Magazine article The Spectator

The History Boys Film Gets Me All Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

The History Boys Film Gets Me All Wrong

Article excerpt

I've been assaulted by a National Treasure. Alan Bennett, whose awardwinning play The History Boys premiers as a movie this week, has cited my fellow historian Niall Ferguson and me as the inspiration for the loathsome, creepy, shallow, pederastic 'TV historian' character called Irwin, who represents all that is wrong about the presentation of the past in Britain. In the play -- which has already enjoyed a run of over 400 performances in the National Theatre and on Broadway -- Irwin's character is so repellent that audiences are delighted when he suffers an accident that leaves him wheelchair-bound.

To have been the inspiration for one of the great villains of the international cinema -- eviscerated by no less a literary paladin than Alan Bennett -- was therefore within my grasp. I would be a cultural footnote, enjoying a fame that would last long after my own books were dust. I might even put 'Villain in Alan Bennett play' in my Who's Who entry.

Every writer has to develop a rhinoceros hide against criticism, so the fact that a stranger disliked my work did nothing to prick the pachydermatous layers of self-protection I've grown over the years. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when I watched a preview of the movie and discovered that, far from being the hateful representative of all that is dreadful about modern society, Irwin has been turned into a rather sympathetic character. My hopes of undying fame as a popular hate-figure slipped away. True, Irwin is still a fraud who lies about his educational achievements, belittles the Holocaust and plans to perform fellatio on one of his pupils -- he's still characterised as a 'reckless, immoral' teacher -- but he is played in the movie by Stephen Campbell Moore as an essentially good chap.

The central argument of both the play and the film is about the difference between Knowledge and Education. 'Knowledge is not general, it is specific, ' says the hero, the schoolteacher Hector (played by Richard Griffiths), 'and nothing to do with getting on.' His General Studies classes are spent creating 'rounded human beings' out of eight brilliant Oxbridge candidates who are able to sing fluently in French, quote reams of Stevie Smith, debate the origins of the Great War and recite by heart the closing sequences of Brief Encounter. They are humorous, friendly, sophisticated, intensely respectful of each other's sexual and racial differences, and together present Civilisation at its best.

Hector's idyllic, Platonic form of pure education is shattered by the arrival of Irwin, the temporary contract teacher, whom the homophobic, results-obsessed, snobbish headmaster Felix has drafted in to unnerve and subsequently displace Hector. For Irwin, a devotee of revisionist history, 'Truth is no more at issue in an exam than thirst at a winetasting or fashion at a striptease.' When Irwin criticises a boy's essay for being dull, and is told that at least it was all true, he explodes, 'What's truth got to do with it? What's truth got to do with anything?' In one of his interviews for the movie, Alan Bennett said of Niall Ferguson and me, 'Having found that taking the contrary view pays dividends, they seem to make this the tone of their customary discourse.' The possibility that Niall and I might genuinely believe the things we write seems to have simply passed Bennett by. It is all done solely to shock, and to collect dividends. For him, an approach to history that ignores the left-liberal assumptions of so much post-war history teaching -- especially at universities -- simply has to be actuated by a desire to be perverse, since it cannot possibly have been arrived at objectively. …

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