Whatever happened to the History Boys?

Four years ago, they were a bunch of unknowns. Then a new Alan Bennett play set them on the path to fame and fortune. How have they fared since? Alice Jones tracks them down

Saturday 12 January 2008 01:00

They were the boys most likely to succeed. With a West End smash hit, six Tonys and a film to their names, the eight young stars of The History Boys were never going to fade into obscurity. Now, over a year since their final curtain call at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, and as the play returns to London (with a second cast) for a final run, it's clear that the unruly bunch who captured the hearts of audiences all over the world have not been resting on their laurels.

It all began in April 2004 in a draughty rehearsal studio in the National Theatre when Nicholas Hytner's cast – Richard Griffiths, Clive Merrison, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour and a ragtag band of young unknowns – met Alan Bennett for the first time. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since they left Cutler's Grammar School, the boys have amassed British Comedy and Royal Television Society awards, and had huge success in a variety of stage, screen and TV roles. A* for effort.

Dominic Cooper, 29 (Dakin)
Career since The History Boys
Television: Sense and Sensibility
Film: Mamma Mia!; The Duchess; The Escapist (all released later this year); Starter for Ten

Perhaps the most recognisable History Boy, Dominic Cooper went straight from drama school to work at the National with Nicholas Hytner, where he stayed for several years before the director cast him as the oversexed Dakin. Currently starring as the caddish Willoughby in Andrew Davies' Sense and Sensibility , below, 2008 looks set to be a big year. He is also appearing as Sky in Mamma Mia!, and has parts in The Escapist with Brian Cox and Joseph Fiennes (premiering at the Sundance Film Festival next week), The Duchess with Ralph Fiennes and Keira Knightley.

"I spent the summer in Greece filming Mamma Mia!, despite the fact that I tried to explain I couldn't sing a note. I'm sure they've digitally enhanced my voice in some way. I did Sense and Sensibility at the same time so I was jumping from a pink Spandex all-in-one suit and white heels to a big wig and breeches.

"My overriding memory of The History Boys was never sleeping, and it's nice to have sleep back in my life now. But I couldn't be more thankful. A piece by Alan Bennett sets a precedent for the work that you want to do. People respect you and it gives you more opportunity to make braver decisions about what you do next. I'm desperate to get back to the theatre."

James Corden, 27 (Timms)
Television: Co-creator and star of Gavin and Stacey, best new comedy and best newcomer at the British Comedy Awards; currently presenting Big Brother's Big Mouth
Film: Starter for Ten; Telstar, with Kevin Spacey (out later this year)

Corden had never done a play before The History Boys. He had, though, appeared in Mike Leigh's All or Nothing and Shane Meadows' TwentyFourSeven and in Fat Friends, where he met Gavin and Stacey co-creator Ruth Jones.

"I finished writing series one of Gavin and Stacey when I was in New York doing The History Boys. None of this would have happened if I hadn't been part of that play. Alan Bennett has been an inspiration for every one of the boys – if I'd been interested in fly-fishing, he would have encouraged me just as much.

"People before Alan had said that I should probably write but I was a bit too scared. But when someone who is so truly brilliant at writing says, 'Honestly, trust me, you can do this', it's harder to ignore. And Nick Hytner has been a tremendous source of encouragement. It feels like we've met these people at the right time in our careers. I don't think anyone will ever be able to know fully what it's like, except for us eight."

Samuel Barnett, 27 (Posner)
Theatre: Dealer's Choice, Trafalgar Studios, London
Television: John Adams; Wilfred Owen: A Remembrance Tale

Along with his classmates Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey, Barnett appeared in Nicholas Hytner's His Dark Materials at the National before being cast in The History Boys. Currently playing in the West End as Carl in Dealer's Choice, left, his next major appearance is with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in John Adams, an HBO period drama directed by Tom Hooper, the man behind Helen Mirren's Golden Globe-winning performance as Elizabeth I.

"Since The History Boys, I've tried to go for different things. Because I played the gay role in The History Boys I was offered a couple of gay roles in plays and films, but I want to avoid being typecast.

"I saw the end of the movie when it was on over Christmas. I was watching all the guys in it and thinking how much I miss them. It is amazing that we're all working and doing OK. That's something that The History Boys has done for us.

"We didn't really know that it was a funny play when we were rehearsing it. But the reaction from the audience was showstopping – in the proper sense of the word. The show kept stopping that night because people were applauding and laughing so much. I know now that jobs like that come along every 10 years – if you're lucky."

