Horrible Histories

Or, How Children's TV Grew Up in a Hurry

by Kerrie Mills

10 November 2011


It might just be one of the most successful original comedy shows to appear in years.

Given a country that holds prestigious comedy awards, it should not be surprising that on the strength of this one a six-part Best of Horrible Histories was subsequently recut for main adult channel BBC1. As hosted by Stephen Fry—no, not a puppet version, the real one. At which point it was formally noticed by the UK media’s People Who Notice These Things that Horrible Histories does also provide evidence, edgewise between the falling bodily fluids, of a sharp comic intelligence.

That, in fact, it might just be one of the most successful original comedy shows to appear in years.

It may not be sophisticated satire, but they’ve come damn close at times—as in the very first episode, when the dread pirate Captain Black Bart abruptly switches off the ‘Arrrr!’ to explain that on his ship, there’s no fighting allowed (“It’s antisocial, and it’s a good way to lose an eye, isn’t it Mulligan?”)... also, curfew is 8pm. Only a few episodes later, the Siege of Troy is recast with Ali G-style chavs (“Listen up, yeah! I want all us Greek soldiers to march on Troy, you get me? We’re gonna tear that city UP! Kill dem all, izzit? Yeah, it is!”) and a few episodes after that, Henry VIII discovers the Internet…

Show writer Laurence Rickard – one of the BAFTA-winning team that includes various other industry veterans along with the cast themselves—claims the really tricky bit was figuring out how to insert funny into the factual storylines; a dilemma that is liable to strike overseas viewers as a bit less complicated, given that just watching the British coping with the type of material HH deals in can often be hilarious in itself. As per a sketch revealing American Civil War General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as a narcoleptic: “Well, he is a great general…” “He is dribbling on my uniform shirt, sir.”

Watching the first two series in episode order, you can in fact see the subtle but very sure progression from edutainment series to – evidently somewhere during the writing process for Series Two – the joyful realisation that hey, this stuff is working. After that, all bets are off, and the kiddies must pay close attention indeed if they want to extract any clear exam answers. Luckily, also by that point, nobody minded a bit… save perhaps the inevitable concerned government minders and/or nitpicky historians—plus a few grumps who apparently see the whole thing as ‘liberal propaganda’ designed to undermine national pride, etc etc. Just as a suggestion, these last are probably the same folks who spent far too much time worrying about that one Teletubby’s purse.

Despite it all, the show has rolled happily, gruesomely on, with a third series now airing and a fourth in production. As the writing gets sharper, the performers visibly gain trust in each other and their ability to bring their own distinctive comic styles into the mix, becoming a bonafide comedy troupe —recognizable as such even under layers of wigs, scruffy makeup and some of the most authentically uncomfortable-looking period costuming this side of Pride & Prejudice. Evidently, the production budget has kept pace with the ratings.

They become more blatant about framing sketches as spoofs of current UK reality media; crudely at first, then gleefully, the spectacle of sleek modern-day presenters trying to cope with messy past-time outrages providing several immensely satisfying satirical outlets all at once. So do commercial breaks – in this case, Billy Mays’ many-times-great-granddad (“HELLO, I’M A SHOUTY MAN!”) hawking such products as New! Victorian Maid, enthusiastically tossing young women around and offering to replace them if they become OLD! ILL! OR PREGNANT! GUARANTEED!
Restoration-era Cavaliers and Puritans do a Wife Swap, as do Athenian and Spartan families.

Later, a Celtic warrior gets a pre-battle ‘Fashion Fix’ consisting of nothing but a good-luck necklace and some tattoos (“The flowers were my idea,” coos the Gok Wan-knockoff host, as the mirror reflects them behind a strategic pastel watering can). The popular ‘Stupid Deaths’ segment features a Grim Reaper so bored—or possibly burnt out, given the backlog in afterlife applications from the Black Death alone—that he’s set himself up as a Simon Cowell-esque impresario who passes souls through based on how well they amuse him.

By the third season, they’ve achieved You’ve Been Artois’d!, a nominal spoof of Punk’d which has only the most tenuous justification either as parody or history lesson; the perfomers carry it through entirely on the strength of their own styles, and it’s one of the funniest damn things I’ve ever seen in any media, ever. And I have seen a lot of comic media. Give these same people a shot at an age-indifferent stage, and it’s not impossible that genius might happen.

