BBC Radio 7, 10 May 2009
The English public school has provided a rich vein of material for dramatists
and screenwriters commenting on the state of the nation. Lindsay Anderson's If ... (1968) shows the boys rebelling
against their teachers and taking over the school, shooting the headmaster in the process. Julian Mitchell's Another Country
(1986, film 1987) suggests that the public school provided a fertile breeding ground for spies like Guy Burgess (the subject
of Bennett's An Englishman Abroad). Dramatists of an earlier generation such as Terence Rattigan (The Browning
Version) and Warren Cheetham Strode (The Guinea Pig) focused on the insularity of public schools, and how
they repress the emotions of students and staff alike, while viewing outsiders from lower social classes suspiciously.
Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, first staged in 1968, belongs to the
If ... tradition of using a public school to comment on British society - specifically the loss of empire and
the decline of patriotism. At times it mourns this passing by suggesting that the First World War put an end to the Edwardian
idyll of perpetual sunshine and 'England's Green and Pleasant Land,' as Parry's famous hymn put it. On other occasions
Bennett satirizes outmoded social attitudes embodied by gadflies of the Bloomsbury set such as Lady Ottoline Morrell. At heart,
however, Forty Years On is a play-length version of Beyond the Fringe - a series of sketches, both serious
and comic, poking fun at British eccentricities while showing how social attitudes have changed throughout the first six decades
of the twentieth century.
Whether one likes it or not depends very much on how one approaches public school
traditions. Personally I found Gordon House's World Service drama production something of a period-piece, the product of
the so-called 'Swinging Sixties' when bright young (or not-so-young) Oxbridge graduates - the Beyond the Fringe
team, David Frost's TW3 team and Monty Python - took the worlds of theatre, television and radio by storm and
challenged the complacencies, whether ideological or political, that made Britain seem rather old-fashioned at that time.
They challenged the world of old-style Tory paternalism (symbolized by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan), and looked forward
instead to a more egalitarian world in which anything could be seen as fair game for comic treatment.
Four decades later the wheel has come full circle. Compared to near-contemporaneous
plays like Frank Marcus' Killing of Sister George (revived recently on Radio 4), Forty Years On seems a
period piece, a childlike ragbag of excruciating puns and heavy-handed social comment that seems incongruous in the modern
world of sleaze, where each week brings new revelations in the Daily Telegraph about the misdemeanours of our so-called
governing classes. Perhaps the old-style public schools weren't so bad after all; at least they tried to inculcate in their
reluctant students a sense of right and wrong that appears not to exist today. Forty years on from Forty Years On,
Britain seems an altogether more unsavoury place, compared to the world depicted in Bennett's play.