Funny, foul and fascinating, Horrible Histories in Norwich

With 25 million books sold, an award-winning TV series and two stage shows at the Theatre Royal this week, SIMON PARKIN looks at how Horrible Histories became a phenomenon.

Forget dusty text books and remembering lists of dates. Over-the-top characters, comedy situations and a Grade A in being gruesome — school history lessons were never like this.

Self-confessed lover of the past Terry Deary has revolutionised children's love of the subject by focusing on comedy and the bizarre with his hit books.

The Horrible Histories series has been a fiction phenomenon selling more than 25 million copies and spinning off into a successful stage show and TV series.

The books have been captivating ghoulishly inclined schoolchildren since the phenomenally successful series began in 1993 with their non stop humour, comic strip like illustrations and clever focus on minute historical details from the ordinary person's point of view.

'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'.

'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.'

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Deary successfully matched facts with over-the-top storylines and plenty of props to make it ideal entertainment for the young.

It is a formula that works with successful stage tours and the latest run of shows is heading back to Norwich Theatre Royal on February 20-24.

This time round, they are presenting two shows starting with The Terrible Tudors which features, among other things, some tongue-in-cheek torture, a punch-up between a king and a pope, and a Spanish Armada firing virtual cannonballs into the audience.

The Norwich run will also feature The Vile Victorians which features the misery of the mines, the filth of the factories and The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Both shows last came to Norwich six years ago but are heading back to link in with huge amounts of Horrible Histories hype.

Phil Compton, executive tour producer of Birmingham Stage Company, said the books were something they had always wanted to bring to the stage.

'Terry Deary always wanted to do something a bit different and exciting with the books and we talked about some 3D effects.'

This led to the company Amazing Interactives and the Birmingham team inviting venue bosses and theatre marketing teams down to the West End to see the effects in action.

'The company gave us two options. We saw the cheaper option first, but when we got to the second option, we were just blown away,' said Phil.

'The big thing for us was that you could sit at the back of the dress circle or at the side of the stalls – in fact, anywhere – and see them perfectly. Wherever you sit, you get to experience the effects. It doesn't make any difference.'

Fortunately, Birmingham Stage Company was in a position to invest heavily in them thanks to some previous successes.

'We had toured The Jungle Book around the country which had gone very well for us and left us in a position to invest heavily in the 3D Bogglevision. We elected to put the show out and people loved the idea of having it.'

The Bogglevision effects certainly do have the desired effect and aim to get the audience even more involved in the show.

Phil explains: 'It is not 3D as you would see in the cinema with something like Avatar or Toy Story. The actors are actually working with the 3D effects so, for example, a Spanish galleon will fire a cannonball into the audience and the actors have to duck. It helps to build in shock tactics and is similar to what you might see in a cartoon.'

And this makes it a intriguing performing challenge for the actors who have to star opposite the 3D Bogglevision.

'It is not until the production week that they get a greater idea of what the show is about. They rehearse in a church hall in Kennington but it is when they get to the production week, they have to act opposite the 3D effects.

'It is a bit like being Julie Andrews or Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and like working in a cartoon. They could turn round and see a 3D cannonball heading right for them.'

Getting the casting right is a priority. Phil and his team need to find performers who can engage with a younger audience and capture the essence of Horrible Histories.

'It is one of the most difficult things we have to get right. They have to be able to do two different shows every day and it is a long contract. We also need to make sure we get the casting balance right between the four people which is very important. We take this very seriously.'

So expect an irreverent show which will make your heart stop, your funny-bone ache and your children laugh and whoop.

The last word has to go to Terry Deary who is pleased that his mission to make the subject popular with children has been such a success.

He said: 'Children have always been taught that history is serious but we all love stories about people – and especially people behaving badly.

'School history books give a narrow view of the past and yet I get children coming up to me saying they want to study history at Oxford and Cambridge because of my books, which is a bit bizarre. If my books inspire them, what were the school books doing?'

A revelation which may prompt some to suggest Terry Deary is made Laureate of the History Text Book...

? Horrible Histories, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 20-24, �15.50-�5.50, �43 family, 01603 630000,


t Mary Queen of Scots paid the executioner a purse of gold to do a good job. She may have wanted her money back as he failed with two swings of the axe and had to use it as a saw to finish the job.

t Tudor doctors had some strange herbal superstitions. Suffer from rheumatism? Then wear the skin of a donkey. In pain with gout? Boil a red-haired dog in oil, add worms and the marrow from pig bones. Bald? Use a shampoo made from the juice of crushed beetles.

t The greatest Victorian serial killer wasn't Jack the Ripper, it was a woman from County Durham called Mary Ann Cotton. It is believed she poisoned three husbands and 15 of her children.

t Queen Victoria's people celebrated her gold and diamond jubilees in style, but she wasn't that popular with her suffering Irish subjects who resented the fact she sent just �5,000 to help in the Irish Famine. Their contempt was expressed in a cheerful little poem: The queen she came to call on us, She wanted to see all of us, I'm glad she didn't fall on us, She's 18 stone!