The school scenes were filmed in Watford in two schools, Watford Grammar School for Boys and Watford Grammar School for Girls. The film uses the uniform of Watford Boys. Locations in Elland and Halifax, West Yorkshire are used to create the broader landscape of Sheffield in which the story is set.
In a boys' grammar school in Sheffield in 1983, students Crowther, Posner, Dakin, Timms, Akthar, Lockwood, Scripps, and Rudge have recently obtained the school's highest ever A-level scores and are hoping to enter Oxford or Cambridge, taking a seventh-term entrance exam in History. The General Studies teacher, known by staff and boys alike by his nickname "Hector" (Richard Griffiths), is much beloved, and works alongside their deputy head and regular History teacher, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour). The Headmaster, known by all as "Felix", appoints a temporary contract teacher, Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), who had been at Oxford, to help the boys along in their quest. Irwin is only a few years older than his students but proves to be a bold and demanding teacher, and particularly difficult to impress.
As part of their General Studies, the class acts out scenes from romantic films and literature. At the conclusion of each class, Hector offers a lift to one of the students on his motorbike and it is generally known (and dismissed as a joke) that he touches them inappropriately on the ride. The only one he never takes along is Posner (Samuel Barnett), a slight Jewish boy, who doesn't hide his infatuation with Dakin (Dominic Cooper). Dakin, who characterises himself as an aspiring lecher, is currently pursuing an affair with the headmaster's secretary, Fiona (Georgia Taylor). He is not displeased by Posner's attention, but finds himself increasingly interested in Irwin. Gradually, Dakin's quest to impress Irwin on an intellectual level evolves into a flirtatious, potentially sexual pursuit of his young teacher, who is visibly attracted to Dakin. Meanwhile, Hector's indiscretions are shockingly revealed and Felix instructs him to "retire early".
The boys continue their studies and all gain places at Oxford and Cambridge, including the famously dimwitted Rudge (Russell Tovey), with Posner and Dakin winning scholarships. On their last day at the end of term, Dakin calls out Irwin on a lie and asks him out for a drink, overtly revealing his sexual interest in him, much to Irwin's confusion and repressed enthusiasm. They agree to get together that very Sunday. Dakin then proceeds to the Headmaster's office and, by threatening to reveal Felix's own sexual harassment of Fiona, forces him to reinstate Hector.
As the boys prepare to leave the grammar school, Hector agrees to give Dakin a ride home on the motorbike "for old times' sake". However, before they leave, the headmaster runs out and stops them, saying that Hector should not take one of the boys. He suggests that Hector take Irwin instead. Dakin gladly hands the helmet to him, and the screen fades to white as they drive off, the boys waving happily and laughing.
Off-screen, there is a motorcycle accident; Hector is killed and Irwin is injured. Dakin (in voiceover) says that Irwin had never been on the back of a bike and so may have unbalanced Hector, leading to Hector's death, and that Irwin and he never got a chance to meet that Sunday. The boys sing "Bye Bye Blackbird" at Hector's memorial service and the Headmaster gives a general speech. Mrs. Lintott then turns and asks: "Will they come to my funeral, I wonder?". The school hall is shown with only the boys sitting and each recounts his life: Akthar, a headmaster; Crowther, a magistrate; Timms, a drug-taking dry-cleaning manager; and Dakin, a tax lawyer. Lockwood, a junior army officer, was killed by friendly fire at 28 years old. Rudge is a builder, Scripps a journalist, and Irwin makes history TV programmes, though Mrs. Lintott says they are more journalism. Posner is a teacher and takes the same approach that Hector did, save for the touching. The final shot shows the boys and teachers standing at the field trip lawn, with Hector's voice encouraging them to "pass it on".Staff:
Richard Griffiths as Douglas "Hector"
Clive Merrison as Felix, the Headmaster
Frances de la Tour as Mrs. Dorothy Lintott
Stephen Campbell Moore as Irwin
Penelope Wilton as Mrs. Hazel Bibby
Adrian Scarborough as Mr. Stanley Wilkes
Georgia Taylor as Fiona
Samuel Anderson as Christopher "Chris" Crowther
Samuel Barnett as David Posner
Dominic Cooper as Stuart Dakin
James Corden as Anthony "Tony" Timms
Sacha Dhawan as Adi Akthar
Andrew Knott as James "Jimmy" Lockwood
Russell Tovey as Peter Rudge
Jamie Parker as Donald "Donnie" Scripps
According to Time, the film is better than the original play, as the transformation to film improved the 'flow and intimacy' of the production, while preserving the messages it seeks to convey. Rolling Stone notes that some sense of familiarity with the subject of the film is lost in the cutting of nearly an hour from the original play, but the dialogue remains witty and pointed as is the customary style of the author. New York describes the film as 'brilliant and infectious', and filled with Alan Bennett's customary deadpan humour. The author writes as though he simultaneously envies the extrovert characters he has created, yet is happy to stand apart from them. Hector's classes ramble, but manage to inspire the boys to the extent that they are pleased to adopt his approach to learning, and contentedly go along with his eccentric behaviour. The film is peppered with literary references and carries an encouragement to engage with life.
The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named The History Boys one of the Top Ten Films in its 2006 awards.
The film was nominated for the 2007 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Limited Release.
Griffiths and de la Tour received BAFTA nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.