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

Nominally a kiddie series, the TV adaptation of Horrible Histories has a sharp comic intelligence. It might just be one of the most successful original comedy shows to appear in years.

Horrible Histories

Airtime: CBBC -- Daily, 5:15 pm
Cast: Jim Howick, Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Laurence Rickard, Martha Howe-Douglas
Debut: 2009 (currently three series)
Network: CBBC (at home), BBC Kids channel (overseas)

The thing is, the British attitude toward how one might go about teaching history is a bit more... relaxed than most.

Not that this has traditionally trickled down to UK classrooms anymore than it has North American ones; only that it's not surprising that when the floodgates did finally open, it happened in the land of 1066 and All That, et endless seq.. When once you've decided to adopt Rowan Atkinson as a media icon, there's not much use trying to prevent children learning about the Renaissance from the perspective of a sewer rat.

Thus was enabled the origin story of the best-beloved Horrible Histories franchise. When asked circa 1992 by Scholastic Books UK to write an historically-themed joke book with a few factoids thrown in, British children's author Terry Deary had traumatic flashbacks to his struggles to stay awake during middle school courses on the subject. Wouldn't it be much more fun, Deary suggested instead, if he were to write a book of historical factoids with some jokes thrown in...?

As he delved into the 'serious' history texts, that quite naturally evolved into lots of jokes -- in fact, into the entire grand gold mine of black comedy that is human civilization throughout the ages, just naturally packed full of the kind of bodily-fluid-filled gags that invariably set children to squealing happily. All of it underpinned by the particular sort of shrewdly anarchistic cleverness that the UK media have been on high alert for, oh, just about f40 years now. Hey, "Chapter One: The Dead Pirate Parrot Sketch" has a nice ring to it...

OK, not that last bit. But the rest paid off in spades, starting with Vicious Vikings and winding up with a list of similarly snarky titles, computer games, stage shows, breakfast cereal tie-ins etc. that requires a lot of scrolling on the Wikipedia page. A decade and a half later, the franchise showed no sign of slowing, having become an international multimedia sensation published in no less than 30 languages.

All that was missing, in fact -- as in really obviously missing -- was the TV adaptation. I mean, it's beloved by millions of kids! How hard could that be?

"Tall tales, tragic acts

We gave you all the fearsome facts

The ugly truth, no glam or glitz

We showed you all the juicy bits

Gory, ghastly, mean and cruel

Stuff they don't teach you at school

The past is no longer a mystery

Hope you enjoyed Horrible Histories!

...Oh, yes. Well. Ahem.

Clearly, translating snarky factoids to gruesome living colour would be complicated. Faced with a franchise designed to consciously subvert pretty much every post-millennial children's TV trope ever, it’s very hard not to believe the minds of all involved didn’t instantly start flipping Rolodex-style through the Holy Grail and/or Blackadder quotelist... but if so, they stifled it all for an amazingly long while. Fear of publicly messing up tender young psyches will do that to you, post-millennium.

So, kid-friendly compromises were made. There had been an American animated series – no, not Histeria!, another one -- which would seem the natural evolution of the cartoon-filled books. However nobody appears to want to talk about the finished product, least of all Deary, so we'll skip lightly over it here (except to note that at the moment this is the only version currently available on Region One DVD).

Then the CBBC (the rough UK equivalent of PBS Kids) began hashing out the possibilities of live-action with producers Lion TV. There was at one point the concept of a loveably grumpy stationmaster taking two children on magical train rides into the past. After which they spent quite some time apparently on a wise wizard guide, a 'Merlin-type character' who would presumably be explaining the important life lessons behind, say, Henry VIII's marital history... yes. Well. Back to the drawing board.

At some point -- extremely late one night, I like to think, after noticing that everyone at the supposed brainstorming session for the educational history series was covertly watching the Life of Brian playing on the lounge telly instead -- somebody finally threw up their hands and said "The hell with this! Bring on the talking rat!"

And before the hangover could set in, they had committed themselves to a sophisticated yet poo-joke-filled sketch comedy show that would present history as Deary kept insisting they must: funny, Horrible, and above all true. Deprived of the standard shortcuts on either side, they would take the a third, demographically-neutral option of sheer creativity, and see where it led them.

Hey, imaginary desperation scenarios aside, it was still a fairly cunning plan. In fact, it would be as far as possible a direct homage to those icons who had first discovered that both comedy and historical scholarship are largely the art of exploring, then exploiting, the dichotomy between what people like to think of themselves as and what they really are. Monty Python would meet Blackadder... and together they would run a daycare... and then, inevitably, they would start messing about with the boundaries. (“Then Tutankhamun’s daddy became a mummy, which is a very complex operation.”)

Frankly, for any of this to actually work would be a minor miracle. Let alone that it should become a bonafide huge hit… which is exactly what it did.

The kids -- upwards of half a nation's worth at any given time -- are not only not confused, but actively flattered by the refusal to pander to them. Meanwhile adults are won in increasing numbers by the sheer good-natured snarkiness of the whole thing… as delivered by some of the most attractive ‘parental bonuses’ on TV today. We’ll get back to that in a moment. For now let’s just say that, as it turns out, the adult “ahem *just wandering through the room!” demographic is an awfully powerful one.

There are limits, of course. Even in its most openly wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments -- even with the demands of historical fact largely excusing those of political correctness – the show is still necessarily rooted in the conventional expectations of children's TV, romping indiscriminately but always with conscious accuracy through the memorably awful moments along the road to the civilization of the British Isles, beginning with the Savage Stone Age. Along the way, little pop-up signs earnestly assure audiences of what they’re not making up, or for that matter what they are.

That said… those same audiences are about guaranteed they’ll have an awful lot of fun in the grey areas.

It will not surprise the even remotely media-savvy that the Rotten Romans, Terrible Tudors, Gorgeous Georgians, Vile Victorians and Putrid Pirates are the current writers’ darlings, but otherwise the awfulness is pretty evenly distributed; albeit, in a praiseworthy show of cultural restraint, the Fabulous French don't appear until the third season. As per the books the ‘tragedy plus time' formula is strictly observed, and the merriment accordingly breaks off sharply at the Woeful Second World War.

In later series, the Euro-focus has been broadened to include the Incredible Incas and Angry Aztecs... also, the Awesome USA. Let's just say the cowboy accents are a bit more authentic than the Incas' makeup. (The Midwestern hair metal band accents, however, are guaranteed to give any fan of international understanding the warm fuzzies.)

All as hosted by the talking rat -- a furry, funny little puppet, of course, named Rattus Rattus, with a nice line in both tiny headgear and interspecies cynicism (summing up a sketch on the Black Death: "So that's Rats 1, Humans 0."). Plus a flatulent pet flea named Marcus. Because this is, after all, a children's show...

...right up until, in 2010, the second series won not only three children's BAFTAS -- for performing, writing and Best Comedy -- but a British Comedy Award as Best Sketch Show.

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