Horrible Histories

terrible tudors

Horrible Histories‘ is a series of UK educational books first released in in 1993 with ‘The Terrible Tudors’ and ‘The Awful Egyptians.’ They are designed to engage children in history by presenting the unusual, gory, or unpleasant aspects in a tongue-in-cheek manner in contrast to the formality of lessons taught in school. The books are published by Scholastic and written primarily by Terry Deary (with illustrations by Martin Brown and others).

After a run of 60 books, Deary announced that the series would officially come to an end in 2013 for lack of stories, and said they would focus on the larger media franchise such as magazines, TV, and stage shows. Terry Deary studied at drama college and worked as an actor-teacher at the TIE company in Wales. He then became a theatre director and began to write plays for children. Many of his TIE plays were eventually rewritten and adapted for the ‘Horrible Histories’ books.

By the time the project was presented to him by his publisher, Deary had written around 50 children’s novels. ‘The Guardian’ explains, ‘they wanted a ‘history joke book’ and – when he protested that he knew nothing about history – offered to provide the facts to go with the gags.’ According to Deary, ‘The publishers originally asked for a joke book with a history theme. They said, ‘Put in a few interesting facts to break up the jokes because some of your jokes are very bad.’ And when I looked at the facts, I found they were much more interesting than the jokes. So we ended up with a fact book with jokes. We created a new genre.’

The fifth book in the series, ‘Blitzed Brits,’ was published in 1995, by chance coinciding with the 50th anniversary of VE day. The book reached no. 1 on the bestseller list. Deary decided that the book only gave the British viewpoint during World War II. Therefore, he wrote ‘Woeful Second World War,’ focusing on experiences in France, Poland, Germany and Russia, which was published in September 1999, which coincided with the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

In 2003, to celebrate the 10th anniversary, Scholastic held a contest to find Horrible Histories’ ‘Brainiest Boffin.’ Deary played the Quizmaster and through a series of rounds, gradually eliminated five of the six finalists to be invited to the London vaults from 500 applicants. Deary eventually returned to the stage. ‘Mad Millennium’ was commissioned by director Phil Clark, who was a fellow TIE participant 25 years before. He suggested turning the books into large-scale theatre productions. Deary was happy to return to writing plays.

In 2003, Dreary told ‘The Guardian’: ‘Everything I learnt [at school] after 11 was a waste of time…it was boring, badly taught and not related to the real world…schools are nothing but a Victorian idea to get people off the street.. Who decided that that putting 30 kids with only their age in common in a classroom with one teacher was the best way of educating?’ He continued, ‘if I had it my way, I wouldn’t have schools at all. They don’t educate, they just keep kids off the streets. But my books educate, because they prepare kids for life…It’s outrageous, why don’t we start telling children the truth about history? I hope my books do just that.’

The series has a skeptical view on the accuracy and validity of history. An introduction to one of the books in series states: ‘History can be horrible. Horribly hard to learn. The trouble is it keeps on changing … In history a ‘fact’ is sometimes not a fact at all. Really it’s just someone’s ‘opinion.’ And opinions can be different for different people … Teachers will try to tell you there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers even if there aren’t.’

Many of Deary’s books make very serious points, underneath all the jokes and gore. He often comments on whether the modern era is as vile as previous eras, and questions the reader’s morals and patriotism. Deary explains ‘I’d basically concluded [The British Empire] was one of the worst things to happen to the planet. So I deployed the facts that illustrate that.’ ‘The Guardian’ writes: ‘The last chapter of ‘Ruthless Romans’ portrays modern-day Zimbabwe and essentially asks, is this any different?’ The musical stage show ‘Barmy Britain,’ co-written by Deary, ‘features a finale whose sarcastic references to burger bars, bankers, and internet dating leave its young audience in little doubt that whatever the crazed excesses of our ancestors, future generations will doubtless consider us every bit as loopy.’ When informed by a Jewish mother that her Rabbi told her not to introduce her children to the Holocaust before 13 years old, and that her 6 year old had read it in ‘Horrible Histories,’ Deary replied: ‘Sorry, but what am I supposed to do – lie to children?’

Deary is very distrustful of the establishment. He said, ‘I was beaten, bullied and abused at school in the name of passing exams. It taught me nothing and I had to break out. So I started challenging authority at school, really, and just kind of never stopped.’ He didn’t reply to Tony Blair’s invitation to come to No 10, telling ‘The Guardian’: ‘The only politician ever to have entered parliament with honorable intentions, was Guy Fawkes.’ He also declined an invitation to meet the Queen, and said he was, ‘deeply disappointed’ that the BBC’s diamond jubilee coverage included a ‘Horrible Histories’ sketch live from Tower Bridge. In 2012 he told ‘The Guardian’: ‘I’m not a historian, and I wouldn’t want to be. I want to change the world. Attack the elite. Overturn the hierarchy. Look at my stories and you’ll notice that the villains are always, always, those in power. The heroes are the little people. I hate the establishment. Always have, always will.’

