The History Boys is bunk

TL:DR great cast and acting can’t save this morally bonkers and weirdly unrealistic school story.  Spoilers.

The History Boys was an acclaimed play – did I hear that it is being revived, or being turned into a musical?   The film was widely praised.  Alan Bennett is of course a national treasure.  The work deals with love, growing up. the purpose of education and the nature of history.  So, we watched the film on my partner’s birthday, and to quote from the play ‘You can’t polish a turd’.

OK, that’s harsh, but I wasn’t impressed.

The History Boys follows eight scholarship candidates being coached for Oxbridge, in a boy’s grammar school in 1980s Sheffield.  And it’s brilliantly played by the ensemble, some of whom launched a well-deserved career from being in it.  (James Corden, Russell Tovey!)

It’s really problematic.  The eight eighteen year-olds are, to a lad, not real teenagers.  They include well known types; the Christian hunk, the natural charmer, the obvious gay, the working-class kid who’s not expected to succeed.  But they float in an odd world where they learn lines from Brief Encounter, or know show tunes from the Fifties.  They don’t talk football, or music, or much about girls. They are, to be honest, a late middle-aged gay man’s strange fantasy of what he’d like teenagers to be like.

One of the teachers, Hector, regularly gropes every boy in the group, except the completely gay one.  The pupils treat this as a harmless habit of his, although they don’t actually court it.  The idea that they might be upset or suffer any lasting damage – that anyone might have a serious problem with it – is never challenged and is actually laughed off.  It has clearly been happening for years.

The dislikeable Headmaster receives a complaint when Hector gropes a pupil in public.  The Head clearly knows this groping happens – and we are supposed to take him as a homophobic bigot, because he arranges for poor old eccentric Hector to leave.  The bounder.

The gay, repressed, cynical supply-teacher Irwin is slightly more believable.  But then he is propositioned by Dakin, the class charmer, on the last day of term, and agrees.  Under the ridiculous laws of the time, Dakin was underage.  Any rational man would fear they were being set up.  It’s just one of several points in the film where the characters are puppets in the writer’s hands.

Dakin uses the Head’s wandering hands with his girlfriend, not to help her, but to save Hector.  So the lovely old sexual predator gets his job back.  The old letch is completely unrepentant and it’s clear a further group of teenagers can look forward to his crude fumblings.

A writer makes moral choices.  If you paint a sexual predator as harmless, try to get us to condemn his punishment, have his targets defend him, and expect us to cheer when he comes back, to immediately repeat his behaviour… well, you could have made other choices.   It’s an insult to those of us who fought for LGBT liberation in those years.

OK, it’s well-acted, and entertaining.  The verbal duels about history and education and art may distract you from the grope-athon.  Frances De La Tour gets to leaven the undiluted testosterone of the piece.  (Dakin’s love interest barely gets to speak.)

But adults in positions of responsibility using vulnerable people for their own gratification is, guess what, not OK.  Whatever their sex or sexuality.  Null points.

Author: Stephen Cox

London PR consultant and interim, with 30 years experience across not for profit sector. Former Great Ormond Street Hospital/Chelsea and Westminster. Critically acclaimed novels Our Child of the Stars (2019), praised by Guardian, FT, Daily Mail and Grazia, and Our Child of Two Worlds (2022)

One thought on “The History Boys is bunk”

  1. This article seems to get more significant by the day. Someone I know, who was in London theatre at the time History Boys appeared, said that people would huddle in corners.

    ‘It’s awful, isn’t it?’
    ‘Doesn’t it offers a free pass to gropers?’
    ‘I’m gay and I think it’s terrible’

    But it rolls on, unstoppable.

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