In the same vein, the typically inane kids’ educational song is retooled as brilliant parody by the simple expedient of matching each subject’s legend to an equally pretentious present-day genre. Dick Turpin is deconstructed to the tune of Stand and Deliver, Cleopatra homages Lady Gaga and Aztec priests chant like ominous Bee Gees (yep: “Not stayin’ alive, not stayin’ alive…”)
The four King Georges form a boy band, complete with moody spotlights and angsty stool-sitting. ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II prances Eminem-style through the halls of divine right (“I’m the king/who brought back par-ty-ing!”) and the presumed Viking ancestors of Spinal Tap bring 80’s power ballads to the shores of Celtic Britain (“We’re gonna set this town alight/Literally!”). And the proud little future casualties of 300 put on their very own High School Musical – using those American accents again, only squeakier. (“Everyone’s a jock here, there are no Spartan nerds/The weedy kids were left to die as breakfast for the birds!”)

The producers emphasise in the press releases that they spent some time finding just the right performers to handle this unique challenge. Which in North American terms would be clearly PR-speak for ‘We had one hell of a time convincing hot young talents that wearing caveman costumes would be a smart career move’, but who knows, the British own a media tradition in which four-sixths of the Pythons also got their start in kiddie TV. At any rate, the HH producers succeeded, and there’s no question that it paid off in terms of full-hearted commitment to the show – not to say sheer enjoyment in making it.

Thus Gerard from Peep Show, Jim Howick, is now the proudly deserving owner of a children’s BAFTA as Best Performer, playing both Everyman and SHOUTY MAN with no loss of likeability (and incidentally showing off a singing voice fine enough to make fits of Georgian self-pity touching). Also running in the Hey It’s That Guy stakes are light comedian/prog-rock musician Mathew Baynton (Gavin & Stacey, You Instead); the marvellously loopy Simon Farnaby, aka Death, via (without apparent detour) the The Mighty Boosh; and Ben Willbond, jobbing master of both that particularly British uptightness and a Henry VIII parody so intuitively perfect that with not much more work it could pass in a straight drama. (Between which he also plays Hitler. Apparently you really do have to beware the nice wholesome-looking ones.)

Somehow – he claims he just ‘kept showing up at the studio’—writer Rickard has also ended up in front of the camera; most often as the creator of ‘News at When’ correspondent Bob Hale, a Bob & Ray-esque exercise in endearingly enthusiastic irrelevance. Meanwhile Martha Howe-Douglas, late of The Doctors, is now starring in a show where being ‘the chick’ translates to ‘getting to play Boudicca, Elizabeth I and Joan of Arc in one series alone’, and is clearly enjoying every minute of it. (As for Terry Deary, he’s happily involved in his creation to this day, making himself useful whenever a kindly elderly type is needed. A nod should also be given to the rest of a sterling supporting crew.)

They’re a lively set of parental distractions, no question, and it’s clear that cross-demographic visual appeal—or, as Rickard dubbed it more bluntly, ‘mum candy’—was a big part of the ‘just the right people’ thingy. Most obviously (in terms of both onscreen charisma and anxious online discussions re: availability) as regards both Willbond and Baynton, the latter of whom is even by British standards an improbably engaging bundle of lanky, soft-spoken quirkiness. Rather like Johnny Depp, except with less angst and more ‘behind-the-scenes’ clips in which he interviews himself in drag.

So, following a riotously successful BBC Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall – plus a spinoff quiz show entitled Gory Games—what’s next for them all? There are ongoing mutterings of a movie, or something similarly ‘special’ planned for 2012. The cast has started to cross-pollinate elsewhere; Baynton has appeared both on an episode of Peep Show and in Willbond’s short film Tooty’s Wedding. Meanwhile they’ve all —save, understandably given he probably reads YouTube comments, Baynton again—carried a sort of mini-stage-act onto Twitter, joking, bickering and occasionally sharing behind-the-scenes pictures with fans…

…and just as I typed that last, word comes through from the same source that Reece Shearsmith and the League of Gentlemen troupe will be joining the gang for several sketches in the upcoming series. After that… well, who knows? It’s not like the source material is going to run out anytime soon.

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