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The History Boys - Alan Bennett & Nicholas Hytner interview

Alan Bennett on the set of The History Boys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ALAN Bennett and Nicholas Hytner talk about The History Boys and its remarkable journey from The National Theatre to Broadway to cinema.

Q. Was there ever a time during the whole of this project – from stage to film – where you felt like the teachers and that the boys weren’t giving you the respect you felt you were due?
Alan Bennett: If they’d been working with Alec Guinness, for instance, they wouldn’t have known they were born if they’d not towed the line!

Q. Did they take the mickey out of you?
Alan Bennett: I think the writer’s quite low down in the hierarchy really. But the fact that they took the piss out of Nicholas [Hynter] who, besides being the director, is also director of the National Theatre is, I’d have thought, slightly more risky.

Q. Did you have to go into Irwin mode ever and tell them they had to get on and make the film?
Nicholas Hytner: When Alan first started rehearsals at the National we did spend a couple of weeks teaching. They hadn’t been taught a lot of the material that gets taught in the play – or if they had, they’d forgotten. None of them are university graduates, as it happens, but the great advantage of acting is that they never stop learning and they never want to stop learning.

A lot of the most brilliant university graduates stop learning the day they graduate but it’s a professional necessity for actors always to be curious and always to want to know new stuff. Actually, those two weeks we spent in rehearsal back in March 2004 looking at the kind of poetry they look at and discussing the kind of history they discuss in the film were fantastically enjoyable.

I am rather more of an Irwin than Alan is – but I have to be because I’m the one who, in the end, has the target, which is the opening night or the take that we shall print on. So I’m the one who’s much more inclined to get their via the pracy or the gist. So a lot of it was like a teaching film.

Q. You’ve taken The History Boys from The National to Broadway to the movie in two years, which is remarkable. What’s that been like? Has it been something of a pressure cooker?
Alan Bennett: The thing I think about is that once you’ve done it, you then start to think about what you’re going to do next. It’s much easier to follow something that’s not been as successful as this.

Nicholas Hytner: Well, I’ve had a theatre to run. I’ve not had the opportunity to slow down. But it’s been a wonderful constant for me that they’ve been around, all these guys, for the last two and a half years. But it’s taken us by surprise every step of the way. Today is the last day we’re all going to be together.

Q. American audiences presumably don’t know what Oxbridge and Gap years are and this is a story that is very much about England and Yorkshire. Was it the case that after your experiences with The Madness of King George was there any pressure from the studio to make anything a tad more universal?
Nicholas Hytner: Not at all, absolutely none. Partly because we set it up that way. The only film we were interested in making was the film with this cast who had total ownership of their parts. Because the idea was to get close to them we asked Kevin Loader and Damien Jones to come on board before we found anybody to finance it, to show us how to make it as cheaply as possibl, so that we could go with a complete and non-negotiable package – cast, script, budget, schedule, take it or leave it. BBC, DNA and Fox Searchlight embraced that enthusiastically. There was no pressure at all, partly because at that price tag they’re permeable to the notion that the most universal things are the most specific.

There’s a commercially-imposed kind of notion by the providers of mass entertainment that everything has to be blanded out, or at the very least Americanised, but it’s actually not true. The most universal things are things which you know to be are particular and specific and rooted in their time and place.

We found on Broadway that, yeah sure, they don’t know what a Gap year is or what A-levels are but you honestly don’t have to be a genius to work out that it’s something like something that you already know. In a sense, Oxford or Cambridge is only a maguffin; it’s a thing they happen to want. They don’t particularly know in the play or in the movie what it is they’ve been told to aim for. It’s an excuse to get to know them, to explore who they are and how they behave with each other.

Alan Bennett: If, for instance, we’d made the film after the show had been to Broadway, it would have been exactly the same film but we would have been assured that they would have understood it. We didn’t have to do any alterations for Broadway. I was supposed to go a fortnight before it opened to alter anything that was necessary and there was nothing really.

Nicholas Hytner: I think we made the following changes… I think the word ‘rugger’ was changed to ‘rugby’ and the word ‘wank’ was accompanied by a gesture because they found that unless they did that, Americans had forgotten what a wank was – although they had presumably seen other English movies and since wanking seems to be a major feature of the British film industry, they must have known!

Alan Bennett: [Laughs] And I think the other one, which wasn’t changed in the end, was during the exchange between Irwin and Dakin, when Irwin says: “I didn’t think you were that way inclined.” And Dakin replies: “Well, it’s the end of term, I got into Oxford, I thought I might push the boat out.” They were supposed not to understand that, so it was altered to: “Well, I’ve got in at Oxford, it’s the end of term, so I thought I might as well put out the red carpet.” But that somehow seemed far more obscene!

Q. What was your own experience of going to university and were you under any pressure to go to Oxford or Cambridge?
Alan Bennett: My experience came before most of you were born. My school was a state school in Leeds and the headmaster usually sent students to Leeds University but he didn’t normally send them to Oxford or Cambridge. But the headmaster happened to have been to Cambridge and decided to try and push some of us towards Oxford and Cambridge. So, half a dozen of us tried – not all of us in history – and we all eventually got in. So, to that extent, it [The History Boys] comes out of my own experience.

It [Cambridge] wasn’t a holy grail in the sense that I’d never been to Cambridge. But then, when I did go, the contrast between Leeds, which was very black and sooty in those days, and Cambridge, which seemed like something out of a fairystory, in the grip of a hard frost, was just wonderful. I’ve never forgotten that experience. But I had nobody at school that was either like Hector or Irwin. The masters had no idea what was expected of you in the scholarship exam, so you just had to busk it really.

Nicholas Hytner: I was at Manchester Grammar where the pressure was on to get the O-levels and then the A-levels and try for Oxford and Cambridge. So I was aware that was the goal from an early age. And when I got there, I absolutely loved it. But now I’m in a position of looking out for and identifying promising directors and it never crosses my mind to wonder where they went to university.

I think the reason that so many directors do come from university is that it gives you the brass neck to go out into the world and become a director – and what a ridiculous thing for a young person to declare that he or she is. Imagine, suddenly you’re in a room with Maggie Smith and/or Nigel Hawthorne, what can you tell them?

Q. Did you write the role of Hector in The History Boys with someone specific in mind?
Alan Bennett: I had no idea of who could play it, no notion really. Then Richard came to see us but I don’t think it was decided at that meeting. The trouble is, as soon as you’ve chosen somebody it obscures anybody else you might have thought of. It’s like going to a place that you’ve never been to before – you’ve got a picture of it and then you go there and that picture is totally wiped out by the reality.

Q. Did you find the boys irreverence towards you at all annoying?
Alan Bennett: [Smiles] I don’t mind it. I’m used to it. I’m no threat to anyone.

Read our review

The History Boys interviewed