Interview with Desmond Barrit

How many times is it you’ve done The History Boys now?

It’s my third if you count Broadway. I did it at the National Theatre (NT) for six months, then we did a tour for three months; I went to Broadway for a short period last year; and this time, we’ve done a three-month tour, we’ve been in the West End for three months already and we’ve got another two months to go. And then oblivion!

And then they’ll make you come and do it again

This time is the last time. Richard Griffiths did it before me, then I did it for a while, then Steven Moore did it for a few months, so it’s been around a hell of a long time, two and a half or three years.

But every time it changes so much. The boys change… With the Hectors, it changes very much. With Stephen Moore, it was more about diffidence and longing. With Richard Griffiths, it was more of a theatrical thing. But with you it’s more based in reality

That’s a great compliment, cos I can go over the top very easily. I’m glad that people believe in the character. The sort of comments I get are ‘I used to be a teacher and it reminds me so much of then’ or ‘when I was a pupil at school, it was just like that’. ‘I found it was very funny and moving.’ It’s great when people can relate, and I always go on about how I can relate to it myself. There’s a couple of major things, like having an inspirational teacher, which I did have, and the statement that Scripps makes at the end that having someone die at school stays with you all your life. When I was 13, one of the boys in my class died of leukaemia, and then a few months later, my young form teacher died of it as well at 25. I can still remember their faces. That’s what’s so clever about Alan – he knows what touches people. There’s something in this play for everyone to associate with.

But memory is kind. Bringing it back to the theatre, you go and see a show and think ‘god, that was fantastic’, and 10 years later, you think it was the most magnificent thing you’ve ever seen in your life. I remember sitting outside on the step at the house in the summer holidays and it was always sunny and hot. And it always snowed at Christmas. And now it’s not like that. Life goes off on a tangent.

Is that what draws you back to Hector?

It’s strange. The first time I played Hector was two and a half years ago. Normally, I have the script on my dressing table there and I wait to the interval of the last performance and I put the script in the bin. That’s what I normally do in every show I’ve been in – unless it’s signed by the author and then I sell it on eBay! But when I did The History Boys, I didn’t throw it away – I took it home because I thought ‘I haven’t finished with this yet’. And then indeed, about three months later, I was tidying up and came across the script and put it aside. Then, I got a call saying would I go to Broadway, and I still didn’t throw it away after that. I had to finish with Hector and the play. But at the end of this, I think it might be the time to throw it away.

It’s a fantastic part and a fantastic play and I’ve done it with three casts, which adds different levels to it.

The cadence is different, the emphasis is different…

Exactly. And the audience is different. So there are lots of variables. It’s not difficult to keep an Alan Bennett play fresh. The audience guides you and pulls you on. They take from the play what they want. And we have lots of after-show talks with audience members – when we were on tour, everywhere we went, we had meetings with the audience afterwards, chatting to them and it’s fascinating to hear what they have to say about it. I think people get very passionate about it. People do fall in love wit it.

It does make a huge difference where you sit. I like sitting about eight rows back. I like to feel the breath of the actors on my face and see them sweating. See what they’re going through sort of thing. The History Boys is a fantastic play. You can always tell when people have seen it before. It’s a play you can see more than once. I do think you should see it at least three times – I’m not trying to sell tickets, but you get something new from it.

There was a man in the front row one night who was mouthing all of Hector’s lines along with me all night. There’s something about the regulars. It’s great having them in the house. But even when you see it so many times, it still suprises you.

When the first cast started with the play, Alan Bennet and Nicholas Hytner spent time teaching them about the poetry. Does that still happen?

Alan is always there – if we want him, he’ll be there. He always pops in from time to time to see the show. The great thing about Alan is he doesn’t have to prove anything – he’s a successful playwright. I’ve been in plays by new writers where they feel they have to tell you how to say every line.

We’re the ones who’re lucky to be saying Alan’s lines. He trusts Nick, who directed it originally. We’ve had other directors – Paul Miller directed this version – but it’s Nick’ original direction. Paul’s put in things of his own, but it’s essentially Nick’s original conception. Alan trusts these people and he comes to see us doing a rehearsal of it towards the end of the rehearsal period, and if he had anything to say, he would say it.

