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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    A very British blockbuster



    Alan Bennett's The History Boys was one of the National Theatre's biggest hits ever. But it is being transferred to the screen for a tiny £2 million. In this exclusive report from the set, David Gritten finds out how they pulled it off, and why



    Over the summer, two adjacent grammar schools, Watford Boys and Watford Girls, played host to a delightful class reunion. But the schools' former pupils were not involved; instead, it was the cast of a National Theatre play, Alan Bennett's The History Boys, which has now been adapted for the screen. For five weeks, the two schools in effect became film sets.





    Alan Bennett and Nicholas Hytner: attempting to replicate the magic of the stage play



    Largely due to the huge public affection for Bennett and all his works, The History Boys has been a massive success at the National. It focuses on two influential schoolteachers with wildly contrasting philosophies of education, and eight smart, witty sixth-form boys studying for Oxford and Cambridge exams.



    "Even in rehearsals, I didn't realise it would be as popular as it proved," says the theatre's artistic director Nicolas Hytner, who directed the play and now the film. "After I read it, I said: 'It's brilliant, but it's quite esoteric.' We scheduled 70 or 80 performances." It has been performed 222 times at the National to sell-out audiences, with more to come; it returns later this month, and after a British tour, again in December. Next April, the play opens on Broadway.



    The trick for the film, then, is to replicate the magic that made The History Boys work on stage. That suggests pressure, but when I arrive in Watford, the atmosphere on set is relaxed and jokey. The production has taken over the girls' school hall, and on its stage the boys are singing a tribute to their beloved teacher Hector - a close-harmony rendition of Bye Bye Blackbird.



    Seats in the hall are filled by extras, playing staff, parents and boys at the school. Hytner pads around amiably as the camera tracks slowly, capturing the boys' faces. In a far corner, wearing his trademark expression, a blend of wistful hope and dawning disappointment, Bennett writes on a notepad. Famously shy when the media are around, he keeps his head down and his gaze averted.



    When the scene is shot from all angles, Hytner calmly says "Cut," and the hall dissolves into excited chatter. The eight young actors (mostly in their early 20s) who play the boys stand around a piano as one of their number, Jamie Parker, improvises blues and jazz tunes. Then they descend from the stage and mingle with the extras. Those playing younger pupils are from the neighbouring boys' school, and they surround the actors, peppering them with questions. Parker and Samuel Barnett do a mock fight, one pretending to sock the other in the jaw, with accompanying sound effects. The boys giggle.



    Then Hytner, smiling broadly, makes his way through the hall like some pied piper, leading a trail of excitable boys to a monitor, where they watch a playback of the previous scene.



    The mood is one of happy confidence, fostered partly by the fact that, unusually for a play transferring from stage to screen, the entire cast has remained intact. These people know each other well.



    Hytner and Bennett have been down this road before, of course. The Madness of George III, which also had its première at the National, became The Madness of King George on film. But Hytner says the adaptation process this time was very different.



    "We really opened up for the film of King George, but then the places where its characters lived and worked cried out to be opened up. The world of this story is the school, so the big decision we took was not to twist ourselves in knots trying to give it a false sense of scale.



    "Closed worlds like schools, army bases, prisons or hospitals are fantastic, because they stand as a microcosm for a bigger world. You have a better chance of finding universal truths if you focus truthfully and from experience on a small corner of the world."



    Happily, this view coincides with the film's modest £2 million budget. Producer Kevin Loader (Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Enduring Love) began talking to Hytner about a History Boys film as recently as February. Time was of the essence; the cast, and schools used for the set, would only be free in the summer.



    "Alan had already started adapting it for the screen," said Loader. "So we sat down and worked out how we could most quickly get this financed without lots of tedious discussion. We decided to make it for as little money as possible." BBC Films contributed money in return for British broadcast rights, while from a crowd of American distributors, Fox Searchlight emerged victorious. "I closed the financing at Cannes in May," Loader recalled. "We were in production three weeks later."



    But to make the film this cheaply involved unorthodox arrangements; costumes are being borrowed from the National, and the film is in effect a National Theatre production. "The only way to do it this cheaply was to retain ownership," as Loader puts it. Cast and major crew have deferred large proportions of their payments, "so 'History Boys - The Collective' should get a share of money at the back end."



    Members of this "collective" include Richard Griffiths, playing the beloved veteran English teacher Hector, who believes in culture and intellectual inquiry; Stephen Campbell Moore, a young whiz-kid master who cynically shows the boys how to play the system and pass their exams; Clive Merrison as a results-driven headmaster; and Frances de la Tour, a history teacher who asserts the primacy of learning facts.





