The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
—Hector, a teacher of the old school, in The History Boys
Arriving early for an interview with Alan Bennett on a sparkling July afternoon, I kill time at an outdoor café adjoining London’s National Theatre, sipping filtered coffee that’s a far remove from the instant swill that was served at even the toniest eateries when I was coming of age. Right around that same period, Bennett was staging his first school play, Forty Years On, a homage to a very different England from the one opening up in front of me now.
Across from the South Bank complex, which houses a good slice of London’s high culture as well as the more plebeian and sadly defunct Museum of the Moving Image, pleasure boats steam across an equally sparkling river Thames, which my childhood memory offers only in befogged sludge-browns and grays. On a neatly AstroTurfed concourse nattily bannered “WatchThisSpace,” jugglers spin plastic bottles while hauling up strategically fallen pants, watched by a few desultory tourists and two hatted lady cops. An open-topped double-decker bus (a beloved breed soon to be retired, friends tell me in varying tones of outrage) trundles across Waterloo Bridge with “Have a Nice Day!” emblazoned across its front, and I while away the remaining moments before presenting myself at the National’s stage door by trying to imagine the hay that Bennett and his compatriots in the 1960s satirical revue Beyond the Fringe would have made with this chipper knockoff of American optimism. The brash urban scene is emblematic of the cleaned-up new England of which Bennett, a prolific and widely published diarist, is observantly aware, but to which he no more belongs than does Hector — the fat, disorderly, joyfully anachronistic old-school teacher in Bennett’s The History Boys who had New York audiences eating out of his hand when the play became an unlikely smash hit and snatched six Tony Awards last June.
Comfortably slumped in an armchair in front of a small bust of George Bernard Shaw, in a room ominously marked “The Chairman,” Bennett is characteristically understated about the success of The History Boys, which he wrote and then adapted for the screen under the direction of Nicholas Hytner, with whom he has enjoyed a fruitful partnership that includes stage and screen versions of Bennett’s play The Madness of George III. “It was slightly unexpected,” says Bennett, who at 72 looks endearingly like a cross between a country parson and a superannuated schoolboy in barber-chopped bangs (his full head of hair, a legacy from his late father, retains its natural shine), a crumpled jacket and sensible shoes. “Well, not unexpected,” he continues with that instinctive English preference for avoiding the first person at all costs, “but certainly not something you could have relied on, because you weren’t sure that it wouldn’t seem provincial, that the concerns of the play wouldn’t seem specifically English.”
On its face, The History Boys, which is set in a moderately fancy (though not private) boys’ high school in the 1980s, is inextricably British, with its mouthy uniformed schoolboys sparring off against their tart-tongued teacher, who’s always at the ready with illuminating quotes from Hardy or Auden and never misses an opportunity to sound off against the iniquities of the information society, as represented by the school’s crassly philistine headmaster. In that sense, the play must surely have appealed to the rampant Anglophilia of the average American theater crowd, who, against all evidence to the contrary (American reality-TV shows have nothing on the robust vulgarity of their British counterparts), persist in seeing England as a last bastion of olde-worlde civility. Bennett isn’t that kind of traditionalist: The History Boys is peppered with raunchy sexuality, and it’s a testament to the artistic power of the play that these same audiences have raised not a peep in protest against Bennett’s “grubby and stained” hero, who likes to cop a feel on favored pupils on the back of his motorbike after hours. By today’s catchall standards, Hector is a child molester, not to mention a corporal punisher who cuffs the boys over the head when they get fresh. Both sides love it.
As Bennett is quick to point out, The History Boys is not a realist play. The wonderfully funny banter that pingpongs back and forth is hardly naturalistic. If Bennett’s exquisite ear for dialogue was honed in the skits he wrote and acted in for Beyond the Fringe, its roots lie further back in his youth, when, like most kids of his generation, he went to the movies three times a week. (“I can write posh, public-school English because it’s what I grew up hearing in cinemas,” he told The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik earlier this year.) If anything, the play represents more an idea of an England only partly rooted in the experience of the solidly working-class Bennett, who attended Leeds Modern, a boys’ grammar school vaguely like the one in the play, and who, like the boys, found himself in a special class prepping for scholarships to Cambridge and to Oxford (where he finally landed — and, to his great surprise, graduated with a first — after serving out World War II studying Russian in the army).