But he’s such a generous person and he doesn’t have set ideas about how everything should be said or done. He lets you be yourself in it. Normally, he takes out a little pencil about 3in long and might write a note on a piece of paper, and you can barely read his hand. It’ll be a pronunciation of something, but there’s nothing about doing better or something.

It’s about being helpful rather than critical?

Terribly helpful. I remember he and I were speaking to the people from the theatres we were going to on tour and I said ‘come down and see the boys’. It was the second or third day of rehearsals. And he said: ‘It’s a bit soon.’ I said no, come down – they’ll love it. So I went back down and about 10 to 15 minutes later, Alan came down and it was like god had walked into the room. Within five minutes, Alan will make you feel like you’ve known him all your life. And he comes up to you and says something that makes you feel wonderful. He’s a lovely man.

It seems to have a family feeling with a great bond. You can see on stage that they’re friends with each other

Yes, we all get on really well. And, of course, they’re not really 18 – they’re quite a bit more. Their being a lot younger is good for the morale, except for when you come out of the stage door and very often there’s a lot of girls out there. They say ‘can we have your autograph?’ and I say certainly. And then one of the boys comes out, and it’s like I’ve disappeared through a hole in the floor! I can understand that – I don’t mind!

It’s a great opportunity for young actors. There are few plays with decent parts for young actors except for The History Boys

Some of the boys in this production are fresh from drama school, and I keep saying to them it’s not as easy as this normally. Don’t think this show’s going to finish, and a week later, you’re going to walk into another part. It’s just pure luck that at this particular moment in time they wanted someone just like you. And it’s not being negative, it’s just preparing them for the real world. It’s a fantastic opportunity and something you mustn’t take for granted. It’s talent and getting on with people.

And it’s great training for them with such a rich script, not just walking on carrying a spear

A lot of acting’s like that. When you get a new script, you go ‘I know how to do this’. And then you get to a period about two-thirds of the way through rehearsals when you think ‘I haven’t got clue what this play’s about, I don’t know what I’m doing, I should go home. Sack me and I should start all over again’. You think you’re supremely unfunny or supremely un-anything. It just becomes a nightmarish scenario sort of thing, and you think it’s all because of YOU. You get so many notes that you think am I really worth saving? But you get over that and then you do the show for two or three weeks and then you can’t remember what the problems were. You still think you’re very lucky. Now we’re in a show that’s a hit and the audience come out loving it. And that’s what we do it for.

You work in every field – theatre, films, TV, radio…

I’m very lucky – I was an accountant until I was 35. I was acting as an accountant really. I came into acting as a bet. A friend of mine was just leaving drama school, and we all got very drunk and I said anybody can act. She bet me I couldn’t get a job in the following week. That was Saturday night. Sunday morning I looked at The Stage and rang somebody up. To my horror, they asked me go and see them that afternoon so I went. They asked me if I had a speech and I said ‘No, I haven’t done this before’. The woman was aghast and gave me a children’s book and said: ‘Read some of this.’ I did, and when I got home, the phone rang. They offered me the job. So on Friday, I was an accountant, and on Monday, I was an actor!

For someone who hasn’t trained (touch wood), I’ve been so, so lucky. I’ve done everything from musicals (they say every Welshman can sing, but it’s not true tho I can put over a song), Shakespeare, the lot.

Sometimes too much training can train the spark out

I can always tell a student fresh out of RADA, cos they have a certain approach to their part. They teach them certain things. But people always ask how to tackle a complex role. The only answer is to read to the play loads of times, find out what people are saying about your character in the text – any reference to you, write it down – and then decide if it’s true or whether it’s just their opinion or a fabrication. And you try to build up a character for the person.

On the other hand, you can’t work in isolation. You can’t figure out how you’re going to play a part without the first day of rehearsals. Even if someone only has one line, the production is all the actors together and you grow together and you climb Everest together. Some of you are halfway by the third day of rehearsals, most of you are still at the bottom. And the director has to be a sort of sherpa and guide you up, and hopefully you’ll all reach the top on the same day, which is the press night.

