Monday, January 2, 2012

Horrible Histories

Randall Stephens

Pillaging and plundering. Murder and torture. Soldiers gassed in the trenches. Kings and Queens behaving badly. Those are some of the many things you'll see on the BBC hit TV show Horrible Histories. The program is fittingly hosted by a rat puppet.
Its so popular with kids and parents that it's spawned a play, "colouring" books, and more. I'm hooked after seeing just a little of it with my god daughter here in the UK. (Watch the Four Georges boy-band sketch here.)

And in addition, the play, TV show, and the books all teach some fun lessons about the past. Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian:

One sketch in the CBBC series concerns communications in ancient Rome. The Romans send messages by writing them on a tablet and sending them along the Roman roads by a network called Tabellari Messenger. That is, a slave takes the verbal message – complete with the requisite smilies – to its recipient. An adult needs to watch this twice to get all the references to BlackBerry Messenger. Of course, some might point to this system's alleged use in this summer's British riots. Perhaps that was all the fault of Horrible Histories.

But I doubt it: kids addicted to this programme would be more likely to be trying to memorise a song that names all the monarchs of England since William the Conqueror (one that should make the Tories happy there!) or collecting the full series of original books from Savage Stone Age to Blitzed Brits. Although it's impossible to achieve that goal because Deary keeps adding to them, endlessly spinning new variants on a winning formula. Only when he runs out of gruesome "R" words will he be done with the Romans – you can already get both Rotten Romans and Ruthless Romans.

I have wondered if the show's premise and popularity comes from Brits' happy pessimism, there comic dark streak. (Think for a moment of Monty Python or one of England's greatest poets, Philip Larkin, who famously said: "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.")

I doubt something like Horrible Histories would fly in the US. Too much celebratory and triumphant history dominates the popular view. But I certainly can see some great episodes based on robber barons, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, anti-communism, Henry Ford, slavery, and more!


Craig Gallagher said...

Growing up in Scotland, my great interest in history was sparked by Terry Deary's Horrible Histories series. I still have a box of the original ten or fifteen books in my parents' attic, I believe. They were a marvelous introduction to the wonder and whimsy of all kinds of historical stories. The dark Python-esque sense of humour that pervades them is absolutely their strongest appeal.

It is a shame that there is no American counterpart, but perhaps there's a market there for the enterprising historian. I certainly credit Deary's works as formative on my current journey to a PhD in History, which goes to show the impact accessible history for such a young age can have.

Randall said...

Craig: That's great to hear the books had that kind of influence. I think there would be some kind of market for that in the US.

Dana said...

The books have made at least a small foray into the US. I grabbed "Groovy Greeks" and "Rotten Romans" at an elementary school book fair, and have had a huge appreciation for Deary's books ever since. And, as with Craig, the books definitely contributed to my love of history growing up.

Unfortunately I haven't seen Deary's books for sale Stateside since the mid-90s. I feel like they'd be a brilliant, fun way to introduce kids to history. Hopefully they are still available and I just haven't seen them!

Anonymous said...

I'm from the US and love this show! I wish I could buy it. Not all of us Americans are a boring lot.