Like many working-class people catapulted into an elite world, Bennett has no illusions about either milieu. He feels equally — and from a literary standpoint, productively — uncomfortable in both. He has written with amused scorn about British television documentaries (many of them made by well-born Marxists) that prop writers of humble origin against the Northern slag heaps that supposedly inform their every written word. He also shows a healthy contempt for upper-class snobbery, has made no attempt to jettison ?his strong Yorkshire brogue, remains partial ?to bangers and mash, and writes with uncondescending affection about his ordinary parents’ efforts at self-improvement. Bennett is warm and proprietary, but never sentimental, about his family — in Untold Stories, the latest collection of his diaries, just published in this country, he writes movingly and unsparingly about his mother’s depression and decline into dementia, and offers horrifyingly funny thumbnail sketches of his upwardly aspiring aunts.
On one level, The History Boys is a staged debate between elite and middle-class philosophies of education — “the conflict between education proper, education for life as it were, and education as a view to examinations,” as Bennett calls it. But like most of his plays, it is ?also a more generalized lament for cultural decline in societies obsessed with quantifiable certification. Fatally flawed and gloriously alive in the pettily careerist world he inhabits, Hector is the teacher Bennett wishes he had had, and, judging from the play’s roaring popularity on both sides of the Atlantic (it’s coming soon to Los Angeles), he’s not alone. “I had a boring history teacher, very factually based like Mrs. Lintott in the play,” he tells me. Most of us did, though I for one will always cherish the Hector-like wit of Miss Dunlop, a spectacularly bosomed virago who wrote on my report card that “Ella has considerable analytical powers, which she rarely uses.” There was more than a touch of Hector’s chronic anachronicity in the intense, mostly unmarried woman instructors at my girls-only high school, who saw teaching as their calling whether they were good at it or not, and who were passionate about trying to equip us for the well-rounded life rather than for careers. No easy task with girls whose idea of culture was feet up in front of the telly watching Top of the Pops. “Now you’re in Muriel Spark country,” Bennett says drily. Indeed, though it’s alarming to reflect that basically the same lofty ideas about art and life that bring Hector to classical liberalism propelled Miss Jean Brodie into the arms ?of fascism.
The History Boys is also wonderfully astute and tolerant of the nonchalantly homoerotic culture of the single-sex school. (The intensely private Bennett, who lives with his partner of 14 years, Rupert Thomas, a Condé Nast interior-design magazine editor 30 years younger than he is, only came out publicly in Untold Stories, which — after a bout with colon cancer that doctors gave him only a 50 percent chance of surviving — he thought would be published posthumously.) Just as Hector’s boys take his clumsy gropings in stride, we laughed our heads off, with the usual schoolgirl cocktail of fondness and cruelty, at the gym mistress who told us to turn round three times in the post-hockey shower, and watched avidly as we did. I don’t recall a single one of us who felt “violated.”
The immediate inspiration for Hector, who’s played by a gargantuan (in every sense) Richard Griffiths in both the play and the film, was an essay on education by the literary critic George Steiner that Bennett had been reading. But though Bennett, a self-effacing man who has bemoaned “my timorous and undashing life,” has little physically in common with his flamboyant, oversize protagonist, there are bits of the playwright in this physically awkward man, a perennial outsider like the many other marginal misfits who wander through Bennett’s works — most notably in the mordantly funny, ineffably sad Talking Heads monologues and, in real life, the famous Miss Shepherd, the elderly transient who camped out in Bennett’s yard for 15 years and was immortalized onstage by Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van.