Technique is important. How do you do something when you don’t feel like it? How do you cry when you feel as happy as Larry? I don’t believe that you can be taught to be an actor. Somewhere inside you there has to be the germ of an actor and I think that’s what all actors have in them. Drama school refines it and helps it grow quicker. All the parts you play are essentially you, so they all channel through me.

Today’s actors don’t get the luxury of the training you used to get in rep, either

I do work with theatres in the country, because actors do need to find places where they can go and do things wrong. You do need to go somewhere where you can relax and do a part, where you’re not going to have every national newspaper critiquing you.

That’s why I’ve got a production company that puts on pantomimes. They’ve got to be geared to the children and have traditional elements in them. Last year, we were rehearsing and health and safety came in as they’d heard we were going to throw sweets into the audience. And we had to stop it.

The reason I do panto is to encourage young people to go to the theatre, so we’ll have a theatre in 20 years’ time. But you have problems when they put on somebody from Big Brother or whatever who can’t do it. They can get an enormous fee because they’re in a soap, and then they can’t string three sentences together. As long as you have actors who can do it, that’s all you need. You can’t have people singing their eight latest hits or you have a four-hour panto and the children are asleep at the end of it.

We have little kids watching The History Boys, too. They are a few bits we worried about, but it goes right over their heads. I encourage it. I have a friend in Manchester who’s passionate about Shakespeare and she taught everything using Shakespeare – handwriting, maths, composition. She brought them to see Macbeth in Stratford, and after the performance, I took all the kids to a pub restaurant and they asked me questions about the production. Not childish questions. You wouldn’t have expected them assimilate that kind of thing. I ended up talking to one little kid – Lee Cawley, I remember his name, he was eight – and we were chatting about Christmas, which was only a few weeks away, and he said he was getting a bike, but ‘what I’d really like is a video of a Midsummer Night’s Dream’. And I said: ‘Do you enjoy coming to see Shakespeare?’ and this eight year old looked and me and said: ‘I will remember tonight for the rest of my life.’ And I burst into tears. It’s phenomenal. You’ve got to get them young. He’ll go and see Shakespeare and not worry about it. You’ve got to keep theatre alive.

That’s the good thing about The History Boys. You’ve got all the poetry, it’s not belaboured and there’s the history and lots of new words

You were asking me earlier about Alan coming to explain – I’m very good at getting diverted – the poetry and the use of quotations. The great thing about doing a play at the NT is that on the first day of rehearsal, there are all the books you could want. You get every poem by any particular poet that’s ever mentioned and it’s there, so you can see where it all comes from, so you’re not saying a line without knowing what goes around it. Everything is there for you to investigate – it’s fantastic.

Sometimes, the audience won’t know what a certain thing is, like we mention gerunds. They have a sense of what it is and its usage, but they can go away and look it up and they discover something. If that’s all they discover from the play, it’s a good thing. In 10 years’ time, we’ll hear extracts of songs from the play and think where do I know that from? And suddenly it’ll all be brought back.

With this play, when it’s on at the NT, the NT has an audience that isn’t the audience that comes to see West End plays. Coming across the water, we get a different audience. That’s why we do tours as well, of course. They love the play, but they laugh at different bits. Of course, in Sheffield [where the play’s set], every time we said it, we got rounds of applause. In Dublin, whenever we talked about the Holocaust, it got the biggest laughs of the evening – don’t ask me why.

The great thing is if you have a full house – that makes for a good evening. Theatre’s all about a bunch of people in the dark laughing together or crying together.

What’s for the future? What role would you most like to tackle?

I’ve been offered a few things. What I’d like to do is have a month off and go to Australia once we finish. But I know two weeks in, I’ll think: ‘I’m bored and I want to work now.’ But scripts arrive all the time, and the boys are always terribly impressed. What’s that? Oh, it’s just a little film, television, play in the West End. To tease them.

We all get on. It’s not like coming to work – it’s like a day out. It’s as much fun for us as for the audience. We make each other laugh.

I think I’m sort of ready to tackle Lear now. Someone wrote to me recently ‘I think Lear is on the horizon’, and I think it is as well. I’m lucky that I’ve worked really. Every job is a bonus. I’m happy just to carry on.


The History Boys is at the Wyndham’s Theatre WC2 and is booking to April 26 (0844 482 5120)