Miss Austen - April 22, 2007

Sorry. It seems I’d typed in a wrong url.


6. Idiombind - November 26, 2008

Как обычно, тот кто писал кошерно опубликовал!


7. latnennyrex - December 9, 2008

Писака зачет


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