Though Bennett skews left politically — he’s a vehemently outspoken critic of British involvement in the Iraq war, and turned down an honorary degree at Oxford because the university had accepted an endowed chair from Rupert Murdoch — like Hector, he is an unabashed cultural conservative who mourns the passing of common public experience, both high and low, in a media-fragmented world. His plays, diaries and monologues are stuffed with literary and historical allusion, but, like Hector too, he is thoroughly versed in old films, from the vintage Hollywood pictures like Now, Voyager and Brief Encounter that pop up in The History Boys, and which he saw on those boyhood movie outings with his beloved “Mam,” to the cheerfully vulgar Carry On comedies of the 1960s. (He rarely goes to the movies now, in part because his partner works late, but also because he prefers the ornate old movie palaces with names like the Gaumont and the Ritz to watching movies in the new “mini-mas.”) Like those films, and perhaps because he moves so seamlessly between high and popular culture, Bennett has tremendously wide public appeal. He has been dubbed a national treasure, an honor he could live without. “I think it’s because I’m not a threat to anybody else,” he murmurs resignedly. “Here, I’m regarded as so cozy.” Then he brightens. “But you’ve got to have something to shelter behind. And I’d rather be thought cozy than be thought a real shit.”
There’s little danger of that. For all his reported media shyness, in conversation Bennett is kindly, well-mannered, convivial and endlessly curious. He describes Sacha Baron Cohen, whom he met while both were queuing up to renew parking permits in London’s trendy Camden Town, as “a lovely man” and admires Cohen’s Ali G bravado with the wondering envy of the painfully sensitive. “I mean, how can he be so . . . thick-skinned is not the word, but how can he carry it off when he’s so much on the edge of deeply embarrassing?”
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For a shy man who shuns the spotlight, though, Bennett sure gets out a lot. Untold Stories is studded with theaterland gossip, much of it deliciously bitchy. There, Bennett is generous to those he admires, noting the passing of beloved friends like John Schlesinger, who directed Bennett’s superb teleplay about the Anthony Blunt affair, A Question of Attribution; Alan Bates, who played the Soviet spy Guy Burgess in the television version of An Englishman Abroad; and, of course, Nigel Hawthorne, who played the lead onstage and in the film of The Madness of King George. Bennett tells me that John Gielgud, with whom he worked on Forty Years On in 1969, was “such a gent, and reckless with his abilities as he got older. He would do anything to work. He’d do a dozen things, and maybe three would be worth it. The rest would be rubbish, but it would be worth it for the three.” Still, Bennett is no teddy bear when it comes to those he finds pretentious or conceited. He calls Alec Guinness, who played the lead in The Old Country, “overprotective of his own ability” and caps it off with a devastating “He would have been nothing without his wife.”
There’s nothing the least bit cozy about Bennett’s plays either. Like many acute observers, he wields a judgmental pen, and never more pointedly than in his skewering of Hector’s nemesis, Irwin, a teacher addicted to trendily contrarian theories of history who, to Hector’s disgust, is bent on giving the boys flashy techniques designed more to grab the attention of examiners than to expand their knowledge of the world. Bennett, whose mistrust of tidy theory is brought to incisive life by The History Boys’ Rudge, who summarizes history as “just one fucking thing after another,” would be the last to deny that Irwin is based in part on the stroppy young British historian Niall Ferguson, who achieved notoriety for suggesting (as Irwin does in the play) that World War I was a “mistake rather than a tragedy.” Bennett remains unrepentant in his criticism of historians who stand received ideas on their heads for the sake of looking smart, but he admits to feeling regret on learning from his partner, who works in the same building as Ferguson’s wife, that the family was deeply hurt by the portrayal.
In the screen version of The History Boys, Irwin has been softened and made substantially more sympathetic, as has the sad fate of one of the boys. Those changes came from Hytner, not Bennett, who made sure that when the play opened on Broadway, after the film wrapped, it was restored with its original bite. To my mind, there was no compelling reason to turn the talky The History Boys into a movie, other than to ride the coattails of its stage success. But one forgives Hytner all his spurious cinematic contrivances, if only because this funny, tragic work is sturdy enough to resist most forms of tampering. At the end, Bennett challenges his audience by craftily undercutting the elegiac tone of the boys singing “Bye Bye, Blackbird” with an unwittingly hilarious speech by the headmaster, who absurdly invokes banking lingo to eulogize a man so unworldly he probably never kept a checking account. That is Alan Bennett’s genius. He can make you laugh and cry at the same time, but he never lets you off the hook.
The History Boys opens Tues., Nov. 21, in Los Angeles theaters. For Scott Foundas' review, see Film.