Still bent on world domination

Another Country's anatomy of public-school treachery and homosexuality found huge success in 1981. Now a revival reminds us of the accuracy of its insights.
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The Independent Culture

Gratitude towards Big Brother's "Nasty" Nick Bateman is an emotion that would, you'd have thought, be confined to a select group comprising Max Clifford, a few News International executives and a tinselly sprinkling of panto producers. No one, at any rate, on whom you would waste respect. But there's an estimable, rising young theatre director who also has cause to thank the treacherous rat from Big Brother.

Gratitude towards Big Brother's "Nasty" Nick Bateman is an emotion that would, you'd have thought, be confined to a select group comprising Max Clifford, a few News International executives and a tinselly sprinkling of panto producers. No one, at any rate, on whom you would waste respect. But there's an estimable, rising young theatre director who also has cause to thank the treacherous rat from Big Brother.

When he was sacked from the show for manipulating the voting process, Bateman, an old boy of Gordonstoun, was keen to pin some of the blame for his perfidy on his background. Public school had conditioned him to double-dealing competitiveness, he announced. That statement came as manna from heaven to Stephen Henry, who is currently directing the first major West End revival of Another Country, the 1981 Julian Mitchell play (later a film) that endeavours to demonstrate how his experience of the tribal snobberies and sexual hypocrisies at public school in the early 1930s sets the flirtatious hero on the path to becoming a Guy Burgess-like traitor.

Everyone connected with the current production is unsurprisingly anxious to stress the continuing relevance of what the play has to say about the warping effects of this kind of education. So Nasty Nick finds himself in the programme note alongside comments on the iniquity of Section 28 and information about the high proportion of calls to Childline that come from children at British boarding schools.

One takes Henry's point, though I have to admit that, when I first heard this intriguing contemporary connection, what floated into my mind was a fantasy version of Big Brother where the contestants are the exiled Cambridge spies (Burgess, Philby, Maclean et al), holed up together in a Moscow apartment. Same rules: the prize, repatriation to beloved Blighty. It's quite a revealing thought-exercise. How those spies would have hated being spied on. How, for all their professed belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat, they would have loathed having to suck up to the viewing masses in order to survive.

The poet WH Auden wrote in 1934: "The best reason I have for opposing fascism is that at school I lived in a fascist state." The idea of the public school as an emblematic microcosm of the body politic has a firm grip on the English imagination, giving rise to such works as Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, with its hilarious end-of-term pageant at the symbolically named Albion House, to Lindsay Anderson's fantastical film If..., which climaxes in bloody massacre as three sixth-form rebels liven up Founder's Day with their machine-guns.

There are, of course, flaws in the notion that a public school can stand for Britain as a whole. An outsider might argue that to be at the bottom of the heap in such an institution is merely a temporary state. The abused younger boys graduate to being abusers in their turn. By contrast, in the world beyond (not to mention in the school kitchens) some people are fags (so to speak) all their lives. This, though, would be to underestimate the long-lasting psychological corruption of life in this kind of establishment and it's that which Another Country explores so acutely.

When it was first seen in the early Eighties, the play helped launch the careers of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Daniel Day Lewis. One of the reasons Julian Mitchell is glad to see it revived is that he hopes it will "get the film forgotten - even though I did the adaptation". A powerful aspect of the theatrical version is that no member of staff is ever seen: the only adult character is Vaughan Thomas, a sexually ambivalent literary intellectual who comes, as the guest of his nephew, to have tea in the Fourth Year library. The invisibility of members of staff brings home forcefully the frightening amount of discipline that was delegated to the prefects. Despite the panelled rooms, it feels at times almost like Lord of the Flies, the atmosphere charged in the panic that follows the suicide of one of the boys found in flagrante delicto by one of the masters.

Required to "open up" the movie, Mitchell had to lose the eloquence of this pupils-only angle. But though teachers hoved into view on screen and there were new episodes depicting the young Guy Bennett's passionate crush on Harcourt (Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes shyly batting their beautiful lashes at each other), Mitchell was forced, ironically, to drop Vaughan Thomas (and his pacifist perspective of honest doubt) because the film medium can't tolerate much discussion of ideas. Then again, to satisfy the international market, the movie had to include an explanatory framework. Guy Bennett was first seen as an old man being interviewed in exile in Moscow, the body of the film a long retrospect. But, as Henry argues, the play version is more effective because it bides its time before springing its surprise - that it is decadent Bennett and not Judd, the romantic Marxist and respected school joke, who will end up working for the Russians. Only towards the close should the various images that we've seen of Bennett - gazing through binoculars, say, at the sexual talent in the quad - be recalled as spooky premonitions of espionage.

Watching the play again on its pre-London tour, I'm more impressed than ever by the way it anatomises two key cruelties of public-school life. First, that it forces boys who are going to remain homosexual for all their days to live in intimate, 24-hour proximity to boys for whom gay activity is only a phase and who will eventually renegue. It's the feeling of betrayal and of disgust for the resulting hypocrisy and denial that goads Bennett/Burgess into tit-for-tat treachery. Then there's the pernicious effect of priming youths to believe they are the establishment-in-waiting, so that any form of social exclusion (such as Bennett's rejection by the top-dog Twenty Two club) seems absurdly momentous - the mark of Cain that forever bars entry through the portals of privilege.

Last year, Henry directed Corpus Christi, the Terrence McNally play that presents Jesus as a gay teenager growing up in bigoted 1950s Texas. It, too, was an all-male drama that championed the human rights of homosexuals and turned on an act of betrayal. I tease him that this time there'll be indignant out-of-work actresses demonstrating outside the theatre in place of the Muslim fundamentalists who waved placards outside Corpus Christi. "No," he laughs, "I hope we'll be picketed by members of the House of Lords."

Henry did not himself go to public school and had to do most of his pre-production research at Eton. I wondered how they had treated him. Lindsay Anderson, for example, wisely, submitted a very laundered script of If... to Cheltenham College when applying for permission to film his movie there. Was there a similar mix of dissembling and mutual suspicion in Henry's negotiations with Eton?

He reports that the school was very co-operative and that two years ago it even put on a production of Another Country - which sounds, on the face of it, a bit like a madhouse mounting the Marat/Sade. But doesn't this openness - and the fact that the opposite sex now gets a look-in - mean that things must have improved? The director is adamant that the five cast members who went to public school all identify with the play's experiences.

However, if education and privilege remain the same, the one big difference between now and the play's premiere is that the Cold War is over. You could be forgiven for deducing from Cambridge spy dramas on stage that the Soviet Union was not so much a world-changing social experiment as a convenience arranged so that disaffected English public schoolboys could act out a love-hate relationship with with their background. That option is no longer open. "What trouble are they brewing up for us now?" asks Mitchell. And where?

Well, one of them has just engrossed the nation with his dastardly double-dealing on a mindless game show. Did someone say diminished horizons? It's to be hoped the producers seize the photo-opportunity and invite Nick Bateman to the first night. If he really does have a grievance against Gordonstoun he'll enjoy himself mightily, for Another Country is one of the best of those plays that tell the Old School Tie to get knotted.

'Another Country' previews from tonight and is booking to December. Arts Theatre, London WC2 (020-7836 2132)