The play opens in Cutlers' Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys' grammar school in the north of England. Set in the early 1980s, the play follows a group of history pupils preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations under the guidance of three teachers (Hector, Irwin, and Lintott) with contrasting styles.
Hector, an eccentric teacher, delights in knowledge for its own sake, but the headmaster ambitiously wants the school to move up the academic league table; Irwin, a supply teacher, is hired to introduce a rather more cynical and ruthless style of teaching. Hector is discovered sexually fondling a boy and later Irwin's latent homosexual inclinations emerge.
The character of Hector was based on the schoolmaster and author Frank McEachran (1900–1975).