Saturday, 30 March 2013

Passing It On - Retrospective from a History Boys fan

If you follow my life in any way, you may have picked up on the fact I care a great deal about Alan Bennett's The History Boys. It is the greatest work of theatre I have ever seen, and, by extension, my favourite film. It sounds simple enough to say that - my favourite film, my favourite play. It's so much more than that. It's my touchstone. I know literally every line of the work, and quote it in conversation nearly every single day. My best friend and I regularly text each other random quotes and the other will follow up with the corresponding dialogue, acting out scenes over SMS.

I've seen the movie countless times. I have Alan Bennett's diaries from the film's production, and my copy of the play's original script is rarely shelved – before I sat down to write this, I found it half-tucked under the couch, where it fell a couple of days ago when I pulled it out to check the exact wording of a scene that popped into my head. This is not uncommon, it's usually on the couch or desk or coffee table – I constantly pick it up for reference. I listen to the BBC radio-play that the original cast made all the time - while at the gym, while walking, while cleaning my room.

There is never a moment when I am not willing and able to consume this text in some format. I'm about to receive, in the mail, an illegally-purchased bootleg of the show when it went to Broadway in late 2006, and I am so very, very excited about this that I've been rushing out to check the mailbox every day.

This is how it began:

I was lucky enough to see The History Boys, with its original National Theatre cast, on their opening night at the Sydney Theatre Company. The show, which premiered in London in 2004, toured Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong before heading to Broadway, and when they came to Sydney in early 2006, the film had been completed but not yet released.

I did not have any sense of anticipation or excitement, going to see this play. I had never heard of it. I was there because the parents of my then-boyfriend had a family theatre subscription, so we were basically told "you're seeing this play tonight." I had never heard of any of the actors, particularly, aside from Richard Griffiths, and I recognised Stephen Campbell Moore from a recent film I'd seen, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan called A Good Woman. I was intrigued and excited to notice that several of the boys had been in a production of His Dark Materials, a book series I loved (and still love) and as soon as I saw the photo of Dominic Cooper, I knew he would have been an incredible Will Parry.

Associations with His Dark Materials, Oscar Wilde, and Uncle Vernon rapidly fell away as the play began and proceeded to change my life. I don't remember what struck me so severely that first time – a particular scene, a quote, or anything like that - I just remember feeling overwhelmed, full to bursting. It made something inside of me cry out, in a way no work of theatre ever had before. It changed me. It would go on to change my life in many ways, but in that initial experience, something clicked, or snapped.

After the performance, I felt the need to meet some of the cast, to say something, to express something of what they had made me experience. The cast was gathered in the foyer bar, celebrating their opening night. At this point in my life, I hadn't met too many “celebrities,” or artists whom I admired, but I'd met enough to know that I wasn't naturally star-struck. However, I remember not having the courage to speak to Dom Cooper, and when I approached Samuel Barnett – at that time, a 25-year old boy whom three hours ago I hadn't known existed – I was so overwhelmed by what I'd seen him do that I was trembling, physically shaking. I don't remember what I said to him. I remember he was wearing glasses and looked much older than on he had on stage, as Posner, and I remember the way his hand felt when I shook it. I'm sure I said something simple like, “that was amazing, congratulations” - something to that extent. The only explanation I have for how stricken I was by facing this totally unknown actor was that the work had genuinely meant that much to me, had already lodged under my skin.

After that, I met Stephen Campbell Moore, which became much more comfortable. I told him that I had loved him in A Good Woman, and he was very surprised that the film had even come out here. He was happy to talk, about that film and about the filming of the History Boys movie, about how it was to tour the play. I remember talking with him in the outdoor bar as we both watched Richard Griffiths holding court on a bus stop seat, right on the street outside the theatre, alongside James Corden, who at the time had a little popularity due to starring in the show Teachers. We had a great conversation – probably half an hour of chatting – and he actually cancelled three phone calls coming in on his phone, in order to continue talking to me. He kissed me, in response to my compliments about the show, and again when saying goodbye. He was so kind, and treated me with a sense of grace, familiarity and interest that, upon reminiscing, probably set a high bar for what I now consider to be a worthwhile fan interaction.

