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History Man, The (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of History Man, The (1981)
BBC2, tx. 4/1-25/1/1981
2x60, 1x50, 1x56 min episodes, colour
DirectorRobert Knights
ProducerMichael Wearing
ScreenplayChristopher Hampton
Original novelMalcolm Bradbury
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Antony Sher (Howard Kirk); Geraldine James (Barbara Kirk); Jonathan Bruton (Martin Kirk); Charlotte Enderby (Celia Kirk); Chloe Salaman (Anne Petty); Michael Hordern (Professor Marvin)

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In 1972, an ambitious Sociology lecturer stirs up revolutionary feelings at the University of Watermouth, manipulating students, colleagues and lovers to further his career.

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Originally published in 1975, Malcolm Bradbury's seminal novel The History Man proved to be an enormous success when faithfully adapted for television, although the lashings of sex and nudity may have distracted some viewers from its more serious satiric intent.

The title, a phrase now part of the vernacular, actually refers to Howard Kirk, a radical Sociology lecturer at the 'University of Watermouth'. The opening credits (pop art animations in the style of Lichtenstein) repeat Bradbury's amusing mock disclaimer that the institution represented bears "no relation to the real University of Watermouth (which does not exist)"; most assumed it was modelled on the University of East Anglia, where Bradbury had been teaching since 1966. However, the main location for the television version was the University of Lancaster.

Antony Sher shot to stardom as the philandering schemer Howard Kirk, while Geraldine James is tremendously affecting as Barbara, his sad, disenchanted wife. They have an 'open' marriage, but it is clear that she feels that it is wearing thin; Howard makes himself less and less available as the number of his dalliances increases (usually accompanied, appropriately enough, to an aria from Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'). Isla Blair also stands out as the cool and calculating social psychologist Flora, a character that can be seen as a precursor to Dr Rose Marie in Andrew Davies' equally satirical but more overtly surrealist campus comedy, A Very Peculiar Practice (BBC, 1986-88).

The main plot focuses on Howard's potential dismissal for 'moral turpitude' (for sleeping with a student), but the story's thematic underpinnings are more rewarding as they anatomise the distaff side of student revolutionary movements in the 1970s, which displayed less of the previous decade's sense of optimism as money became scarcer and industrial action increasingly common. More subtly, the tragic-comic episodes of Howard's accident-prone colleague, Henry Beamish, offer an evaluation of sociological study methods; the nature of causality and chance in his disasters are contrasted with the games played by Howard as he manipulates all those around him. The duelling concepts of free will and determinism - the fading of liberal humanism in the face of the more programmatic view of 'historical inevitability' espoused in Howard's revolutionary ideology (hence the title) - provide the intellectual backbone to a funny but ultimately distressing tale about a dynamic and charming but fundamentally callous and intellectually dishonest anti-hero, who in the end gets all he wants.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. 'This is silly' (4:15)
2. Privacy and charisma (3:43)
3. Don Giovanni (4:01)
Complete first episode (48:06)
Porterhouse Blue (1987)
Very Peculiar Practice, A (1986-88)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Hampton, Christopher (1946-)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
James, Geraldine (1950-)
Margolyes, Miriam (1941-)
Wearing, Michael (1939- )