Bennett at his best: witty, erudite and controversial.
This play is set in the 1980s in a boys’ grammar (selective state) school where a new head is determined to get some of his brighter history pupils into prestigious Oxford and Cambridge colleges via additional lessons by three very different teachers: Hector, Irwin and also Mrs Lintott. Hector has been there for years; Irwin is young and brought in specially to help with Oxbridge exams and interviews; Mrs Lintott is a somewhat motherly figure who wants to remind them that women exist.
The boys are taught to think quickly and originally, to play the system and to find new ways to be themselves. It conveys the power of inspirational and unconventional education to break social barriers, whilst fully acknowledging the continuing power of them. The importance of social mobility is a hot topic in the current political climate; the role of grammar schools to help achieve it is much more controversial.
But are they being taught style over substance – or both? Hector is passionate about imparting knowledge to make them rounded individuals (regardless of targets or quantifiable results), while Irwin teaches techniques and finding a quirky angle to make them stand out. When Irwin asks the boys about the different teaching methods, he’s told “It’s just the knowledge... the pursuit of it for its own sake... not useful... like your [Irwin’s:] lessons”. Irwin tells them “truth is no more an issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.” and “Flee the crowd... Be perverse... history nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment.”
Parts are laugh-out-loud funny (Rudge defining history as “just one fucking thing after another”), whilst other parts are sad or troubling, most obviously the difficult question of whether slight inappropriate sexual behaviour by a teacher to a nearly adult pupil is as evil as current paedo paranoia would have us believe. The boys are resigned and slightly mocking of this eccentricity. When Hector has to stop giving them lifts on his bike, Dakin and Scripps joke, “No more genital massage as one speeds along leafy suburban roads... he dropped you at the corner, your honour still intact... Are we scarred for life, do you think? We must hope so. Perhaps it will turn me into Proust.” So what should the penalty be?
A wonderful quote that I failed to note down, but then picked up from Ana's excellent review of Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/500035264?utm_content=A&utm_medium=email&utm_source): “The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”
Note that the play, especially the ending, is slightly different from the film.