The film of The History Boys came out about six months after I moved to the UK. I was shocked, thrilled and proud to see posters for the film in the Tube tunnels – I snapped a photo and did a blog post about it at the time, as I was not aware that the film would be having a wide release – I didn't have a perspective on how well-known it was in England. Trailers started showing at the cinema where I worked, before sessions of The Queen, and I would sneak into the theatre each session in order to catch the preview a few times a day. I ended up going to see the movie, by myself, in a small screen at the Leicester Square Odeon, some time in November.

I loved it, of course. The film is directed and staged very similarly to the play – it does not attempt to make the complicated dialogue more natural, or anything like that – so it's not really a movie adaptation of the story, it is the original work, captured on film in a more complex set than a theatre stage. It uses the same cast that I saw, the original National Theatre cast, the screenplay was adapted by Alan Bennett himself, and, like the play, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner. It's the same team, putting on the same production - it cuts out the breaking-the-fourth-wall monologues, but that's it, pretty much. A few things are trimmed, and a sub-plot is removed, but nothing is really changed about the way the characters speak and deliver their lines. I've heard from people who aren't really into theatre, that have only seen the movie, that this aspect it makes for a strange or even boring experience. I have pretty much nothing to say to those people. If a person isn't able to understand how this film is brilliant and beautiful, my capacity to have a conversation with them would diminish immediately – not on principle or anything, they just clearly are not the kind of person I'll connect with.

This cast – the boys especially - are people who you know. If you're a casual consumer of British media, of things like Doctor Who and Sherlock and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, you know Russell Tovey and James Corden - they are BBC superstars. If you follow the British industry more closely - if you're interested in the small comedies and historical miniseries, or if you follow theatre, you know some of the others - Sam Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Jamie Parker. Dom Cooper, of course, aside from work in British TV, film, and theatre, is now a Hollywood film star - never quite the leading man, but nicely featured roles in Captain America, An Education, Mamma Mia and The Duchess. He shows off his amazing diversity as the lead in biopic The Devil's Double, where his character is forced into playing body-double for the son of Saddam Hussein.

You know these boys - now. You didn't then. I didn't then. But since that day I have kept tabs on the careers of each one of them, and through that, helped to develop my taste in media and found so many things that I care about. Through the simple method of watching something that has a History Boy in it, I've discovered the BBC Cupboard – you know, that closet full of actors that the BBC pulls out to stick in anything that's going on. Via association with a History Boy, I found more shows, and people, to love and follow, and became a full-blown fan of the current British arts industry, of the huge family of actors that have worked together in some way – of people like Mathew Horne, Aiden Turner, Rafe Spall, Ruth Jones, Zoe Tapper, Eddie Redmayne, Gemma Areteton, Sam Crane, Matthew Goode, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw. Throw a rock in Britain and you'll hit someone associated with The History Boys, by one or zero degrees of separation. Matt Smith was a History Boy, did you know? He played Lockwood in the second run in London, while the original cast toured overseas, and he would have been amazing. Ben Barnes signed on to play Dakin, he had to leave due to signing on as Prince Caspian, but my god, he would have killed it.

Shows like Being Human, Gavin and Stacey, Beautiful People and the mini-series Desperate Romantics have become some of my favourite television ever. Starter For Ten – one of the greatest British contemporary films – stars Dom Cooper and James Corden with James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, though James I already knew via Shameless, and actually, Stephen Campbell Moore was in Amazing Grace, which was the first thing I ever saw Benedict Cumberbatch in. If you like pain, try Painted With Words, a biopic of Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, starring Cumberbatch as Vincent alongside Jamie Parker as Theo. Jamie's also in The Hour, with Everyone Ever That Was British, and James Corden snogged Nick Grimshaw at the Brits.

