Ask any child which Horrible Histories story is their favourite, and you are guaranteed to be hit with a large number of colourful, historical and usually pretty grisly facts about their favourite era. Whether it’s the Vicious Vikings, the Terrible Tudors of the Ruthless Romans (to name a few) the past in all its bloodthirsty glory is frightfully, off-with-his-head fashionable again.
With 126 books behind him, a hugely popular television series and his historical tales delivering five-star reviews on the West End stage, author Terry Deary has literally done the impossible and made history the coolest subject on the timetable for school children everywhere. So what is the secret formula, and how has he cheered up the dullest lesson on the curriculum?
You originally trained as an actor – so how did the transition to historian occur?
I began writing plays for the theatre company but when the tour finished the characters were packed away with the costumes. I decided the way to make them ‘live on’ was to turn them into a novel. I wrote 50 or more children’s novels then I was commissioned to write a funny history book. Horrible Histories were born. But that doesn’t make me an historian.
History is usually billed as a pretty dry subject at school – why do you think that is?
I have no answers to that. What goes on in schools is a mystery to me. I have nothing to do with the schooling system and don’t write school books; I write entertaining books for young people. I don’t write history books, I write books about people. When I am writing novels I visualise them as TV or stage productions. I see the characters living the stories as I write them. The HH books are the same – the characters just happen to be real people.
Your books and now the TV and stage productions of HH have transformed the past for literally millions of school children across the world. Do you still have ‘pinch me’ moments when you think about how far HH has come?
The worldwide interest in the books is not something I dwell upon. I sit in a small room in a house in England and write for one person – the reader. I don’t have a ‘plan’. I am interested in the current book I am working on. I don’t know if HH books have come a long way because I don’t stop and look back. That sounds terribly pretentious. It’s not meant to be. I just have little interest in anything but the next book.
Do you have a favourite period of history – and if so, which one is it and why?
I’m not an historian so can’t compare different eras. They all seem dirty and dangerous, cruel and violent, with disgusting food and terrible toilets. At a signing a girl did ask if I had a favourite period and I said the best time in history was the age I grew up in – the 1950s. She asked me, ‘Was that the Middle Ages?’
Horrible Histories deals a lot with the nitty-gritty and downright disgusting aspects of everyday life for people in the olden days. How and where do you get all your facts from?
The facts are all there in the thick, dusty history books. The trouble is those books wrap the interesting gems in pages of dry fact and dull opinion. I simply pick out the stuff that fascinates me and my reader. I’m like a fish filleter – I take out the bright bones, clean them up and present them to the reader. The flesh is thrown away.
What is the most disgusting and horrible fact you’ve ever discovered? Don’t hold back now.
Once in every 10 books the publishers gets a little squeamish. A fact they banned from “Vicious Vikings” was the one about Saxon reprisal raids on Viking settlers. The Saxons didn’t spare the women and children. Babies were picked up by the feet, swung around the head and had their brains smashed out against doorposts. It was an important point about Vikings being victims as well as aggressors, but it was cut.
There are 126 books now in the HH series. Is there a time that you haven’t covered but would like to? And are there any more books to come?
I don’t choose periods that I’d like to write about. What matters is what the readers like or want. The new HH titles are selected by the publisher and they then invite me to write them. I just do as I’m told. Publishers decide which books they think will sell the most. It’s all about their making a profit. The next 10 new “Horrible Histories” titles are planned through to 2016 then I retire.
Who is your favourite historical character from the Barmy Britain series, and why?
I’ve written 10 books since I wrote “Barmy Britain” so I can’t remember what’s in the Barmy Britain plays. When asked about my favourite character in the Horrible Histories books it has to be Guy Fawkes, the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions. I think Guy may feature in the BB play.
The Horrible Histories stage shows are massively popular with school children and performances are always a raucous affair. What’s the secret of their success?
Birmingham Stage Company must take all the credit. The energy they put into the performances makes me exhausted just watching them. Talented actors and production team are the secret.
Barmy Britain Part Two is coming to the UAE in November. What are the main differences and surprises we can look forward to seeing in the second instalment?
I saw a performance of a Scottish version of BB and felt it was non-stop raucous. I was keen that in the new version there would be quiet moments – just a few sprinkled around – where the audience are invited to stop screaming and really think about what it all means. I guess that may come as a surprise. Look out for the falling poppies.
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part Two will be performed by the Birmingham Stage Company at the Madinat Theatre November 17-22nd. Tickets will be available via www.timeouttickets.com. Special rates are available for schools. For more information visit www.artforall.ae or call 050 880 5074.