    Back in the hall, it's time for Merrison to take the stage, delivering a tribute to the headmaster's sworn enemy Hector in terms he knows Hector would have hated; his speech is full of groaning references to "opening a deposit account in the bank of literature" and "shareholders in that wonderful world of words".



    Afterwards, Merrison expressed pleasure at being retained in the play's transition from stage to screen: "We English actors, we don't get to do much feature film acting," he said. (He had a role in the National's production of The Madness of George III, but was replaced by Ian Holm in the film version.) He described the experience of the play as "a phenomenon. It's the audience reaction that keeps you going - and the reaction was ecstatic."



    Merrison thinks he knows why: "The star of the play is there, but he isn't on stage. Alan's authorial voice is clear, and it comes through all the characters."



    Clearly, then, it's time to try for a few words with the star - so I walk over to Bennett's corner and loom over him, offering no chance of escape. He smiles nervously.



    It's not often one sees a screenwriter anywhere near a film set, but Bennett confides he's been on hand a fair bit, to rewrite the odd line quickly when needed. "I'm here as much for social reasons as professional," he said. "I could do it as well over the phone. But I was at the rehearsals throughout for the stage play, and it helps somehow. You get to know the cast and what they can do. You remember things they've done that they've forgotten, and you remind them about ways they did the lines earlier on. So it helps in that sense. Anyway, I tell myself so."



    He found The History Boys quite intractable to adapt: "You need the classroom scenes, so you can't open it out as you could King George.



    Some of the dialogue has to be shot on the move, not statically as it would be on stage. I don't have much notion of that, so I leave it to Nick."



    Yet Bennett made a major change from the play, which started by stating the contrasting attitudes of Hector and Irwin. In his screenplay, it's the boys who take us into the story.



    "If you told it the other way round in a film, it would seem like a tract," said Bennett. "The message would be too much in the foreground. It's human stories, those are the ones you're interested in. So the argument, as it were, is submerged and that's the way it should be, really. You've got to get the audience interested in the lives of the boys."



    He likes the fact that this cast has been a unit for so long: "They can do long shots, three or four minutes together, because they know the work. You get to know their strengths, and they do themselves. They also take the piss out of each other all the time."



    As they do to him, apparently. The "boys" have nicknamed him "AB", and teasingly treat him as if they have no idea who he is, and don't care. "Oh, give it a rest, AB!" is the typical chorus, accompanied by much eye-rolling. Bennett, who hates being regarded as some lovable national treasure, is said to delight in this indelicate treatment.



    But to me he plays along, sounding disapproving and a touch disappointed. "Ah yes," he sighs, "there's no respect for the writer."

  2. #2
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    Well doesn't this look like a jolly good film. It was filmed at my school! Do you wnat some insider knowledge! The uniform they were is my normal uniform! And teh crew were very rude. They told us to be quiet in playtime! I asked who was in it and they told me to go away. They ruined the school play and disrupted lessons. Yeah there taht bad. The film looks good but tehy were real wankers! From ~GEorGE~

  3. #3
    Senior Member Country: Great Britain
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    Good to see a BFI short feature called Handkerchief Drill (made in 1949) preceding the main film. It seemed to go down very well with the audience.



    Also, I enjoyed the many references to classic films in the script. Brief Encounter and Now Voyager were both mentioned, and a poster of Gilda appeared on the notice board in the classroom. George Formby and Gracie Fields also managed to get a mention.



    Regards

    Phil Turner

  4. #4
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    I just saw this movie on dvd today! it's comical


  5. #5
    Senior Member Country: England
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    Yes, this is a very good and amusing film. By way of comparison I recently re-watched A Private Function. Also still very good and, if anything, I found it more amusing watching for the second or third time.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Country: UK DB7's Avatar
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    I quite enjoyed it, very understated and very British, but it lacked that certain something to put it on a par with many of the better school-set films.

  7. #7
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    I too quite enjoyed it. I was a little uneasy about the teacher/pupil abuse theme, and some of the "boys" were on the mature side. However, I think the main fault of the film for me was Richard Griffith's performance, dull and unispired, the total opposite of the character he was portraying.

  8. #8
    Senior Member Country: Canada
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    I thought Griffiths was excellent!



    Saw the stage play last year, and wondered if the touring cast would live up to the original cast, particularly Griffiths and the adorable Samuel Bennett as Posner (the gay Jewish lad). Stephen Moore was excellent as Hector, however, and the young guy playing Posner (don't remember his name - Stephen something, perhaps) was just as great as Bennett, albeit giving quite a different interpretation of the character.

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