“ Educational historical sketch show broadcast on CBBC „
As a 35-year-old man who dropped History as a subject at school the moment I had the chance, I might not be considered the target audience for a historical sketch show on the CBBC channel. Indeed were it not for my wife, a keen historian who as a kid read the books from which this show takes its inspiration, I might never have seen it. And that would be a dreadful shame because it has somehow become a show that I watch compulsively and will rewatch time and again. Simply put, it's a work of genius.
If you've never watched it, the chances are that you've seen it as a kids' show or that you're simply not that interested in history. Or you didn't know it existed. Well, now you know, so let's deal with the other issues. Is it a kids' show? Well, it's on CBBC and is hosted by a puppet rat (named Rattus Rattus - which may sound silly but is actually the Latin name for the black rat), so it could be considered so.
Certainly, there's nothing here that means your kids shouldn't watch it. There is no swearing, and no sexual references. Any violence is largely implied or cartoonish and slapstick. And yet, it doesn't shy away from the gruesome side of history. In fact, it glories in it. And it manages to do this without insulting the intelligence of any viewer nor ever feeling like it is a teaching set-up. Often, it is only after watching that you realise they've gone and educated you.
The show is based on a series of books written by Terry Deary, who pops up in cameo roles on a semi-regular basis, and has a permanent cast of six actors who also do a share of writing, singing, and no small amount of dancing. They are; Mat Baynton, Ben Willbond, Laurence Rickard, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas and Simon Farnaby. Each of these has at least one recurring character who they bring to life in their own unique way with my particular favourite being Baynton's portrayal of William Shakespeare as an egotistical blowhard.
It is this irreverent treatment of historical figures and stories that makes Horrible Histories unique and truly educational. We are taught a somewhat airbrushed version of history as kids, which is generally not likely to appeal to children. And as a somewhat childish adult, I have learned a lot more about Caligula from Simon Farnaby's eye-rolling, nostrils-flared portrayal than I ever would have in school. And the recent discovery of Richard III's remains in my adopted home city was given an extra frisson by remembering Howick's magnificent song in the character of the misrepresented Richard.
The six are ably supported by regular cast members such as Larry Lewin (never better than when he represents Oliver Cromwell), Alice Lowe, Sarah Hadland, Dominique Moore and many more besides. There have been relatively few "guest stars", given the show's increasing popularity, although early series saw appearances for David Baddiel and Alexei Sayle, while more recently there have been cameos from Chris Addison, Al Murray and, in one regrettable step, the inclusion of the League of Gentlemen to take on sketches that would have been more suited to Farnaby's fictitious Cliff Whiteley.
Each episode includes a musical piece, which is one way to track the increasing budget the show was given as it gained an audience. The early songs are fairly basic musically and are filmed cheaply. To see what I mean it's probably best to look on YouTube for their Black Death song (series 1) and then for the Henry Tudor song from the fifth and final series, which is laden with effects and musically more complex while still losing none of the charm.
The songs, indeed, are a demonstration of the real talent at work here. They're catchy as stand-alone tunes, but really clever in that most of the later tunes are pastiches of the work of other artists - a Charles Dickens song which beautifully apes the Smiths right down to Baynton's observation of Morrissey's vocal tics and way of moving, a tribute to Mary Seacole (played by Moore) which tells a story well while sending up Beyonce's "Single Ladies". Perhaps my personal favourite is another Baynton work, where he plays Dick Turpin as Adam Ant (Dandy Highwayman, anyone?).
And all of this is barely to mention the original creations, such as the brilliantly observed Bob Hale character written and performed (in one breathless, three-minute take) by Rickard. If you squint, you can just about see Peter Snow in his manic information splurge. It's all held together by the aforementioned talking rat (who was replaced in a few compendium shows for Sunday evening BBC Two by Stephen Fry, and much missed by real fans of the show). They've stopped making it now as the cast and writers move to other projects, but you can still catch regular repeats on CBBC.
And you'd be as mad as Caligula not to take that opportunity.
When I was growing up, I remember having a very battered copy of The Rotten Romans by Terry Deary. It was part of a series called Horrible Histories that managed to teach you history - but "with all the gory bits left in". It was amusing, it was interesting and it was a rather good read (and was read often looking at the state of it!). Years later, I came across a show on CBBC called Horrible Histories. And I couldn't believe my eyes...
Horrible Histories has had two incarnations on CBBC. The first series, released in 2001, was a cartoon based upon the books. This will not be the one I am reviewing (mainly because I don't think I caught that one enough to form an opinion). The second incarnation occurred in 2009. This time the books were portrayed as a live-action sketch show - full of history, comedy, and the occasional sing-song. And they are fantastic. There have now been 4 seasons, which tend to be about 12 episodes long and half an hour each. There are also a couple of spin-offs, but this is the only show I have watched, so I can't and won't talk about them!
