Interviews: Alan Bennett Syndicated Interview

Since his emergence as one quarter of the Beyond The Fringe team Alan Bennett has cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s most successful playwrights. His work for the stage includes Forty Years On, Habeas Corpus, Kafka’s Dick, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. He adapted The Wind In The Willows for the National Theatre in the 1990s, and wrote The Madness of George III.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, this was turned into an acclaimed film in 1994, re-titled The Madness of King George. Among Bennett’s other writing for the screen is A Private Function and Prick Up Your Ears, while his award winning television work includes Talking Heads.

In 2004 he reunited with Hytner to bring The History Boys to the National Theatre, an 80s set story of eight aspirant grammar school pupils sitting their Oxbridge exams. Guided by the twin teaching influences of the inspirational but flawed Hector (Richard Griffiths) and the cynical Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) they find themselves torn between romance and pragmatism at an important stage in their lives.

How personal a project was The History Boys for you?

“It was personal to me in the sense that I went to a northern grammar school, a state school in Leeds, which didn’t normally send pupils to Oxford or Cambridge. Our year was not particularly clever I think, but the headmaster had himself been to Cambridge and decided to try and push some of us to go through the scholarship examinations. About half a dozen of us did get in, not all reading history – in that sense it’s not like the play – but I did history, so I suppose in that sense it mirrors my own experience.”

And university did prove a life changing experience for you, leading to Beyond The Fringe and your subsequent writing and performing career, didn’t it?

“What happened in those days was, before you went to university you had to do your national service. It happened that in my national service I went on a course to learn Russian and that course was taught at Cambridge. So I spent a year at Cambridge, I’d got a place to study at the university proper afterwards, but I thought that since I’d been to Cambridge now maybe I ought to try to go to Oxford. So I ended up going to Oxford.”

When did you and Nicholas Hytner think that this could be another film?

“I never thought of it as a film really. We didn’t start talking about it until it had been on at the National for nine months or so. And then he said if we were to make a film of it it would have to be in the summer holidays [to get a suitable school location], so we ought to think about it. We talked about it and everyone in the cast was keen. We then devised the method with [producer] Kevin Loader of financing it. Then I started writing the script, though there wasn’t much writing to do, it was mostly cutting and Nick was as good at that as I was. He’s as responsible for the script as I am.”

It was important to secure the original cast members, particularly the eight ‘boys’ who originated their roles at the National, wasn’t it?

“Yes, though you would have been a brave man to tell them that their roles were going to be played by somebody else. There was never any question that it would be re-cast, they had such a grip on their characters. But they’d enjoyed doing it, and they’d enjoyed doing the film and the fact that they’re at the start of their careers and they’ve had a success like this was wonderful.”

How much did they bring to the development of their characters?

“When I wrote the script originally I had a list of names, this was before we cast anybody, but I didn’t really know what they were going to look like or what they would be like. And so I just wrote down ‘Boy 1’, ‘Boy 2’, ‘Boy 3’ and then Nick allotted the stuff, according to the boys who turned up. We found that Timms, who’s played by James Corden, was very funny so he tended to get funnier lines. Once you found he could do a lot with them you tend to write more for him. Even when I was writing extra lines for the film script I’d still put ‘Boy 1’, ‘Boy 2’, ‘Boy 3’, and then left it to Nick to share them out.”

The boys are great in their roles, but clearly the casting of Richard Griffiths as Hector was equally crucial, wasn’t it?

“I’d not thought of him for it, although I had worked with him before. But once you cast him it all fell into place somehow and it did seem like you couldn’t have thought of anybody else – which is what good casting is. They inhabit the role so completely that you can’t see round it any more.”

The production seems to make no compromises to the very English story and setting, and yet you enjoyed great success with it on Broadway. That must have been very pleasing.

“When it went to New York I was booked to go about a fortnight before it opened in order to listen to a preview audience and see what jokes didn’t work. I went along and I couldn’t really see there was any difference. The audience seemed to respond in exactly the same way as the London audiences had done. So we ended up not altering anything. At the time it seemed more of a gamble, but in retrospect you can see that the theme of trying to get into a good university, and the clash between an education that’s based on examinations and qualifications and an education for life such as Hector represents, that’s a fairly universal thing. In that sense it’s not surprising.”

Now that the stage run has ended, it must be nice to have a version of it preserved forever on film, isn’t it?

“It’s a particular pleasure because in fact the film is a very good account of the play. It’s shorter obviously, and there are some parts of it that have been cut. But the actual spirit of the film is the same as that of the play.”

How much of a political piece did you intend it to be, either in the 1980s Thatcher era setting, or did you perhaps have some more modern reading in mind?

“It’s only set in the 1980s for a reason which has nothing to do with politics really. It’s because that was the last time that Oxford and Cambridge examined in the way that they do in the film. That’s why it was set in the 80s. I didn’t think of it as a political parable in any way, and politics isn’t particularly referred to. I think that kind of teaching though, which Irwin represents, is much more prevalent now than probably it was 20 or 30 years ago. Teachers who’ve been to see the play say that there just isn’t time for the kind of teaching Hector does now, that their schedules are so horrendous that if they wanted to teach like that now they couldn’t do it. And it wouldn’t be fair on the children because they are keen to get through their exams, if they want to get anywhere.”

The thumping 80s soundtrack is surely the least likely of any that has accompanied one of your movies, isn’t it?

“It’s all a mystery to me, I didn’t have anything to do with it. When we were choosing the music for the film I think Nick asked the boys what they’d like and they made a list. It was mainly a list of things they couldn’t stand. They wanted as much of Kate Bush as they could have, they didn’t want Madness – which I like. So a lot of them were their choices.”

The actors who play your History Boys are about as old now as you were when you found success with Beyond The Fringe. And yet they feel so much younger, don’t they?

“I’m still, in my 70s, trammelled and inhibited by class and upbringing and all that. But when the Prince of Wales came to the charity screening we had in aid of the Prince’s Trust, and he and the Duchess of Cornwall came round, James Corden was so totally uninhibited by either of them. He’d say ‘that’s a lovely dress, I do love that dress’. I thought ‘I wish I was as carefree as that’.”

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