That's just the actors, though. Following them has led me to the world of the British entertainment industry, a place I now love deeply and wholeheartedly for so many reasons, especially compared to the Hollywood industry. But through the text of the play, I have come to look more personally - the way the boys do - at certain aspects of literature, and at my way of thinking about it. I already had Wilde, and GK Chesterton, a little - who, in turn, sort of reminds me of Hector. I had the Romantics - Keats the sweetheart and Coleridge the dreamer and Byron the madman. I knew Blake and Eliot - but none of them, bar Oscar, who is in a different part of my heart, have had the impact that the poets quoted in The History Boys have had on me. It isn't because they're the ones featured in the play. They affect me for the same reason that they're the ones featured in the play – because it's some of the most gutting commentary about the human condition ever put down on paper.

I knew Auden a little already, but man, the war poets, particularly Sassoon – that's lead to a deeper interest and trauma about the First World War, something I already was fairly emotionally invested in, due to the experiences of some literary characters in novels. Then, of course, there's also A.E. Housman, who is, now, far and away my favourite poet. I have read every poem Housman ever published and I have dark Housman in-jokes with one of my friends and I love him and he kills me. His stuff is so.. bleak, but it's so real. Also, I once had Carl Barat of The Libertines, my only idol in the truest sense of that word, recite my favourite Housman poem directly into my ear in a salon bar in Paris, and that was an odd moment on a journey that started with The History Boys, so, you know.

Last month, I went to see a production of The History Boys that was running at the Sydney Opera House. I haven't had the opportunity before now to actually see a new run of the show, but the idea has always filled me with trepidation, because it wasn't my cast. This is an absolutely ridiculous notion for a fan of theatre to have, because plays are changeable, the casts are always moving on, new productions are interesting. I've fantasy-cast plenty of my favourite plays and musicals in my mind, oh, wouldn't Jamie Parker be amazing as Jack in Earnest? Gee, if Brendon Urie ever did Broadway, he'd make a perfect Marius in Les Mis, he looks just like the book description of Marius.

I've wondered if my fear about re-casting The History Boys was because it was a play I'd seen in its original run, or because I was now used to the movie, but I don't think it is - I've seen new shows in their original runs, and I've seen film adaptations of theatre, and it doesn't stop me fantasy-casting those works or being keen to see new versions. There was just something about The History Boys that made me want to keep it as it was, to protect it, or my memory of it.

I made myself go and see The History Boys when it ran at the Opera House last month, despite being very nervous about it. I was scared it wouldn't be the same, I was scared that it wouldn't mean as much to me. I was scared that my obsession with the characters was too tied into my fondness for the actors, after following their careers for seven years. But I forced myself to go, to go and see - to test myself on how much I really loved the work, as an entity, as opposed to loving a particular performance of the work.

It was a successful experiment. I definitely love the work, and the work definitely stands on its own. The moment we got there, I picked up a flyer with a pictures of the eight boys on it, posing in character. Simply from their body language in these shots, I could immediately identify which characters they were meant to be. I then looked them up in the actual program, and I'd gotten six out of eight correct, and the two I mixed up with each other were a pretty understandable mix-up, especially due to one of them being the boy who, in my opinion, gave the most different/out-of-character/weak performance compared to the original.

The new production wasn't quite perfect, it wasn't the same, I didn't like it quite as much, but it was The History Boys, it was my show, they were those characters. My attachment wasn't just to the one-off performances of the original cast. The personalities of each of the characters - the meaning and implication behind the lines performed, the analysis I've made of those boys over the years - this company had clearly studied the text in the same way, because despite the difference in actors - and some of them were very different - they were those boys, they were easily recognizable, and they came alive again.

