Tag Archives: Horrible Histories

Stuff and Nonsense: The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff

Few TV writers can feel as lucky, professionally speaking, as the author of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, Mark Evans. Evans, who quilled Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations, was an obvious choice for a BBC2 commission to kick off the television output of the BBC’s Dickens Season. Not only did that guarantee him an audience, but also gave his writing the benefit of what looks to have been quite a sizeable budget as well as some of the country’s best loved comic actors: Robert Webb, David Mitchell, Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Fry.

What’s more Charles Dickens provides, for Evans’s source material, one of the richest legacies of work a single writer has left us since Shakespeare. There are, accordingly, plenty of silly names, gratuitous facial hair and wind-up top hats that get bigger with the dramatic tension. On paper this light Dickensian parody could have been one of the funniest shows of the year.

So what the Dickens went wrong?

First, three things that went resoundingly right. Terrence “The Demon Headmaster” Hardiman running around with a goose on his head stole every scene he was in, whilst everyone who even laid a stitch on the absurd sumptuousness that was the show’s costumes should give themselves a good old-fashioned bravo. Especially the hats. I also couldn’t help but smile every time the lead character’s full name, Jedrington Secret-Past, was mentioned.

The trouble with The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff in fact is more fundamental: it doesn’t understand parody.

Parody can work in a number of ways. It can take an established trope or sequence and put it into an entirely new place – exposing both that familiar place and that familiar trope as odd, fraudulent even. Or it can out-do its source, exposing its own fraudulence in the process. Think of the product placement parody in Wayne’s World. Or take this scene from US sitcom Community, the culmination of a plotline that out-paranoids the best conspiracy theory movies in dazzling style:

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, however, views parody as just: the thing it’s parodying, but a bit shit. Instead of out-doing the classic Dickensian plotlines by escalating their ridiculousness, shifting them to another setting, or by bringing another setting’s tropes into the Dickensian realm, Evans instead treads in Dickens’s shadow, saying what Dickens says, but in a funny voice – a tone inherited by the one-note “plot exposition with a veneer of irony” style of the show’s actors.

Part of the problem is that Dickens is himself a parodist – even Jedrington Secret-Past’s name is not as grotesquely obvious as the title character of one of my favourite Dickens short stories, ‘Captain Murderer’. You can guess what he does by the end of the story. Dickens’s language, modern screen audiences are liable to forget, is itself often deliberately old-fashioned, playing a game with the heightened language of the author’s predecessors, a game in which Dickens sets the rules, moves the goal posts and somehow has the warped logic to end with a home run every time.

David Mitchell’s character, Jolliforth, is one of the few things in the show worthy of a Dickensian label. Jolliforth gets bigger when he’s happier, inflating to an amazing size. But when he’s sad, such as when nasty mister Skulkingworm whispers bleak thoughts in his ear, he gets thinner and thinner. A good parody is like Jolliforth when he’s happy – it just keeps growing and growing into absurdism. But when you handle parody cynically, without any artistic purpose, it’s bound to deflate. Like Jolliforth, its life depends on the richness of the ideas whispered into its ear.

If what you’re looking for this Christmas is a TV show that presents funny scenes on bookish topics with Stephen Fry in it, then watch Horrible Histories. If you want a fun romp set in a CGI Victorian London with Stephen Fry in it, then go out and see the new Sherlock Holmes film. The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff hasn’t got enough stuff or enough nonsense for your swettlepence.

The endeavour was worth it, however, for us to discover one very important thing: David Mitchell looks really good with a handle bar moustache.



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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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