STAGE TO SCREENS: "The History Boys" on Film; A Chat with Keith Powell of "30 Rock"

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19 Nov 2006

Keith Powell
Keith Powell
This month we talk to four actors and the director of the film version of Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning The History Boys, and rising American actor Keith Powell, who runs a regional theatre and appears in the NBC sitcom "30 Rock."


Set in 1983 Yorkshire, "The History Boys" follows the course of eight students as they prepare for possible acceptances at Oxford or Cambridge. Overseeing their progress are two teachers: Hector (Richard Griffiths), who seeks to expand their minds, and Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who's been brought in by the headmaster to apprise them of techniques that could attract an examiner's attention.

Intelligent and entertaining, the film preserves the play's superb performances and contains many moments to be treasured. It opens Nov. 21.

How the Fox Searchlight picture fares at the U.S. box office remains to be seen, especially in a market where "Borat" has been No. 1 for the past two weeks. During Manhattan press-conference "roundtable" discussions Nov. 8, Nicholas Hytner commented, "Our film was made for two million pounds, and already has [grossed in England] more or less four million. Everything's a bonus now."


Richard Griffiths, upon entering, apologizes to journalists for being "brain damaged," explaining, "I sat up and waited for Montana [results in the previous evening's elections]. I don't think you realize just how important [American politics] is for the rest of the world. America catches cold; we [England] get pneumonia. [Bush] really is president of the world, you know, and what he says makes a difference on our domestic fronts."

Another brain damaged instance occurs to Griffiths — the crazed circus between the Oct. 1 closing of the play on Broadway and the Oct. 2 Royal Premiere of the film in London. "It was: finish onstage, get on a plane, go to a hotel, take a shower, and meet the press. 'What time is it now?' It was ludicrous!"

Winner of a Best Actor Tony as Hector, Griffiths describes the character as "a very understanding person, because he's so damaged and wounded. He's very forgiving. His life is the school. At home, there's nothing: the ticking of a clock, nose deep in books, supper, TV news at nine, bed.

"His students are way ahead of Hector. Dakin [for example] has a great gift. He knows we are all alike. We are all individuals; everybody's as different as one snowflake is from another — but we're all snowflakes. That's why Dakin can look at a boy or girl and make moves. He knows if he feels it, they probably do. Hector thinks he's the only one with problems; Dakin knows everybody has problems."

From time to time, Griffiths reveals, some audience members complained about the play's coarse language. He defends it. "That's how the boys would talk amongst themselves. Besides, the word 'fuck' these days has been reduced to the status of a single adjective that everybody can rely on. It's devalued its offensiveness."


Frances de la Tour reprises her Tony-winning role as Mrs. Lintott, who teaches history and is involved in two of the script's descriptions of the subject. Asking [student] Rudge (Russell Tovey) to define history, she elicits the response: "Just one fucking thing after another." A bit later, Lintott declares, "History is women following behind — with a bucket." That line "became more powerful," relates the actress, "as I became stronger with it. I think her frustration just came out. It's not a feminist stand."

Speaking of the camaraderie of the eight actors who play the students, de la Tour observes, "It is absolutely real. It is not put on. Obviously, most boys at grade school [the British term for high school] don't talk the way [the characters] talk, or know quite as much poetry, or know anything about anything. But that's the crux of the story. They're talking in 'Alan Bennett language,' as if they were talking rhyming couplets. It's not like young people speak on the whole, but that's the art of it."

Appropriate language reminds de la Tour of a recent code-of-conduct memo from England's National Opera Company. "You cannot call each other 'darling' anymore." Richard Griffiths concurs, "It represents sexual harassment. Established members of the company who already use the term may be excused, but henceforth no new members will be allowed to use it." Laments de la Tour, "I would be in prison." With a laugh, Griffiths adds, "At the same time, Nick Hytner issued a memo at the National Theatre saying, 'It is now compulsory to refer to each other as darling.'"


Dominic Cooper, who plays the charismatic Dakin, believes that the movie "probably would have been a more definitive version" had it been filmed later. "We found stuff on Broadway that isn't in the film. It's probably stuff that you wouldn't notice, but that we do."

Concerning his character's sexuality, Cooper states, "He's up for anything. He has self-assurance. He knows what he wants, and that he's going to get it. Suddenly, [Irwin] comes along and turns everything on its head. He's very attracted to this guy, probably because he can't just charm him and can't stimulate him intellectually."

Some lines in the play were English phrases that had to be changed for Broadway; however, a few lines remained. One such instance occurred when Dakin has received good news and tells Irwin, "I thought we might push the boat out." Explains Cooper, "In England, that's a well-known phrase [that translates as] 'Let's roll out the red carpet.' Changing it didn't work. It came down to the actors to make lines work."

A scene in the film that was only referred to onstage has Dakin interceding with the headmaster (Clive Merrison) on Hector's behalf, and it makes Dakin more of a pivotal character than he was in the play. Notes Cooper, "Nick was anxious not to shoot anything that could end up on the cutting-room floor. Some scenes were done in one take. It was scary in that, for the only time in the three-year process, we didn't have any control."


Samuel Barnett considers "the most exciting moment of my life" is that he sings "on 'The History Boys' soundtrack — three tracks!"

Playing Posner, the youngest of the students, Barnett is pleased that "we have a record of what we've done for three years. We've become a family. I miss the work, but I know there are 11 other actors I can depend on — personally and professionally."

Still, he admits, "It's very odd to see the work you've been doing suddenly up there [onscreen], and how different the character actually is from how you perceived it to be. Nick got me to lighten some of the scenes [from how they were in the play]. At the time, I just had to have faith. Watching the film, I'm so glad he did it, because otherwise [Posner] would have been too tragic."

Barnett reflects on some of Posner's actions: "He goes to Irwin [to discuss his homosexual leanings]. Posner knows Irwin is gay, and Irwin says, 'It will pass.' He goes to Hector, the last person in the world to get any solace from and he connects with another human being through a poem — and their loneliness. That's what I love about Alan's writing."


Nicholas Hytner: "We realized that [the play] was a film that we wanted to make — to capture these performances and this material. It's totally character-driven and dialogue-driven. It's an opportunity to get under the skins of these 12 actors [portraying the eight students, three teachers, and headmaster].

"There's a huge audience that is interested by worlds that it's unfamiliar with — when those worlds are conveyed by writers, filmmakers, and actors who know what they're talking about.

"School is the world of 'The History Boys.' In terms of stage-to-screen adaptations, it's like — and I’m not comparing it to them — 'Streetcar,' 'Philadelphia Story,' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' Those three stay in a small world; their energy is put into the exploration of the people. The camera acts as a participant in their world."

How was the film's structure decided? "We [he and Alan Bennett] came to that together. Irwin doesn't end up in a wheelchair [as onstage], because unless it's prepared for, it would seem totally gratuitous. And Posner has a much more satisfying [fate]."

Missing are the play's video sequences. "One reason for them was to cover scene changes; the other was to give the piece an element of reality. There's always been this tension between the way [the characters] speak and the world they're from, which is rough and ready."



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