Two teachers with wildly differing styles try to educate a gang of star pupils to help them pass their university entry exams. As the term proceeds, the self-possessed students will force their masters to confront their own lives and secrets.
Something of a theatrical darling, especially given its recent award-winning Broadway run, Alan Bennett’s stageplay of cranky teachers and their clutch of star students hankering for an Oxbridge slot never quite beds in as a movie. What would appear a light mixture of ‘To Serve Them All My Chips’ hallowed teacher nostalgia and comedy of sex-obsessed teenage manners, as located in a drab Northern comprehensive in the backwater of Thatcher’s ’80s, possesses a far more intricate and writerly purpose .
Bennett, whose comedy comes freighted with tragedy, with his director in dedicated pursuit, is telling a sophisticated and highly personal tale (there are hints of autobiography) about the homosexual yearnings of two teachers at either end of the age-scale for their dreamy charges — a matter of prurient gropes in Hector’s (Griffiths) case, and unrequited adoration in Irwin’s (Campbell Moore). So, rather than simply a social comedy with The Smiths on the soundtrack, this is an examination of sexual identity, acceptable boundaries, and the elitism that lurks in the shadows of British education. And therein lies the rub.
On page, and on stage, Bennett’s idealised anthem to valiant, eloquent and really rather pretty sixth formers works as an effective theatrical device, but in the wider, ‘realer’ world of film they feel too savvy, too self-aware, far too willing to break into show-tunes during Cultural Studies. For all the drab, pea-green corridors of Grange Hillian school life, there’s something pre-ordained about their place in the film. You watch them like you watch a play, as actors on a stage.
It’s on the other side of the equation, the wit and wisdom of Bennett’s obvious talent and Nicholas Hytner’s unshowy appreciation of it, that the film reveals its quality. Having combined so sweetly on The Madness Of King George, and the original production of the play (arguably a hinderance), Hytner clearly appreciates what makes this playwright tick. Their mission is to prove that being a human being, warts, peccadilloes and all, is about the best thing there is. And the trio of liberal teachers (Griffiths, Campbell Moore and de la Tour) are cranky, odd, quite sad and superbly made. Here are characters fully lived-in and familiar from the eternal coffee-scented staff room. You might feel a pressing need to tip-toe on if they happened by, but Hytner, Bennett and their actors make them somehow heroic.
A display of rich, humane, and often daring writing, and some classy acting from the mature folk, that cant wriggle free of its formal, deliberate theatrical origins.