There were a few flaws. Unfortunately, the character I mentioned above - the one I didn't pick out and the one who ended up being the weakest, to me, was Scripps, who is my favourite character in the show. His good nature, sheepishness, resignation and inner turmoil about his religion make him incredibly complex. He's an amazing friend to both Dakin and Posner, and he's basically an incredible role model - he's a genuinely good person. I'm not going to write an essay on Scripps' inner soul, but know this - I could. It's been seven years, and I'm still not tired of how much I like Scripps. Most of the other actors characters really got their characters - Dakin, Posner, Timms, Totty and Irwin in particular were all just... Wonderful. Timms and Posner played their roles slightly differently from the original actors, but still in a way that was really true to the characters.

The actor playing Scripps unfortunately just did not get Scripps. I'm not just saying this because he's my favourite and so I was judging him more closely, or because I'm desperately fond of Jamie Parker, his actor - out of all the boys, he's the dearest to me, but it's because of his own crazy self, not because of his role, I love them both separately. I saw the show twice, in hope that he'd improve, and I saw it the second time with other people who know at least the film and they agreed - that actor did not get Scripps. He was too self-satisfied, and the way he delivered some lines completely changed the meaning and implication of them, by extension changing the personality and intentions of the character. He was the only one of the boys to do this, far and away the most recognizably different. This was sad to me.

Another thing I disliked was the fact that the piano - there's piano in The History Boys, several singing parts, it's part of Hector's class and in the original, Scripps is the piano player - was played by several different boys, including Dakin and Lockwood. I presume this is because the actor playing Scripps wasn't good enough at piano to do the whole thing - he played on a couple of simpler things - but Scripps as the pianist has always meant a lot to me, especially as an accompanist to Posner. It paints a picture about their relationship as friends, and it's one of my favourite things about the show. So it made for weirdness to have these scenes where it's just meant to be Dakin, Scripps and Pos, and then, because Scripps can't play the piano, Lockwood's hanging around ineffectually. So that irked me.

I have three serious favourite scenes in the show, and, thankfully, two of those three were really satisfying. One of my three favourites is the "can you teach the Holocaust" lesson with the boys, Irwin and Hector. That entire scene, the argument, the defence, makes me get tight in the chest, every time. It makes me really feel something, feel the anger or thrill as if I was in the class myself, wanting to shout or contribute. This company did this scene well - even Scripps did okay, it was the only moment where his friendship with Pos really came across, in his defence of him in this moment. They did it justice.

The next of my favourite scenes that they really knocked out of the park was the final scene between Dakin and Irwin, when Dakin gets his scholarship and goes to ask Irwin out for a 'drink.' This scene, wow, the actors playing Dakin and Irwin, their chemistry was off the charts. It was really something, like this slight undercurrent for most of the first act, and then as soon as they had scenes alone - BAM. Their private scene prior to Dakin's Oxbridge exam was also very good, but this one, I actually found it difficult to breathe. It was electric. I've read Alan Bennett's thoughts on this scene - that he was encouraged, for the film version I think, to go further, that the tension wouldn't come across on film, that they needed to make Dakin grab Irwin by the shirt, or add a kiss. Bennett rejected this idea, and I'm glad, and I love this scene in the movie, but it doesn't nearly give me a heart-attack the way that this live scene did, simply from Dakin trailing one finger over Irwin's hand. It was amazing, completely perfect.

I suppose two out of three ain't bad, but unfortunately the final of my three favourite scenes was very disappointing. It's, of course, the Drummer Hodge discussion between Hector and Posner – I'm willing to bet that if you've seen one quote from the History Boys floating around the internet, it's Hector's beautiful speech after he describes the meaning of a line and Posner says “I felt that, a bit.” Hector's response is one of the most lovely lines, a sentiment that I am sure everyone has felt, and, upon reflection, I'm sure it was this scene that made me know, at that opening night in 2006, that I had found something that was going to be very important to me.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you ... and here it is!, set down by someone else, a person you've never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

This scene comes at a crucial time in the play, it is quiet, it has an undercurrent of immense sadness due to Hector's circumstances, that Posner does not yet know about, and about how touched he is by the boy's devotion to his teachings. It is just... really something special, and in the new production I saw, it wasn't. It wasn't well done. Posner was fine, and actually close to tears in his last recitation of the Hardy poem, but Hector... There was a problem with this Hector, played by Australian TV veteran John Wood, in the production in general, but in this scene it was just unforgiveable.

