This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.
At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).
The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’. The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield. The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.
Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene. The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s. This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.
Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades. Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls. There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion. It is a sign that his days are numbered. As the headmaster says:
“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”
In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006). Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:
“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”
There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils. Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home. On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion. As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.
It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour. The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour? Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?
Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:
“A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”