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!