Andrew Knott, 28 (Lockwood)
Television: Drop Dead Gorgeous; Gavin and Stacey; Life on Mars; Lewis; Liberty

A television veteran, Knott spent his teenage years in children's drama, and spent five years in ITV's Where the Heart Is on leaving school. He has just finished filming the second series of Gavin and Stacey and has been cast in a new BBC3 drama, Liberty, set in a young division of MI5 in 2012.

"The History Boys was my first play – what a place to start! I just thought, 'Even if nothing happens with this play, just being in that rehearsal room with Alan and Nick is a priceless experience.' Even now, going into meetings and auditions, it's the first thing they want to talk about. People want to know what it's like being in a rehearsal room for six weeks with Alan Bennett, what it was like breaking the record for winning the most Tonys on Broadway.

"It was lovely going to Cardiff to shoot Gavin and Stacey with Russell and James. We're still all very fond of each other and it's one of those relationships that will always be the same. It felt just like old times – except that the writing wasn't as good! Jim will love that..."

Russell Tovey, 26 (Rudge)
Television: Doctor Who Christmas Special; Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive; Gavin and Stacey; My Family and Other Animals; Ashes to Ashes
Theatre: The Sea, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Tovey made his stage debut aged 18 in The Recruiting Officer at Chichester. There he met Patrick Marber, who put him forward for a role in Howard Katz at the National a year later. He spent two years there and appeared as the lead in Rufus Norris' sell-out Tintin at the Barbican. Next week he opens in Jonathan Kent's production of The Sea in the West End, and he also appears in the Life on Mars spin-off Ashes to Ashes, and a new BBC3 comedy, Being Human, later this year.

"Jonathan Kent saw The History Boys when he was directing Faith Healer, which was on Broadway in the theatre behind us. There was a pub, the Angus McIndoe, where we all went every night after the show and I met him there. When The Sea came about, he offered me the part. I didn't have to audition.

"I remember we all hit a low when we first got to New York because we'd all been away for six months – and then we won six Tonys.

Suddenly it was this huge phenomenon and everywhere you went, everyone knew who you were and you got drinks bought for you. It was out of this world. You take it for granted when you're there and we were all whingeing before we went. We were so spoilt with the show. It might never happen again in my life."

Sacha Dhawan, 23 (Akhtar)
Television: Bradford Riots (C4), RTS Award for Best Breakthrough on Screen.
Theatre: Free Outgoing, Royal Court; Pretend You Have Big Buildings, Manchester Royal Exchange

Dhawan appeared in the ITV children's drama series The Last Train in 1999, and in regional theatre, before becoming a History Boy. He last appeared at the Royal Court in the sell-out Indian play Free Outgoing, which is now slated for a return season in the main house and a national tour.

"I had to go through the typical transition of making it from a child actor to a man, which meant I was out of work for quite a while. But then I hit 18 and The History Boys auditions came along. From there everything started again and I've not stopped. I didn't realise from that one phone call how much my life was going to change. It suddenly hits you – 'Oh my gosh, we were on Broadway'. We did crazy things like renting a van and driving around the countryside in New Zealand. When will I ever get the chance to do that again?"

Jamie Parker, 27 (Scripps)
Film: Starring role opposite Tom Cruise in Valkyrie

In 2004, Parker had the CV of an average Rada graduate – small television parts and solid theatre experience at the Tricycle, the Oxford Stage Company and Chichester. Then came The History Boys. He has just finished three months in Berlin filming Valkyrie, Bryan Singer's big-budget film about a plot to blow up Hitler. He is currently writing a historical television drama.

"It's been a bit of a crazy time since The History Boys. I kept on feeling like I was in a play about a guy who got offered a part in a Tom Cruise film. Tom Cruise is completely tireless, he never seems to sleep – or yawn. The History Boys hasn't changed what I've enjoyed doing but it's obviously changed what I had the opportunity to do. Valkyrie only came about because Roger Mussenden, the casting director, saw The History Boys.

"My favourite memory must be meeting Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. They came to see us on Broadway and I saw them backstage afterwards. He told us that it was the third time he'd seen the show."

Samuel Anderson, 25 (Crowther)
Television: Emmerdale; Stuck; Gavin and Stacey; Stuck

Anderson was appearing in the Trevor Williams play Talking Loud at the Latchmere Theatre in London when Alan Bennett spotted him. Since then he has appeared in Gavin and Stacey and in November joined the cast of Emmerdale as PC Ross Kirk.

"The last show on Broadway was the saddest day of my life. It was so hard when Richard Griffiths was delivering his last lines. All you could hear was eight grown men on the front of the stage, snivelling. It was like we had left school."

The latest production of 'The History Boys' runs at Wyndham's Theatre, London to 14 April (0870 950 0925)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments