Fascinating, foul and funny - a history most horrid
With 25 million books sold, an award-winning TV series heading for prime time, fronted by Norfolk's own Stephen Fry, and two stage shows at Norwich Theatre Royal, SIMON PARKIN looks at how Horrible Histories became a phenomenon.
If any other children's show arrived at the Theatre Royal on the back of creating an eager market among school-children for beheadings, burnings, impalements, dismemberment, unspeakable lavatory arrangements, lice and plagues, there might be a campaign to have it banned.
Instead Terry Deary's Horrible Histories is pretty much universally adored. His books — which tell the stories of the Vile Victorians, Slimy Stuarts, Terrible Tudors and the like — have been captivating ghoulishly inclined schoolchildren since the phenomenally successful series began in 1993.
The books with their non stop humour, comic strip like illustrations and clever focus on minute details from the ordinary person's point of view, offer a history lesson, but probably not as you remember it from school.
'The publishers originally asked for a joke book with a history theme,' recalls the author. 'They said, 'Put in a few interesting facts to break up the jokes because some of your jokes are very bad'.
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'When I looked at the facts, I found they were much more interesting than the jokes. So we ended up with a fact book with jokes. We created a new genre.'
The series now runs to more than 50 titles with total sales of 25 million in 40 countries. Horrible Histories has also gone from being an alliterative phenomenon on page to an equally successful one on stage and screen.
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The TV version, which debuted on CBBC, the BBC's digital channel aimed at six to 12-years-olds, in 2009 recently scooped the rather grown-up best sketch show gong at the British Comedy Awards. That came on top of winning best sketch at the Comedy Awards in January, the first children's programme ever to do so.
The success shouldn't be that much of a surprise as the programmes boast a top-notch team of writers and performers.
From funny songs, such as Born 2 Rule by the Four (King) Georges re-invented as a boyband, to spot-on pastiches of television shows including Victorian Dragon's Den, Historical Wife Swap and Roman Come Dine With Me (complete with narration by Dave Lamb), the team behind it reads like a who's who of British comedy.
The writers include Steve Punt and there have been cameo appearances by David Baddiel, Alexei Sayle and Meera Syal alongside cast regulars Mathew Baynton and Jim Howick (also known as hapless Gerard in Peep Show).
The show's Pythonesque sketches based on the books' trademark themes such as the Rotten Romans and Groovy Greeks up to the Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, aren't just appealing to children.
It now attracts an equally loyal audience of grown-ups — ranging from parents watching with their children to students to pensioners. It has developed into cult daytime viewing and some of the most popular sketches and songs have attracted more than half a million hits each on YouTube.
Quick to capitalise, the BBC is shifting the show to prime time later this year in a six-part series on BBC1 com-prising a compilation of some of the best sketches and hosted by history buff Stephen Fry.
However if you can't wait that long there will be plenty more foul facts about rotten rulers to be learned when the stage version of Horrible Histories returns to the Theatre Royal next week with the Awful Egyptians and Rotten Romans.
Ancient Egypt and Roman times are two of the most fascinating periods of history and they are also two of the most popular books in the series.
There is sure to be plenty of fun then in these shows that use a mix of live actors and special effects to bring the books to life on stage. And like their book and screen versions they are proving hugely popular so much so that an extra show has been added next Wednesday to cope with demand.
The Ruthless Romans lets us experience the terrifying tactics of the rampaging Armies and witness Boudicca's bruising battles while appreciating there is truly 'no place like Rome'.
The Awful Egyptians meanwhile takes the audience from the fascinating Pharoahs to the power of the pyramids with the help of some of the meanest mummies in Egypt.
Expect some trademark knockabout humour and also some fantastic props many of which have been specially created for the show by Great Yarmouth-based 3D Creations (see panel).
With a much-have shopping list including a mummified corpse, assorted internal organs and a disembodied arm, creating the props was certainly a job with a difference for 3D Creations designer Ian Westbrook, who has been creating props for the stage for many years.
The show features 3D Bogglevision effects so his first task is to make sure that any props fit the look of what the audience will see in the specially created animation which forms part of the production.
When faced with a project such as this, Ian's first port of call is medical books.
He explains: 'We get research photographs and then create props from there. For the intestines, we used a sort of soft foam rubber, latex, cotton, muslin and some silicon to make the string of intestines.
'The ripped arm was a little bit more complicated. We chose somebody with the right size of forearm and made a cast of that arm. We then produced it in silicon. It had that soft feel to it. If you made it out of fibreglass, it would look just like a shop-window mannequin so we wanted something that had a little more life.
'It needs to appear as though it is rotting and has been around several years. All the other details are made out of cotton bits of foam, cotton and bits of string. We did have a lot of fun with this especially throwing a rotten dead arm made of rubber around the workshop and socking someone over the head with it.'
The one important thing is to make things as authentic as possible. The writers of the show have very high stan-dards — and so do the younger members of the audience.
Ian explains: 'When we were developing this show, the writers were adamant we had to produce the right length of intestines, the right shape and size of heart etc. They also didn't want to get letters from teachers saying this heart was the wrong shape etc so we did an awful lot of research for the show.'
The stage shows reflect the anarchic feel of the books which are a reflection of Terry Deary's own view of history. 'My agenda is not so much history as human behaviour,' he has previously stated. 'Why do people behave the way they do? That is what I try to answer through non-fiction and fiction.
'When you understand that then the world becomes a better place. Because people look at each other and try to understand one another. As opposed to hacking out organs, scalping, hanging or breaking on the rack. It would make for rather less vivid books, though.'
It would indeed. The quirky, weird and foul aspects are part of the success of the books as the author found out when on his two-year journey to bring them to TV he was told: 'We really like it, but we feel the poo quotient needs to be higher.'
Luckily, he has been delighted with the end result. 'I had initial reservations about the series. But the BBC did something very different which was treating it like an adult sketch show — which is very brave and very cutting edge. And I'm absolutely thrilled with it.
'What I love about the Horrible Histories show is that it's not a literal translation of the books. I've written the odd song for the show and I make the odd cameo appearance, but I'm not a sketch writer. It's best left to the likes of the excellent Steve Punt. Incorrectly, I get lots of credit, but it's the team behind it who are the massive talent.'
Terry, who retired from writing children's books in January after 35 years, says he hopes his Horrible Histories legacy — whether on the page, stage or screen — will continue to encourage people to engage with the past.
'For me history is all about people,' he says. 'To understand why people behave they way they do is to understand why they behaved the way they did. If you can understand the way people were before you can measure yourself against them and then you'll be happy.'
t Horrible Histories is being staged at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 28-April 1, �15-�5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk
HORRIBLE FACTS FROM EGYPTIAN AND ROMAN HISTORY
t Queen Cleopatra married two of her brothers before dating Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
t The Ancient Egyptians were very medically advanced, but did have some odd cures — they treated blindness by mashing up pigs' eyes, mixing it with honey and red ochre, then pouring it into the patient's ear.
t Teenage Roman Emperor Elagabalus threw prank dinner parties where his guests had to eat fake food, or had dangerous animals hidden in their bedrooms. He also ran a lottery at the amphitheatre where the prizes could be amazing, or they could be a dead dog or a box of angry bees.
t Egyptian dentists used to suggest putting half a freshly-killed hot mouse in your mouth to cure bad breath.
t The Roman Emperor Caligula dug up Alexander the Great's grave so he could wear his armour. He also made his horse Incitatus a consul, and his oats were mixed with flakes of gold and he had 18 servants.
t Egyptian pharaohs and kings had royal bottom wipers.