Savvy historical writers have long known that children’s non-fiction is a great resource. Books like Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections Castle or Man-of-War provide visual references unparalleled in adult history books – perfect for helping you plan out that seige or pirate attack! Children’s books also include many of the minutiae of daily life that get overlooked in discussions of the decline and fall of empires. It’s this attention to often bizarre detail that makes Horrible Histories a must-watch show for any writer of historical fiction. It also happens to be damned funny…
When the BBC expressed an interest in adapting Terry Deary’s wildly popular children’s history books for television, he was naturally a little apprehensive. Surely the venerable institution wouldn’t be able to replicate the anarchic humour of the books – or wouldn’t want to? Fortunately a wise BBC executive handed the project over to Caroline Norris (Dead Ringers, The Armstrong and Miller Show) whose used her experience in adult comedy to brilliant effect. The result is a cross between Monty Python and The Fast Show, except with the sexual innuendo and swearing replaced by jokes about poo and farting. Well, it is aimed at 6 to 12 year olds!
It succeeds by never talking down to its audience; whether parodying reality TV or explaining the English Civil War in a manner more reminiscent of an election night broadcast, it always acknowledges that kids are well aware of the adult world and want the same quality of entertainment as their parents. And with a cast of familiar faces from comedy shows like Gavin and Stacey (Mathew Baynton), Jam and Jerusalem (Simon Farnaby), That Mitchell and Webb Look (Sarah Farland) and of course The Armstrong and Miller Show (Martha Howe-Douglas and Jim Howick), adult viewers can be forgiven for forgetting they’re watching kids’ TV at all.
The show has become a huge hit, and has even been revamped (with Stephen Fry doing the between-sketch links) and given a new Sunday evening primetime slot. Ironically, the “grown-up” version is far nearer what Deary anticipated in the first place. Fry’s avuncular delivery of the linking material is ill-suited to the tone of the sketches at best, and patronising at worst. It’s as if the BBC is afraid that adults won’t think the show educational enough unless they inject some solemnity into the mix.
Not that I care. I have the DVDs of Series 1 and 2 on order, and Series 3 is still on iPlayer. I wonder if I can write the cost off as research expenses…?