The History Boys, a successful film of Alan Bennett's acclaimed play, is not a work of crime fiction. But I want to say a few words about it today, because I enjoyed it hugely, and also because I think Bennett, a skilled craftsman, demonstrates something about writing that authors, including me, can learn from.
The film tells the story of a group of eight boys at a single sex grammar school in north Yorkshire in 1983. They have done very well in their A Level exams, and as a result they stay on for an extra term the following year, in order to sit the entrance examinations for Oxford and Cambridge universities. The reason that the story is set in the early 80s, I suspect, is that it wouldn't fit very easily with the modern British educational system. There are fewer single sex and fewer grammar schools now (perhaps especially in the north of England) than there were, and the Oxford entrance exam no longer exists.
The story deals very entertainingly, and in the end very poignantly, with the relationship between the lads and their teachers, two of whom are gay. The cast is excellent, above all the teachers, who are played by three fine actors, the late (and marvellous) Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, and Stephen Campbell Moore. Clive Merrison is funny as the ambitious and annoying head teacher, and the script has plenty of great lines in Bennett's customary witty, mannered style.
The story "feels" authentic, which is the sign of high quality writing. And Bennett was a product of a northern state school who went to Oxford, although via a complicated route (he was originally accepted for Cambridge during the ear of national service, but changed his mind.) So he knows very well how such a background and education can be beneficial in terms of social mobility.
But how accurate is The History Boys as a depiction of the world it creates? Well, I was a member of a small "third year Sixth form" group in a northern single sex grammar school just a few years before the events of The History Boys, and there's no doubt that Bennett uses a huge amount of artistic licence, not least because as far as I recall there was very little teaching, just a few hours per week - the point being that you couldn't really "teach" the Oxbridge entrance exams. As for the idea of a crammed curriculum (bizarrely even including P.E.), forget it.
So if my experience is typical, then The History Boys isn't accurate. But it doesn't matter, in my opinion. Authenticity isn't the same as precise accuracy, and for me, authenticity is what really counts in a work of fiction. I don't deny that careless inaccuracy about factual details can be damaging in a work of fiction, but really I think the problem only arises if the effect of the inaccuracy is to compromise that all-important sense of authenticity.
The late Robert Barnard used to tell a witty story about how he was praised for accuracy in his portrayal of backstage life in an opera company - when he had absolutely no knowledge of what that life was like in reality. The point was that because he loved opera, he could imagine a fictional world which may have differed greatly from the reality, but which nevertheless carried conviction. Similarly, the best legal mysteries create a believable world, even if legal life in reality is very different. I rather think (and hope!) the same is true when it comes to portraying police work. Authenticity is very, very important, but it's not the same as accuracy. But one thing I did learn at school and university is that there is room for all sorts of opinions, so I'll be very glad of comments from anyone who either agrees - or has reasons to disagree.