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

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.

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.

RATING 9 / 10