I'd been intending to write up my thoughts about seeing a new version of The History Boys ever since I saw it a few weeks ago, but I hadn't found the time. Yesterday, I was making notes in my diary about writing this post. I literally put down my pen while writing “Finish History Boys Blog” to pick up my phone and answer a text. The text was telling me that Richard Griffiths had died after complications with surgery. He was 65. Hector, at the end of the play, also dies unexpectedly in his sixties, and the irony or coincidence seemed too cruel that I just wrote back “no, that's not possible.” I went on Twitter and I knew it was true. Aside from news sources, the boys – Jamie, Sam, Russell – were already grieving.

I was horrified and devastated – as a fan, because he made art that I loved, not only in The History Boys but all throughout his career. But I was more deeply touched with sorrow for those guys, especially Jamie, whom, as previously mentioned, I am inordinately fond of, and who doesn't really hold back when expressing his feelings, even when he has dark thoughts. His hurt was cutting and palpable, and I was so sad that this lovely, honest, unusual man, whom I respect and care about, had lost his friend.

But I was sad for all of them – they had been a family, they had toured the world together for years, they are still close. Richard Griffiths was a part of many wonderful things, and many people will feel his loss, but this was my corner of his world, and knowing that these people, who together made something that means the world to me, had lost one of their own and how that must make them feel. That hurt me much more deeply than knowing that Richard will never sign my opening-night program alongside other members of the cast that I've met over the years.

It wasn't until yesterday, upon Richard's death, that I realised exactly what John Wood lacked, as Hector. I realised because two of his boys - Jamie Parker and James Corden - wrote beautiful tributes to his work, and they put into words what I could not quite grasp myself. In a lovely piece for the Guardian, Corden wrote “Richard had an ability in even the biggest comic creations to give his characters a humane quality – he always played the truth of the scenes, never the jokes.” This was it, this was it exactly. To start with, Wood didn't seem to be making a huge effort – he forgot or messed up some lines at each performance, and I'd know, because I was literally reciting the whole thing under my breath, start to finish – and he also dropped his British accent a bunch of times, like he just... stopped caring or something.

But regardless of that, it's what Corden mentioned – playing the truth, never the jokes – that's the important thing. That's what made Richard as Hector so lovable, and what Wood truly lacked. He played the jokes, hell, he added jokes. He added strange bits of accent in some parts, doing imitations – Scottish at some point, and in the scene where he talks about the pronunciation of “words” sounding Welsh, he tried to go into a Welsh accent, which was just... unnecessary and missed the point. But the most grievous thing, in my opinion, was – in that Hardy poem scene, in that 'hand has come out and taken yours' scene, he played up a piece of physical comedy, in which Posner reaches out to touch Hector's hand, and Hector smacks it away with a finger waggle. They left a pause for laughter and everything, and I was pretty appalled.

Jamie, in a Twitter essay, went on to describe another aspect of Richard's perfect performance, something else that Wood certainly lacked:

“Richard was a musician. To my knowledge he wasn’t a singer per se, or player of any particular instruments, beyond the odd doodle on a guitar. But as much as anyone I’ve encountered he had a complete understanding that it is what one does with the silences between sounds that give those sounds their impact. And even though the sounds he dealt in were those of the spoken word, and not ‘notes’, this remains the only way to describe his profound, innate musicianship. It only occurs to me now just how spoilt we History Boys all were, as new practitioners of our trade, to get to listen to Richard night after night, over two and a half years, handling A.B.’s non-naturalistic text – those long, elegant, carefully constructed sentences - with such natural, deft delicacy that it just seemed self-evident those words were supposed to be spoken that way.

