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Culture: History repeating itself; Birmingham-born actor Samuel Anderson talks to Terry Grimley about the life-changing experience of appearing in the stage and screen versions of Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

Byline: Terry Grimley

Samuel Anderson describes himself as homeless and unemployed, hav ing just got off a juggernaut which has taken him on an amazing two-year journey.

From the National Theatre to Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and New York, to his first radio play and first feature film, the 24 year-old Birmingham-born actor has been a fortunate beneficiary of the phe nomenon which is Alan Bennett's The History Boys.

As a member of the original cast which premiered the play at the National Theatre in 2004, he also appears in the film version, shot during the summer of 2005, which has just been released.

There is still some promotional work to be done on the film, but the cast finally took leave of the play a couple of weeks ago in New York.

"The last show on Broadway was the saddest day of my life," he says. "It was so hard when Richard Grif fiths was delivering his last lines, and it was so relevant as well. He had just died in the play and he was saying 'pass it on, boys'. All you could hear was eight grown men on the front of the stage snivelling.

"It was like we had left school. We had been in each other's pockets for so long. I have seen someone in that cast every day for the last eight months."

The relationship will have a post script because James Corden, who played one of the other boys, has written a comedy series which has been accepted by the BBC and has offered Samuel a part in it.

"It's an eight-part series that starts filming at the end of October. It will be funny - James is one of the funniest people I've ever met, and he's so daring with his comedy.

"He got commissioned, no prob lem, after they looked at the first draft, and that's so rare. But that's only going to be three days' work for me."

Originally from Handsworth, Samuel lived near the Hockley Fly over until he was 11, when the family moved to Perry Barr, where his parents still live.

What got him interested in acting?

"I don't know. I was on the bus one day with my cousin, when I was about 15. We used to go rollerblad-ing. He was getting off the bus in the city centre because he was going to college, and I didn't know he did anything like that. He said he was going to a drama college, the Bir mingham Theatre School, which was based at the old Rep. I was kind of interested in that and I decided to follow along in the next couple of weeks.

"At that stage I didn't really want to do anything. I just wanted to muck about, to be honest. There was no career that appealed to me. I couldn't play football. I suppose the same as all 15 year-olds, I thought I would chill-out as long as possible.

"I finished my GCSEs and started A-levels because that's what I thought my parents would want, but it was a cop-out. I chose film studies, PE and general studies. The school said after a year it wasn't enough and I either had to do one more or leave. They said think about it and come back on Friday. I made my decision and that was the last time they would ever see me. I decided I was going to go to drama school."

He followed his cousin to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in London, and after three years got his first job a week after the end-of-year showcase - a part in Doctors back home in Birmingham.

"Then I was in a car crash, and out for about four months. I did an advert in Spain, another little bit on TV, then did a play by Trevor Wil liams at the Latchmere Theatre. It was a two-week run and did quite well and it was extended for another week, which was quite useful because the day after it finished I went for the audition for The History Boys and Alan Bennett had just read about it. A few days later I started at the National Theatre."

The schoolboys in the play are impossibly smart and articulate, which is what makes the piece so exhilarating. But as Bennett has pointed out, their general knowledge so far outstripped that of the young actors playing them that at first they didn't get the jokes.

"To be honest the first time I read the script I didn't understand it," Samuel admits. "I didn't think it was funny at all. I knew it was brilliant and if I couldn't understand it, it was probably because it was just too intellectual for me. Like I said, I left school early.

"There I was at the National, the biggest theatre in the country. Nick Hytner [the director] and Alan Ben nett were going to look good on my CV. I didn't care how good or bad the script was - if you got this job you took it. People would kill for that opportunity."

An oddity about being in the pro duction was that the actors playing the schoolboys were always referred to as "the boys".

"It's always been like that, there's been the adults and the boys. It's a bit weird because some of us are 28. You sometimes had to remind people that you weren't 18."

He says that he never actually laughed at anything in the script until it came to the opening night.

"Then when it opened, it all made sense, and you saw what an audience brought to it. On the opening night it was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do, not to laugh."

The play was in repertory at the National for a year from April to April, and it was confirmed by Christmas 2004 that a film was going to be made with Hytner (who had directed the film of Bennett's previous National Theatre hit, The Madness of King George) directing.

"We made it last summer in two schools in Watford, the boys and girls' grammar schools. The words didn't change that much - a little was taken away and some things added - but it was quite difficult taking the performance down.

"You have been performing it for 900 people and you have to turn up and say the same line for one person. You found if you had a new line you could do it, but the old line was really difficult.

"Nick Hytner told us to forget the play, forget the radio version, forget everything we'd done. You had to take it from scratch.

"Not having an audience there was difficult, because they let you know what direction to move in. We had a film crew that wasn't laughing at the jokes. We thought 'Oh God' but they were just professionals, they weren't there to laugh, they were there to work.

"It was brilliant, it was like being back in school. Between shooting we went out and played football in the playground. They had a lot of extras in, and each time there was a break there were a load of kids running around.

"It was so stress-free, everyone knowing their part and knowing the play. We were all good friends by this point and we never went over once -every day we finished at six o'clock."

If a play about eight boys being crammed for Oxbridge exams in a 1980s grammar school seemed an unlikely hit in Britain, there were naturally doubts about how it would work abroad.

"At first there were doubts as to whether or not it would work in America, but it was massive over there. We were like minor celebri ties. Everyone had heard of it and audiences loved it. Theatre is so much a part of Manhattan life.

"It was like starting out all over again, it had the feeling of the first few weeks in London. In New Zea land and Australia they got all the English references, and the energy was just amazing, the audience really played their part.

"In New Zealand they were really up for it: they have been starved of good theatre. I don't think I've heard roars of laughter like it - it was like they had a few good drinks before the show and a few more in the interval. Australia was much the same as well.

"In Hong Kong we thought no-one would laugh with surtitles in Can tonese and Mandarin. But people would laugh before you said the line because they had read the joke already."

During this theatrical marathon the cast never had the opportunity of sharing the audience's viewpoint, so seeing the finished film was a revelation.

"After doing the play for two years you probably go on to auto-pilot after a while and don't think about it as deeply, but I got so much out of the film, being able to join the audience. But it was slightly odd at first seeing my head 20ft wide on the screen, with every little spot up there!"

The History Boys is on general release now.

CAPTION(S):

Samuel Anderson (far left) as Crowther, with Sacha Dhawan as Akhtar, Dominic Cooper as Dakin, James Corden as Timms, Andrew Knott as Lockwood, Russell Tovey as Rudge, Samuel Barnett as Posner, Jamie Parker as Scripps' Tomor Terry Grimley talks to Janet Steel about life after Bezhti LIVE REVIEWS
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 16, 2006
Words:1582
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