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.

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Orbit Means Orbit


The people have spoken, united and clear.

Away with the dull tug of gravity.  Away!


Away the dull drone of experts.  “How

Shall we eat, bathe, or breathe?

Will the land not just break apart?”

Moaners are never satisfied!


If only they would get behind it.

Whining that there is no freedom

Drifting lifeless in space.

They lost and must get over it.


Do they not see how glorious,

How free an Empire we could build,

Trading with ringed planets and moons,

Under a billion callous stars?


Drake, Dunkirk, more red on the map,

The people have spoken and will pay any price.

Our countdown to destiny has started,


The universe, blue passports, the thruppenny bit…

Orbit means Orbit.


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Our Child of the Stars might be:


Our Chili of the Stars

(‘This taco is as hot as Aldebaran’)


Our Child of the Starks

(Bloody Game of Thrones…)


Our Child of the Stays

(Rewritten in corsets.  Hmmm, Victorian era not such a bad idea.)


Our Child of the Stares

(Oh, creepy. Or maybe a gloomy teen.)


Our Child of the Stabs

(More Game of Thrones)


Our Child of the Stags

(Deer shapeshifters anyone?)


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Why is Our Child of the Stars based in the 1960s?

Smartphones.  The first novel I completed was a modern adventure with teen protagonists, and I was fed up with smartphones.

No, that’s not a problem, they’d Google.  No, they’d message each other.  No, they have time to text the Mayor that they’re in danger.  No, you can’t use signal problems or running out of battery AGAIN. 

I would’ve gotten away with it – if it wasn’t for those pesky smartphones…

In Our Child of the Stars, it’s true that law enforcement with modern tech would mess with the plot.  But that’s fixable.

Stories come to me, and the setting and period is one of the things that come unbidden.  Sometimes, I need take a step back and challenge my subconscious for being boring or obvious.  This kept feeling like a period piece.

The original short story was written after reading Ray Bradbury, a writer who is nostalgic even when writing about the future.

We mythologise the past, and the Sixties in particular.  It was another country, and they did things differently there.  The novel is posed at that point of high idealism souring, at a time when the wave of change was reaching into further corners.

To write about the past is not to be backward looking.  The book is first and foremost about family. It isn’t a preachy book, but I knew that it would touch on difference – sex, race and sexuality.  It’s about the morality of violence – peace and war, and the dishonesty and power of the state.  The Sixties was a time when all those issues were in ferment, even in out of the way places like Amber Grove.  Arguments exploded and if you look at the news, the pieces haven’t landed yet. Our Child of the Stars does have a nostalgic streak, but also it might make people think, could we have done better?  Can we now do better?  It remembers what we gained as well as what we lost.

Why small town America?  Biggest, it would be easier to hide Cory.  And, I didn’t want to write about radicals in a big city, but peaceniks living in a small town.  Inclusion mattered to me, which is why there are honest, decent people, friends of Gene and Molly, who support the Vietnam war, however reluctantly.  That was part of the tragedy of that conflict.

A book needs a soundtrack.  I write to music.  I knew whose records Gene and Molly are listening to in the original story.  The more I listened to the classics of the era, particularly the folk-protest tradition, the more music became important. It quickly became central to Gene’s character, and the framing of the tale.

There were so many good reasons to go with when I did.  But, also, smartphones.


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