It may sound a ludicrous tribute, but the man spoke in whole sentences - while making damn sure the audience clocked every single word along the way. Honestly, there are not many around who can do both; who can fine-tune the very same inflection on the very same line from night to night, in order to make it seem like it’s being thought of for the very first time. This way of working may be less pyrotechnical than an improvised, unpredictable, ‘dangerous’ approach, but it is every inch as exciting, entirely as flamboyant, absolutely as compelling, just as infinitely fascinating, vibratingly beautiful - and moreover it’s the kind of thing that’s deeply needed if we are to retain our ability to bring epic and larger-than-life texts to life; to manifest them in real time for the collective mind.”

John Wood as Hector really had an air of Michael Gambon's Dumbledore about him, in the sense of not really respecting or understanding the character he was playing or the play he was performing in. Some scenes were fine, but never fantastic, he was saying his lines, not feeling them, and certainly not with the spontaneity and ability to turn unnatural dialogue into perfectly understandable conversation that Jamie described. I don't think I realised how difficult that must be until I watched another person fail to hold it up, and I am deeply grateful for Richard's performance and for the fact that I both got to see it live and in a permanently recorded fashion.

All in all, though, seeing this new production did prove and re-affirm my attachment to this work – that it isn't just a fondness for an actor or a moment in time or an association. This show, in all its forms, has changed my life in many ways – both within its own text, my feelings about the characters, the dialogue, quotes, the poems – and within its existence in the real world, the actors, my interest in their careers, my interest in theatre in general. I haven't even mentioned the writer, Alan Bennett, who has produced many other clever, twisted and generally brilliant works which I greatly enjoy, particularly his novellas Smut, The Laying On Of Hands, and The Uncommon Reader. I think, though, that first and foremost, being a fan of this play has made me more intelligent: more interested in things, more able to imbibe art in the way Hector wanted his boys to, for its own sake. More able to see moments of history, and long-dead writers, as real things, real people, to have the kind of investment and empathy that I never had in my own education. It makes me want to learn, makes me consider that, with this perspective, if I went back to study now, the way I approached it may be very different, and much more successful. It's just as Posner tells Irwin about Hector - "He makes you want to."

At the closing of the play, after Hector's funeral, there's a surreal scene in which Ms Lintott speaks to the boys about their futures, how they all turned out. At the very end, Hector appears one last time. "Pass the parcel, that's sometimes all you can do," he tells them. "Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me. Not for you. But for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys, that's the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on."

They have.


  1. Richard Griffiths is really Henry from The History Boys, to me. People have come up to me since yesterday to tell me "Harry's uncle Vernon died" and I want to tell them he was mostly Henry but they won't get it.

    The part in the play where they left the pause for people to laugh... why would they do that? It's almost insensitive, to me. I'm not as attached to this work as you are and I was taken back now that you've mentioned it. That's a moment to be absorbed in silenced, not laughed at.

    I wish I had seen the play but I'm glad I watched the movie, which I'll be watching again now, clearly.

  2. Hold the fucking phone, it isn't Henry, it's HECTOR! Oh, me.

  3. Beautiful piece of writing. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for writing this beautiful blog post. Having only recently read The History Boys as I am studying it at school, I already feel connected to it, more so than any other book I've ever read - even the book I would consider to be my favourite. Before reading this post I struggled to put my finger on why I got such a strangely warm, sad yet happy feeling when reading and studying particular parts of the play, specifically Hector's ending line. Yet reading this truly did feel as if a hand had come out and taken mine, in fact reading this has reduced me to tears as it's so lovely to see somebody with such a beautiful passion for not only this play but literature itself. For instance it saddens me that some people in my class haven't even bothered to read the play, that they'll never even attempt to feel that special connection which this blog post has so perfectly explained. So thank you again, and I wish I could have seen the live play with its original cast; although at the time I would have been a mere 6 years of age and I'm not sure I would have benefitted much from watching it then.