Set in 1980s Britain, Cutlers' Grammar School in Sheffield was trying to get its students into the university and college of their choice. It was a process that everybody I have ever met in my entire life has gone through, so members of the audience were all nodding their heads in recognition. Even better, the two senior teachers, played splendidly by Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, were characters I knew very well from my own Matriculation experience in 1965. Clive Merrison, the principal, was less successful, but I suppose that was the very point the director was trying to make.
The language used by the boys and by the staff was brilliantly written, and remained a key part of the film, regardless of the scenes. I presume that was because the film had been adapted by Alan Bennett from his play of the same name; the script had not originally been written for a book or for the screen. In plays, there can be sets, costumes and actions, but the language remains central. Perhaps the language was, if anything, too sophisticated. As with anyone who has raised or taught boys at that stage of their development, I know they grunt a lot. And hit each other, instead of using words. And they talk about sex a lot, often in poorly constructed English.
The history students and their three teachers, Sheffield, 1980s
Still... these were clever boys, and motivated to do well academically. The conflict only appeared when a very young man named Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) was invited into the school to assist the more traditional teachers in preparing the boys for the university entrance exams. I am not sure what Irwin's exact duty statement contained, but the boys were asked to prepare slick and polished historical presentations, regardless of content. The search for documented facts and historical truths became secondary.
Since I am a lecturer in history and art history, there was something compelling and personal about this film. I now realise why first year history students at university these days are more assertive in their historical perspectives than I had been in the 1960s, but less well equipped for seeking solid evidence.
I would have liked to end the film after these talented young lads went to Oxford or Cambridge for their interviews, filled with awe at the endless grounds, the stunning buildings and the serious college staff. It was wonderful seeing the day when the universities’ letters arrived, received by excited and anxious families in their kitchens.
In real life, there is normally no way of knowing what will happen to boys in their future lives; the last day of school is normally the end of one (perhaps beloved) era and the start of a totally unknown new era. But the director decided to let the viewer know who became successful in their careers, who became ordinary workers and who died tragically in the army. Although this annoyed me, I suppose from a teacher’s perspective it would be very satisfying to find out what happened to their once-young charges.