History Made Horrible: Terry Deary's Hugely Popular Horrible Histories Have Leapt beyond the Page onto Airwaves, Stage and Screen and Are the Inspiration for an Exhibition on the First World War Trenches at the Imperial War Museum. Peter J. Beck Considers the Success of the Format and What It Tells Us about History Aimed at Children
Beck, Peter J., History Today
Terry Deary's series of books, published by Scholastic, has sold over 21 million copies worldwide since first appearing in 1993. Translated into some 40 languages including Chinese, Korean and Russian, the format has transferred with similar success to CDs, DVDs, roadshows, stage plays, radio and television programmes and museum exhibitions. Since 2005 several million CDs have been distributed free in in promotions by Kellogg's cereals and the Daily Telegraph.
The franchise shows no sign of flagging. Currently, the Birmingham Stage Company is on tour performing two Horrible Histories plays. This year BBC Television broadcast Horrible Histories in a format developed by the comedian Marcus Brigstocke; it became Britain's most watched children's television programme. A series of 13 programmes, full of rotten rulers, gory battles and lavatorial humour, took viewers from the Savage Stone Age onwards, making much of allusions to popular culture: four King Georges, singing 'Born 2 Rule over you', performed as a boy band in a clip attracting numerous hits on YouTube; Henry VIII's song, 'Divorced, beheaded and died; Divorced, beheaded, survived', offered an easy way of remembering the names, order and fate of his six wives. Deary himself, a former teacher-actor, featured in cameo roles playing a Roman emperor and a graverobber.
At London's Imperial War Museum, the current Horrible Histories: Terrible Trenches exhibition promises visitors, most of them children, that they will 'Learn, see, smell and hear about the First World War through frightful facts, ropey rhymes, sad songs and sinister superstitions in a great day out.' It follows the successful Frightful First World War exhibition that took place at Imperial War Museum North (2008-2009). In the longer term, Deary has hopes of developing a 'History Experience' theme park in north-east England.
Sunderland-born Deary has written more than 50 Horrible Histories since the first titles--Terrible Tudors and Awesome Egyptians--appeared 16 years ago. He continues to produce books at a prodigious rate. 'A book takes me between six hours and six weeks to write,' he explains. Though Deary takes pride in his work and welcomes letters of praise from readers--'That makes it worthwhile', he says--he claims not to enjoy writing: 'I love writing two words ... "The" and "End" ... the work of writing it is hard.' Deary says he is happiest performing on stage, radio or television.
Taking history principally to the 6-12 age group, particularly those who are not fluent readers or lack a long attention span, Deary hopes to offer an 'alternative voice' for history. It is argued by some that the fractured nature of the texts and the emphasis on the more unpleasant episodes, far from offering an alternative, only serves to reinforce short attention spans. But Deary justifies his 'horrible' approach to the past as a response to what he sees as the error of presenting history to young people in 'big, thick books'. 'The trouble with history books is that adults, who can be pretty pompous, write them. You can just hear them saying, "I am an expert. So sit there and listen to what I am saying!".'
Deary worries that the widespread use of his books in schools risks making them 'establishment' texts and he stresses his refusal to visit schools. As his website proclaims: 'Teachers note: Terry will not set foot inside a school for any reason.' His 'proudly anti-establishment' stance is further highlighted by his refusal of invitations to meet either Tony Blair at Downing Street--reportedly Cherie Blair claimed that their son read Horrible Histories--or the Queen during her visit to the north-east.
Horrible Histories make no more than a token effort at historical balance. Despite acknowledging the positive features of a changing world, the past is viewed largely in a subjective manner imbued with present-day concerns that befit Deary's anti-establishment agenda: 'My books . …