Forty Years On

Alan Bennett
BBC Audio
(2006)

There are great similarities between Alan Bennett's two plays of school life, Forty Years On and his recent hit, The History Boys.

It seems remarkable that Bennett's first play was originally seen on stage as far back as 1968, while this new production, starring the writer, was broadcast on Radio 4 in August 2000.

The play follows a pageant that celebrates the career of the veteran headmaster of Albion House, a school that the old boy joined as a pupil in 1918, coincidentally fifty years before the writing of this play, and served through to this occasion, the day on which he celebrates his retirement.

Ostensibly, one hears the boys performing scenes about British history over the period from the Boer War to the Beatles, interspersed with indications of the strange relationships that inevitably exist in any school, however well heeled and run.

That is far too simple a plot for Alan Bennett to leave be and he turns this structure into something far more significant, without ever losing his lightness of touch or sense of humour.

Forty Years On and mercifully pokes fun at Great Britain and the upper classes who both created and subsequently lost an empire. Each of the short scenes, while apparently celebrating the nation, actually debunks it and, throughout, the playwright's tongue is firmly in his cheek.

Bennett received tremendous support from a cast that includes Eleanor Bron and Auriol Smith as the women who ensure that the school runs smoothly and Robert Bathurst and Adam Godley as a younger generation who will ensure that it will never be the same again.

Support comes primarily from the boys of King's College School, Wimbledon, who not only act but sing and ensure that the right atmosphere is created.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher