Great Comedy, Horrible History

In my continuing endeavour to use up unpublished work, below is an article I wrote last summer for the Oxford University History Society’s magazine. I wrote two articles at the time; this one was held back an issue for space and then got lost amongst a flurry of editorial re-arrangement. The article’s exposition, necessary when
Horrible Histories was a cult phenomenum, seems outdated now it has won major awards and is moving to prime-time; and I made it a little college-magazine-y in style as I didn’t know what the magazine was after and thought I’d better play it safe. But I still thought it may be worth sticking here as food for thought for that ever elusive browsing reader.

Review: Horrible Histories (CBBC)

There was once a day when all of us encountered history without footnotes, without bibliography and without double spacing. There was once a day when it was served instead with gusto and with vomit and with kings getting pokers shoved up their asses. In those days we were young enough to enjoy the Horrible Histories books, a series of paperbacks with alliterative titles full of people getting hanged and dying of plague: scratch-n-sniff history.

This year saw the second series of the books’ current TV spin-off. As a sketch show, the series is a triumph. It is fed by a strict diet of Monty Python, which finds a suitable vehicle for both the grotesquely historical and the historically grotesque. Series highlights include a rap celebrating the monarchy restoration, Charles II and his subjects partying like it’s 1699. Except not like it’s actually 1699 because Charles would have been dead fourteen years.

Another innovation is a talking rat who occasionally appears with a little sign-post to tell you that what’s happening on screen is actually true and not just something made up by CBBC executives, like the winning entry in a Blue Peter competition. “This actually happened!” “They actually did this!” the rat actually tells us about the unlikeliest of details. The BBC should use him more – I’d like to see him on Question Time with signs like “he actually believes this!” or “he actually purchased that tie!” whenever a politician speaks.

"He ACTUALLY wrote this blog, actually wrote it."

But one thing you can’t get away from when watching is that it’s trying to sell something – it screams to its young target audience “Oh my god look at the vomit, would you look at that vomit! Incidentally, there were two infamous battles in 1066, I bet you didn’t know that. What? History? Oh no, you must be thinking about this massive pile of vomit…” Actually the vomit-history ratio is mercifully different to this but the fact remains that the aim of the show is to coerce children into taking an interest in history, the sort of interest that will make them sit up a bit more in history lessons and possibly keep them interested all their lives.  Does it succeed?

I’m not sure that it does. Do people really get into history to discover “who suffered what pain” as a history teacher at my school once put it? The nerdier things makes it stick with you – the thrill of reading something in which your very existence in a time and place is rooted; the way that every event can be seen through a myriad of interpretations; the excitement of something that is not fixed although it has already happened. I don’t think Horrible Histories quite cracks this.

Its comedy is excellent but its portrayal of history is no less two-dimensional than the cartoons in those books we read as kids. Who is Horrible Histories really for? For children? Possibly. But more than that I think it’s for the people who have given the Charles II rap its ninety-five three hundred and seventy-two thousand views on YouTube – a good chunk of them, I bet, are history students.



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4 responses to “Great Comedy, Horrible History

  1. No, people don’t get into history to discover who suffered what pain. But then, people get into literature through reading Enid Blyton or J.K.Rowling and they’re not really what literature’s all about either; people get into music because they can play the Titanic theme on the piano, or ‘The Entertainer’, or something, and only later do we discover what a joy Bach and Beethoven are, or the wit of Jane Austen and the way some books can completely alter how you understand the world around you – but these things all go way over the head of most eight/nine-year-olds, be they ever so nerdy (I think that was about the age when I was reading those books…?). And why shouldn’t we take the same approach to history? It’s like those chemistry lessons in secondary school where the teacher demonstrates putting potassium or something (I may be completely wrong) into water and it blows up. That’s not what chemistry is about, but if it makes one or two kids prick up their ears, that doesn’t really matter. Later they’ll get hooked on the details. I liked GCSE Biology because I liked drawing pretty pictures of plant cells, but now I’m studying biomedical sciences. Go figure.

    Sometimes kids do need things to be sold to them. If we can get them through the vomit and red-hot-arse-pokers years, keep them open-eared enough to listen for long enough, then they will stay interested when things do start getting genuinely interesting.

    I’ve got a hideous feeling I’ve made my point in about five different ways, none of them being quite adequate, but instead of going back and editing this I should probably do some actual work, so I sincerely apologise. Interesting post as ever, though :). x

  2. Yes, I certainly agree with you – the program ticks the educate, inform and entertainment boxes about three times over. And it certainly won’t put children off history. I guess what I was addressing was the particular interest of my original audience – history students and academics who might be interested in the potential for academic effect, of which I think there is little directly. However indirectly, as you rightly point out, a program like Horrible Histories is very valuable.

    This still puts it, I think, in an academically grey area. For example because its makers are aware that children like Christmas and playing games, it tends to interpret the Civil War/pre- and post- reformation years with a pro-Catholic bias driven by its expectations of what its audience will enjoy. This makes fantastic sketches and I imagine would work well to do all the things you say, which is great; but I’m not sure how well it teaches in its own right. Catholics didn’t always treat Protestants so good either and it’s all an important part of history.

    I guess one of the saving graces for the show on this point is that an ethusiastic teacher could play such sketches in classrooms and use the lesson to re-address the balance. (Thanks for the comment – it’s really got me thinking about my own article!)

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