Bennett's `History Boys' goes to top of the class at critics' awards

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ALAN BENNETT, who gave up his job as a history teacher to launch his career as a dramatist 40 years ago, has won a prestigious award for his latest play, which returns to the theme of the classroom.

Set at a Yorkshire grammar school in the 1980s, The History Boys, which premiered in April last year at the National Theatre, was named the best new play at the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards yesterday.

The History Boys, directed by Nicholas Hytner, explores the conflicting teaching methods of a maverick teacher, played by Richard Griffiths (also recognised by the Critics' Circle as best actor), and a technocrat coaching a class of boys through the Oxford University pre-entry exams. The play questions the premium laid on examinations.

For Bennett, the accolade is an acknowledgement of his work as serious political commentary on the education system and not just light-hearted entertainment.

Speaking to The Independent yesterday, he reflected on the reception for his first play, Forty Years On, which critics of the day perceived as a raucous comedy, and said he was thrilled by the broader understanding of his work today.

"A play is no less serious because it is funny. My first play 40 years ago was not thought to be serious because it was so funny, but it was a serious play none the less. Most of my plays have lots of jokes in them but this was taken seriously as a play, so at least some things have improved," he said.

"This is not a complaint so much as an observation. I am not losing any sleep over it. People think if something is funny and enjoyable then it is therefore not serious, but it is, of course. It is both funny and sad and that's the best thing to be."

After the ceremony at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he was presented with the accolade by The Independent critic Paul Taylor, he said he was delighted to receive the honour, 12 years after he won the same title for the television series Talking Heads.

Mel Brooks' The Producers was voted best musical. The comedy, which opened in the West End in November last year, is expected to reap more glory at the Laurence Olivier Awards. Since opening with the British comic Lee Evans and the acclaimed actor Nathan Lane, it has proved a huge hit with critics and audiences alike.

Two other popular musicals, Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins and Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, failed to win any awards.

Bennett was born in 1934 in Leeds, the son of a butcher, and drew on his early life in Yorkshire and his regular holidays to resorts such as Morecambe for inspiration. He won a scholarship to Oxford, trained as a historian and taught as a junior lecturer at Madgalen College. In 1960, he joined the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to co-author the hugely popular Beyond The Fringe, a satirical revue which was hailed an instant success when it appeared at the Edinburgh Festival.

His film work has included writing the screenplay for the award-winning The Madness of King George, starring Nigel Hawthorne, in 1995.

Last year, he wrote openly for the first time about his homosexuality, describing a homophobic attack on him and his partner, Rupert Thomas, while on a holiday in Italy in 1992, which left him needing 12 stitches.

THE CRITICS' CIRCLE THEATRE AWARDS

BEST NEW PLAY

`The History Boys' by Alan Bennett (National Theatre)

BEST MUSICAL

`The Producers'

by Mel Brooks (West End)

BEST ACTOR

Richard Griffiths

for `The History Boys'

(National Theatre)

BEST ACTRESS

Victoria Hamilton

for `Suddenly Last Summer' (Sheffield Theatres/ West End)

BEST DIRECTOR

Rufus Norris for `Festen'

(Almeida/West End)

BEST SHAKESPEAREAN PERFORMANCE

Paul Rhys

for `Measure for Measure' (National Theatre/Complicite)

BEST DESIGNER

Christopher Oram

for `Suddenly Last Summer'

(Sheffield Theatres/ West End)

MOST PROMISING PLAYWRIGHT

Rebecca Lenkiewicz for `The Night Season'

(National Theatre)

MOST PROMISING NEWCOMER (other than a playwright)

Eddie Redmayne for `The Goat or Who is Sylvia?'

(Almeida/West End)

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