Books Monthly June 2015 The Jerry Dowlen Column

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Jerry Dowlen on... Anthony Sher: The History Man

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives


Forty years on: The History Man returns!


Rejoice: at long last, the BBC has issued on DVD its four-episode televised adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s 1975 novel The History Man. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton was screened in 1981, with Anthony Sher delivering a powerful and enduringly memorable performance in the lead role of university lecturer Howard Kirk.


Sir Anthony Sher, as he is now, has enjoyed a stage and screen career of great longevity and acclaim. Born in 1949 he has Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon written large in his illustrious CV. But I’ll warrant that his early-career appearance in The History Man was a major milestone that first established him as a household name.


Leastways, I hope that Sir Anthony will forgive me when I say that any mention of his name immediately transports me back to 1981, and my unforgettable encounter with the hip, moustachioed, gum-chewing, insouciant, libidinous and manipulative Howard Kirk, lecturer in sociology.


In particular, my revisit to the fictional University of Watermouth, where the story is set in 1972, transports me back to an era when campus demonstrations and sit-ins seemed constantly to grab the media headlines. Think of the student riots in France, the USA and London (in which city just three little letters LSE, London School of Economics, sufficed to symbolise the volcanic rift between the establishment right and the radical counterculture left).


In that era when the old-fashioned word “racialist” preceded the present-day “racist” an especially mischievous subterfuge by the wily Howard Kirk in The History Man is to sow the seeds of alarm that a notorious Professor Mengel has received an invitation to speak at Watermouth. Having lobbed this toxic grenade into the campus rumour-mill, Kirk sits back to enjoy and occasionally re-stir the manufactured mayhem that results.


The lucky lecturer – or should I say lecher – has a host of women who are willing to go to bed with him. When he eventually meets a feisty Scottish lass who seems impervious to his charms and his slick words, Kirk does not shirk. His battle to bed her becomes a key denouement to the story. A parallel denouement sees another character in the story perform a dramatic act of self-harm - or is it a mock-suicide “cry for help”? Much earlier in the story another person on the campus has perpetrated a similar act of self-harm. Both acts take place while the Kirk family are hosting a house party where classic rock music of the period (Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, The Who) thumps through the walls and floorboards.


Categorised as “a satire of campus life”, The History Man originated as a novel penned by Sir Malcolm Bradbury (1932 – 2000). A teacher, an academic and a prolific writer, Sir Malcolm was an expert on the novel. Accordingly, did he first write and then afterwards review his own novel? – as did the Nowhere Man (voiced by Dick Emery) in the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine? Answer: No – but in his invaluable work of reference The Modern British Novel (1993) this was his take on the “postmodern” era of the 1960s that shaped the early 1970s setting of The History Man:


“The New Left was looking to popular, mass and youth culture as a force for radical change. The politico-sociological approach prevailed: culture was everything it chose to be.”


In his commentary on the early 1970s aftermath of this era, the novelist David Lodge has neatly summarised how Malcolm Bradbury placed the fictional Howard Kirk into precise context:


“Students, herded together and suddenly removed from parental control, were ripe for ideological awakening and sexual experiment, which sometimes turned into indoctrination and exploitation by their teachers.”


Yes indeed: there’s an early moment in the story when Kirk tries to marshal his students into forming a Revolutionary Front. He bangs theatrically on his desk and berates them: “As late capitalist structures start to fall in on themselves, I find that the enthusiasm and fervour of three, four years ago has suddenly dwindled into an extraordinary apathy!” A belligerent young male pushes back: “You can’t radicalise people with just talk! Nixon … Cambodia … Apartheid … Heath – people are fed up with all that.”


It is surely no coincidence that towards the end of the fourth and final episode, the music pounding out at the Kirk’s end-of-term house-party is The Who: Won’t Get Fooled Again (1971):


If you know the song you’ll know that it starts: “We’ll be fighting in the streets.” Then, after “The new revolution” – during which all the old moral codes are swept away – “The world just looks the same; … the parting on the left are now parting on the right.”


Sure enough: the final punch-line of the story tells us that Howard Kirk, rampant Marxist of the 1960s and early 1970s, voted Conservative in the 1979 General Election.


Today if we read The History Man or watch the DVD, the reconstruction of detailed period context is challenging. Political leaders, parties, ideologies and educationalists have come and gone in cycles or have evolved into new thinking.


Best then simply to revisit The History Man and to revel in Anthony Sher’s powerful portrayal of Howard Kirk all his campus capers. A strong supporting cast saw memorable performances too from Geraldine James, Isla Blair, Paul Brooke, Laura Davenport, Michael Horden, Miriam Margolyes, Maggie Steed and Veronica Quilligan. George Fenton contributed a punchy theme tune with a driving blues riff, played over colourful Pop Art credits at the beginning and end of each episode.


Jerry Dowlen

April 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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