The man who made history horrible

Onward, onward rode the . . .er . . .three in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Picture: Ian Tilton

Horrible Histories has grown from a book into a series into films, TV and stage shows introducing a more interesting history view of hiostory, with all its gory, nasty and yucky bits to generations of schoolchildren – and adults. Diane Parkes has had a Q and A session with its author, Terry Deary


Q: When you wrote your first Horrible Histories did you ever imagine the idea would go on to be so successful?

A: We didn't at all. I had written about 50 books by then and had got used to the idea of them selling for a few months and then going out of print. With the first Horrible Histories I wrote the publisher said ‘writing is like a sausage machine and you have to keep stuffing in at one end so something comes out the other end – it is like a process'. But I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling 20 years later because books, especially children's books, don't tend to do that. I mean, there is Roald Dahl, but I can't think of anyone else who is still selling so well. What usually happens is that people have sensational ideas and they sell really well for a while but they do tend to come and go. It is a shame you can't predict which are the ones which will last! 

Q: What do you believe is behind the popularity of Horrible Histories?

A: Nobody had done anything like them before and they filled a desperate need. There were fact books for children but they tended to be written by experts on the subject. They knew their history but they didn't have a clue how to write about it for children. So with Horrible Histories, instead of an expert who couldn't write, they approached a children's author who knew nothing about history. I get all my facts from research. I do my research and say ‘you will never guess what I discovered' and ‘phwoar, this is great'. It is actually a simple answer. I say I am not an expert in history and this is why they work. Down the years people have tried to copy Horrible Histories by doing funny fact books but they never get it right because they use experts not writers. 

Q: Have you ever found any facts which were too horrible to include?

A: Well the publishers have said so. For example when the Vikings invaded they became settlers and had families here.  But these settlers were as vicious as the Vikings and when they invaded a Viking village they would find a Viking child, swing it by its legs and bash its brains out. But when I told the publishers they said ‘we can't have that' which is strange as I can't see it is any worse than some of the other parts which have been included.

On the other hand there are facts which some people feel you can't talk about, say in World War Two. For example when we came to the television series, we were sitting round the table and we talked all about the bombings and the Blackout and got that sorted. Then we got to the Holocaust and there were six or seven pages and they read them in silence and then said ‘of course we can't do that'. I am actually quite proud of the fact that television can't do the Holocaust but I can.

In fact I have only ever had one comment about it and that was very recent when I received a letter from a Jewish woman saying her Rabbi had told her Jewish children should not be exposed to facts about the Holocaust until they are 13 and what age were my books aimed at? But it isn't a matter of age, a child is ready when they are ready. You, the parent, should know your children and should know whether they are ready to read about these things.

Terry Deary I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling 20 years later

But you shouldn't not tell that story. All children should be disturbed by that story and to not tell them would be to lie to them. And children are lied to, they are lied to in history lessons all the time. Schools lie to children about history. When I went to school it was all about the Romans. It was the Romans who brought civilisation, the Romans who gave us water supplies and aqueducts, the Romans who brought us straight roads – that is what they told us all the time. But the Romans were the most evil people there were. They are the only people who killed people for sport. Thousands of them would go to an arena and watch people killed for sport and they are held up as models of civilisation. And, because teachers are telling them that, children grow up thinking the Romans were really civilised. 

Q: This tour is Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians. Why do you think these two eras are particularly appealing to children?

A: The Tudors were on the cusp between the Middle Ages and the modern ages. In some ways they were very modern and stable and yet in others they were totally barbaric. People were being burnt alive, hanged, drawn and quartered. It was a time of real upheaval.

Part of the reason the Tudors are so popular is that children study them in school. Some numpty in Whitehall said ‘I think children should learn about the Tudors'. So it is all about the Tudors, the Victorians, the Vikings and World War Two. There are thousands of children growing who are not learning anything about the Saxons, or the Normans, the Middle Ages or the Georgians. All because someone somewhere said children can't learn so much. These people are deciding what children will learn. Someone even said that children will do Hitler three times on the school curriculum but never do the Middle Ages at all. 

Q: The Tudor kings and queens were particularly terrible though?

A: One of the points I try to make is that somebody, through an accident of birth, happens to end up on the throne and they are cruel or stupid. Henry VIII was a psychopath. He is remembered because he did outrageous things. Children in school are told he was cruel but he was a strong leader and therefore he was good. But he wasn't. You know he emptied the treasury of England to go to war with France because that was some kind of fetish for him. He wanted to be seen as a warrior king. The man was an idiot. He ruled over a country which was so inhumane but because he was king he got away with it.

There is a story that the Bishop of Rochester's cook was upset and so he cooked a dinner and added some herbs to give the guests diarrhoea. It worked but two of the guests died. When Henry VIII found out about this he said ‘hanging is too good for this man, I want him boiled in his own pot'. And when he was told the law did not allow him to boil someone alive he said ‘change the law' and they did.

He was utterly barbaric and was able to be so just because he was born who he was. Monarchs are an utter waste of time. You wouldn't have seen me celebrating the Jubilee. 

Q: Barmy Britain is a sweep through our history in an hour. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?

A: We had already written the stage versions of the Romans, Tudors and Victorians so we already had that material. We then wanted to include World War Two and the Blitz and a bit of the Middle Ages. It is very much a fast run through of English history. 

Q: Why do Horrible Histories work so well on stage?

A: We work really well as a team. BSC actor/director Neal Foster is very knowledgeable and experienced in children's theatre. BSC has been going 20 years now. I have been a professional actor for 40 years. So, between us, we know what we are doing. We are not trying to write literary stuff. It isn't the books on stage, we are not determined to be true to the books, we are writing for theatre. So it is fresh and original. 

Q: So what next for Terry Deary?

A: I am working on some adult books. One is a novel about football and I am also doing a history series for adults. They are stories about real people. They will have a layer of humour and will be a bit gruesome. They are more or less Horrible Histories for adults but we can never ever use that title.  

Q: After all this research are you now an accidental history expert?

A: I am not encyclopaedic because I can't retain it all in my brain. I have only got about three brain cells. I often forget what I have written because I can't hold all those facts. I pick up a Horrible Histories book, maybe to revise it, and I read something and think ‘I never knew that!'

But I can be an anorak with facts. I was watching Horrible Histories on television and up came the Vile Victorians and along came Burke and Hare, the body snatchers. And I was jumping up and down and shouting at the television ‘no, they were 1827 – 12 years before Victoria came to the throne. They weren't Vile Victorians!' Now that is anorak.”


*Birmingham Stage Company performs Horrible Histories – The Terrible Tudors and the Vile Victorians at Birmingham Town Hall on Sept 25-29. Tickets: 0121 345 0601,

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