The History Man
Watermouth University, 1972. Howard Kirk (Antony Sher) is a lecturer in sociology. He's married to Barbara (Geraldine James) and they have two children, but in the interests of free love they have an open marriage, with Howard carrying on with, amongst others, his colleague Flora Beniform (Isla Blair) not to mention some of his students. At the beginning of term, the Kirks throw a party, which has consequences...
As Malcolm Bradbury says in the afterword of the edition of his novel I have to hand, Howard Kirk might be a fictional character, but he was a familiar figure around University campuses in the early 1970s: a Sixties radical trying to swim with the tide in the Seventies, preaching free love as long as it helps him get his end away, siding with his students in not trusting anyone over thirty even though he is himself over that age. Bradbury (1932-2000) certainly knew of what he spoke, being both a critically acclaimed novelist and television scriptwriter and an academic who set up the distinguished Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, whose first alumni included Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. He was knighted for services to literature in the year of his death.
While his 1983 novel Rates of Exchange was the one which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The History Man, published 1975, remains his best-known work, and this well-remembered four-part television serial is a major reason why. Howard Kirk teaches that the self is an outmoded concept and Bradbury's novel imitates this worldview to satirise it. The novel is written in the present tense and is very concerned with the surfaces of things and people: not once do we get inside any character's head. This causes the novel's meaning and interpretation to be entirely dependent on external description, action and dialogue. This might seem ideal material for a third-person medium like television (or film, or the stage) where we don't usually get to hear characters' thoughts but we see them act and hear them speak. Yet, as I said in reviewing the television adaptation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, a novel which depends on a strong narrative voice may be hard to translate into a visual medium. And while The History Man is well made and especially well acted, with Antony Sher's magnetic performance as the Zapata-moustached Howard being a breakthrough for him, it's not hard to see that Christopher Hampton's adaptation and Robert Knights's direction don't quite capture that voice. Bradbury himself thought that the filmmaking style should have been more itonic and stylised (he suggested along the lines of Wim Wenders) but that's a little too much to ask for what is a BBC production shot in the ways of most productions of the time: hard and rather flatly-lit video in the studio, 16mm location work. The University of Lancaster stands in for the fictional Watermouth.
There are certainly compensations. While we are left to judge the novel's Howard, Sher's take on the character turns him into a full-blown antihero, a manipulative and Macchiavellian monster, not passing up any opportunity to seduce any young woman in his path. All this is known to his wife Barbara (Geraldine James) who tries herself to maintain an open marriage, though the adaptation reduces her character in favour of Howard. The cast is first-rate, filled with many familiar names from the time. The serial, like the novel, is set in 1972, and the sense of period is spot-on, and the music on the soundtrack – much of it in the two party scenes – is well chosen. Someone on the production was clearly a fan of Eric Clapton in his Derek and the Dominos phase, as we get to hear "Layla" during both party scenes and the graffito "Eric is Derek" on a wall in the first episode. George Fenton's score mimics the period with wailing harmonicas and quite a bit of slide guitar. The serial caused a stir at the time for its sexual content and nudity, though it's mild by today's standards (and nudity was by no means unheard of on the BBC post-watershed even a decade earlier). Other than a brief shot near the end of Howard with one of his conquests, the nudity is entirely provided by female cast-members.
First broadcast in January 1981 (though copyrighted 1980), The History Man was repeated the following year, which is when I saw it. Sher surprisingly wasn't nominated for a BAFTA Award, but the serial was, for Best Drama Series, though Brideshead Revisited carried all before it that year.
The History Man is released by Simply Media on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2. The BBC released the serial on VHS in 1986, an edition I don't have to hand, but I have to wonder if all the music on the soundtrack was intact in that edition. Agreements for music rights for DVD release have changed since then. (Until quite recently, you couldn't clear Rolling Stones tracks for homeviewing, for example.) That release, according to the BBFC database, ran 165:12, so would appear to have been shortened by some forty minutes. Oddly, the episodes went out in different-length timeslots, the first two fifty minutes, the final two an hour each. The actual episode lengths on this DVD are 48:09, 48:09, 56:12, 56:52.
The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.33:1 so anamorphic enhancement is neither necessary nor desirable. As mentioned above, The History Man was shot in a combination of 625-line PAL video and 16mm film, as was the norm for BBC drama at the time. While there's nothing distracting, we have been recently spoiled for releases of 70s and 80s TV drama in such as 2 Entertain's series of Doctor Who DVDs and others released by the BFI. Little flaws such as aliasing are apparent, and the filmed sequences are soft and grainy. However, it should be said that we are watching this on much larger and less forgiving television sets than we would have done in 1981.
The soundtrack is mono, as it was originally, and is clear and well-balanced, with the music sounding good. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.
There are no extras.