Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Accuracny and Authenticity (and The History Boys)

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.

6 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for your thoughts on this. I agree that the real goal here is authenticity. I think there are certain facts that shouldn't be compromised. Wars happened when they happened, and certain PMs led the government when they led it. That sort of thing ought to be accurate. But yes, the most important thing is the feel of an era. Glad to hear you felt they got it right.

seana graham said...

I saw The History Boys not long after my last trip to England. Two of my friends had gone to Rugby as day school boys, and one went on to Oxford. I was really fascinated by the premises of the play/film and though I don't know if it was accurate in its details, I think it caught the allure of Oxford and Cambridge pretty well.

Clothes In Books said...

I saw the play on stage, and enjoyed it very much - but I thought was that it seemed more like 1973 than 1983, not earlier: I wonder if the later date was a compromise...

Christine said...

I agree with Flannery O'Connor that in fiction the writer can do anything they can get away with. Though she did add 'no-one has got away with much.'

Clothes In Books said...

....that should read *IF* not earlier....

Deb said...

The late, great film critic, Roger Ebert, once observed that it's not necessary for a movie to be accurate as long as it feels authentic. I think it's the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Imagine if we expected absolute accuracy in our mystery novels: many of them would be page after page of processing and cataloging every possible piece of evidence--accurate, yes; entertaining, not so much. There has to be artistic license or we all might as well read nothing but non-fiction.