Deary uses researchers for all ‘Horrible Histories’ often in specialized fields, such as a military history. While researching his books, he immerses himself in the period so he is in the right context, compiling much more information than he needs. He tends to exclude all the ‘boring facts’ such as dates, because, he maintains ‘dates don’t matter. Human experience matters.’ He wishes to avoid ‘preaching’ the value of history, instead focusing on the wonders of human nature, and asking how we each would behave in other people’s shoes.

Deary uses many generic literary conventions to make his books more accessible to his readers. He deliberately writes in prose styles that follow natural speech cadences. He also frequently uses alliteration and assonance. Deary considered poetry to be ‘another weapon in the writer’s armory’ rather than a specialized form that may only be used in specific circumstances. He maintains that the impersonal language used in textbooks alienates the reader. He therefore uses the second person to talk directly to the reader, as if he were talking to them in real life. He views ‘Horrible Histories’ as one of the few non-fiction or fiction series which utilize this ‘underused style of writing.’ He has been quoted as saying: ‘With ‘Horrible Histories’ I want children to think about how people in certain moments of history felt and also for them to consider what these people were experiencing…in ‘Horrible Histories’ I’m asking, ‘Why do people do what they do?’ And, ultimately, ‘Why do I behave the way I do?”

Deary uses the newspaper style to make serious material more accessible so the reader approaches the piece in ‘a more relaxed frame of mind than they would a school text,’ as in an article about the Massacre at Lidice. Newspapers are also used to illustrate light-hearted stories, such as might appear in a tabloid. Newspaper extracts, along with letters and diaries are used to tell stories from the perspectives of individual people, in order ‘to get away from the objective, and to get [his] readers to view history subjectively.’

When writing about events and historical periods that are still in living memory, such as the Second World War, the series aims to maintain sensitivity. Deary argues that a story about a Tudor executioner who needs ten hacks to chop off someone’s head, for example, can, however, afford to be comical as contemporary society is so far removed from the event. Deary believes that it is important for children to know about recent events, such as The Holocaust, not relegating them as taboo subjects that cannot be discussed. He has commented that the books do have borders they won’t cross. They wouldn’t, for example, describe violence against babies, such as the Vikings inflicted, and aside from some snogging, the series doesn’t venture into the realms of sex.

Often the protagonists of one book can become the antagonists in another book. For example, the Romans are the attackers in ‘Cut-Throat Celts,’ but their own history is explored in ‘Rotten Romans’ and ‘Ruthless Romans.’ Similarly, ‘Vicious Vikings’ and ‘Stormin’ Normans’ paint their respective civilizations in a more favourable light than in ‘Smashin’ Saxons.’ This shows the fluidity of history: that all great cultures eventually fall.

For his next project Dreary has said: ‘What I hope to build is a History Experience where I recreate authentic villages from various periods — Tudor, Roman, Victorian perhaps — with nothing of the 20th century in them…They’ll be enclosed in domes like the Eden Project in Cornwall so they’ll be all-weather attractions and they will not be museums or theme parks; they will be peopled by actors and the visitors can join in the never-ending re-enactments of the past — with all its horrible history flavor — over there is a pickpocket on trial for stealing … is he guilty, do we hang him? You, the visitor, must decide.’

The ‘Funfair of Fear’ exhibition was staged by The National Museum and Galleries of Wales in 2000. ‘The South Wales Echo’ noted that, ‘visitors to the exhibition will be able to throw beanbag Christians into lions’ mouths and hear the sounds of the animals roaring. Bloody-axe beanbags can be hurled at Henry VIII’s wives, knocking them over to reveal whether they really did lose their heads to the axe-man. A castle, complete with dungeon, is filled with victims being tortured. It looks stunning. It will win over children who have never been interested in history before.’

Though a huge commercial and critical success, some of the books have drawn criticism in the UK. ‘Bloody Scotland’ drew the ire of the Scottish Separatist Group, who claimed it promoted a ‘UK-centric, anti-Scottish viewpoint of Scottish history.’ They pointed to a featured haggis recipe: ‘cook the haggis until it looks like a hedgehog after the fifteenth lorry has run over it.’ They reported the book to the Commission for Racial Equality, who rejected their claim. The National Trust was unhappy with ‘Cruel Kings and Mean Queens’ because it made fun of Prince Charles, the trust’s patron, and Queen Elizabeth II. ‘Slimy Stuarts’ has been accused of Anti-Catholic views.

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