The Horrible Histories books have already been re-imagined for television, stage shows and magazines and have now inspired a film. Laura Drysdale speaks to series author Terry Deary.
Its hallmark is history with the nasty bits left in - and with foul facts, odd discoveries and tales of the downright disgusting, Horrible Histories has had generations of youngsters hooked on the past.
“Children love hearing about the dangerous and the disgusting things that people used to do to one another,” author of the book series Terry Deary once said - and he maintains that human interest in the gruesome goes back for centuries.
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“It’s always been part of entertainment,” he reflects today. “It’s part of human nature to enjoy things we hope we will never experience. I am just following a 3,000 year old tradition.”
If his formula for the books is a focus on the revolting, then it has certainly proven a success. There are now around 100 titles in the Horrible Histories series, and since the first was published 26 years ago, the editions have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.
They have already inspired stage performances, magazines, games and a television show - and now the best-selling series is heading to the big screen with the release of Horrible Histories: the Movie - Rotten Romans in cinemas later this week.
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“Horrible Histories has for 20 years been available in other media - cartoons, television, theatre - and it was just a matter of time before it came to the cinema,” Deary says.
The historical tales have already reached young people across the globe but he hopes the film will attract new audiences, including in the US. “I want to educate about the past through entertainment - and this is another way of doing it.”
From acting to writing
Deary, who was in York at the weekend for a book signing, had established a career as an author for 15 years before Horrible Histories was developed and The Terrible Tudors, the first in the series, hit the shelves in 1993.
But the 73-year-old, who was born in Sunderland, the son of a butcher and clothing shop manager, actually started out in acting.
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His journey into writing began after he joined Theatre Powys in Wales in 1972 and started to devise scripts for some of the group’s shows.
Five years later, he turned one of the most successful, The Custard Kid, into his first children’s novel, wishing something could remain of the production after the set and costumes had been packed away.
He had 50 children’s books to his name by the time he was approached by his publisher Scholastic to write a history joke book.
He was asked to add historical details to sit alongside the gags but “I found the facts, especially the quirky ones, were more interesting than the jokes so it ended up being a fact book with jokes”. Horrible Histories was born - “and that was almost a new genre we had invented”.
Deary is not, he maintains, an historian, and his skill is not in discovering the information but rather in retelling it in a way that engages and entertains. “History has always been full of fabulous stories but they have been killed off by historians who take and present it too seriously.
"Along comes me, not a historian but a children’s author and says it irreverently and people say ‘I love history - it’s not a dull subject that was forced on me at school’.”
“Horrible Histories are not really history books at all,” he adds. “They are about people. They are about stories...and real people you can measure yourself against.”
The books have developed, he says, from a “slightly random collection of facts” to include an over-arching narrative that “says something about society then and society now”.
Researchers equip him with facts, stories and anecdotes and he selects what to use and how to present it, opting not only for the weird, wonderful and utterly disgusting, but also for tales with “the hardest and most horrible lessons of history”, often related to topics of the day.
“The books look at issues like authority and should there even be a monarchy? The big topic at the moment which people want me to write about is Brexit.
"It’s so obvious when you look at the relationship between Britain and Europe in the past - the wars, the invasions - that explains British people’s aversion to Europe. I’m not saying it’s logical or taking sides but sitting neutrally you can see how history informs the present. The books very much inform today.”
Some have proven to be controversial and Deary says he has received criticism in particular for his work on the British Empire and “daring to suggest”, in his words, it was “not the best thing ever”.
A stance against authority
Underpinning his work are Deary’s steadfast anti-establishment principles. They stem, he says, from life in the north. “You see the world run by upper middle classes in London and you think somebody has got to stand up against them. The empowerment of the north is talked about endlessly but it never happens.”
He isn’t fond of those in power, describing them as “muppets” in general, and he has even shunned invitations from the Queen and Tony Blair.
He has previously claimed he began “challenging authority” at school - and he is not impressed his books are being used the classroom, alongside textbooks, which he believes are geared towards exams with endless dates and names.
“I would rather them be the thing they don’t get in school,” he says. He wrote books that would “entertain children away from the classroom” and fears young people will be turned off if they’re seen as teaching books.
“The history of dates and kings and queens and heroes aren’t what matter in life,” he says. “What matters are people and their stories. Children don’t want to read statistics, they want to read about people and that’s what Horrible Histories offers.”
Now living in County Durham, Deary, who will be signing books at Waterstones Doncaster between 2pm and 4pm on August 10, says as long as he keeps being asked to write, he will, adding “I just do what pays the bills.”
But his Horrible Histories series has done much more than just satisfy his bank balance. “Parents come up to me and say my child didn’t enjoy reading books at all until they picked up Horrible Histories and that is just fabulous.
"Autistic children also tend to particularly enjoy the books. It’s really rewarding to give so much pleasure to so many young people.”
Though that pleasure started in books, the success of Deary’s work has rippled across other media. The children’s historical show of the same name, based on the books, remains on air on the BBC and Horrible Histories also continues live on stage, with the Barmy Britain - Part Four production running in London’s West End this August.
With an all-star cast including Nick Frost and Kim Cattrall, Horrible Histories is now also making its big screen debut. “I think the film is a triumph that captures the tone and ethos of Horrible Histories on film,” Deary says. “There’s some great performances, great jokes and some really disgusting bits as well.”