The shows cover all periods of history - from the 'Groovy' Greeks to the Vile Victorians, Ruthless Rulers and Rotten Romans - and I'm sure you get the idea. It is based on the books written by Terry Deary, and is very much in that style. The writers and actors ensure that the accurate historical facts are presented, but in such a way that children will enjoy learning (and some adults too!). Interestingly, whilst writing this I found out that as the show has been running so long (it's now filming its fifth season) that it has run out of books. However, the show's writers research more facts and events and ensure they remain true to Deary's style (and their own) when presenting it. Even the talking rat host seems to have fun!
But how do they present it, I hear you ask? Well, a group of comedians - 5 lead men and one lead woman - alongside reoccurring guests perform sketches that portray different facts from different eras. Each show consists of a combination of eras, rather than just focusing on one period of time. The different eras can be presented in different ways - with news reports, dating sites, simple sketches, game show style, and (my personal favourite) musically. There is usually a song in each episode; the best of which are combined into a compilation show at the end of a series they have become that popular. They even performed at the Proms! There are certain sketches or elements that appear regularly - or almost regularly, as there are enough to fill at least two episodes. Another personal favourite is Stupid Deaths. This is where an unfortunate historical character tells the tale of his or her demise to Death - who declares that they are Stupid and are allowed onto the afterlife. The brilliant bit about this is that not only is it true, but sometimes the deaths do cause you to giggle (rightly or wrongly).
I think the wonderful thing about this show is its inventiveness. It has managed to ignite an interest in history - or perhaps a realisation that it's not always as dull as it can seem in school. The cast are wonderful at bringing history to life in different ways, and you can see their enjoyment of the show through their performances, which is always a bonus. A thing to be wary of is that this is history 'with the gory bits left in' - so some younger viewers may find it a little too gory at times. However, they do seem to keep it from going too far; this is a CBBC show after all! But you may just want to watch a few episodes before you let your young one watch it - and you never know, you may end up becoming a fan yourself!
Horrible Histories, as the name suggests, is a comical way for children to look back a few hundred years and see what people had to put up with or how the leaders of the time dealt with the riff raff or how people dealt with certain ailments with some disgusting remedies.
It is a children's TV programme shown on CBBC which has been derived from the books of the same name by Terry Dreary. It has a mixture of cartoons, re-enactments, true or false questions and quizzes, sing along with words on the screen. There is also the narrator which is a puppet rat!
Its purpose is to make history interesting and appealing for children to watch and in fact I enjoy watching it along with them.
We have just watched a programme showing how the Egyptians used mummies for all sorts of things such as crushing them up to use for 'polyfilla' 'Medicine' and 'fuel'. There was also a comical sketch of wife swap between puritans (who banned theatre and thought dancing and singing and anything fun was sinful) and restorations.
The way they do some sketches are a mimic of other shows, like wife swap above and even a Jeremy Kyle type show and even the advert for the show is a mimic of l'oreal advert or similar (I think)
There is usually a scene of stupid deaths where we are told how some people died in unusual and stupid circumstances. There is also Ruthless Rulers showing how merciless rulers had no problem with beheading people at will, or the measly middle ages, the terrible Tudors, rotten Romans and....well you get the picture.
Some of the facts are absolutely ridiculous and at times seem unbelievable but it comes up with a sign at the bottom of the screen saying 'this actually happened' William the conqueror for example, when he died all his belongings were stolen and his body left and rotting away, when they tried to bury him his stomach exploded - yuk!
The way that they come across with the unusual facts and information about things is funny and interesting and it is just like the children are watching a normal child's programme whilst learning without realising! It is also interesting for adults as well and I have found myself learning and being amazed at some of the bizarre things that people got up to centuries and centuries ago.
The actors in this series are brilliant and the series is now available on DVD. I am sure that teachers may use these to grab their student's attention.
As the name suggests this programme and the books are just dealing with the gory and horrible things that happened and sometimes these can be a bit too gruesome and I find myself covering my eyes with amazing disgust comically.
Also another thing that might be annoying with the programme is that they change from one era to another in minutes and so you could be watching about Anglo Saxons one minute and then the ancient Greeks another minute. The books on the other hand have one era in each book.
There have also been horrible histories magazines produced and specials with reference to Cruel crimes and punishments and Cruel Kings and Mean Queens.
I am truly amazed at some of the gruesome things that people had to go through all those years ago, including child labour and capital punishment. Makes me thankful things have evolved haha.
Being sixteen years older than my sister and being very close to her I have had to watch more than my share of children's programmes since being an adult. Some of them I quite enjoy but there's only one that I've actually watched on my own. Horrible Histories.
Horrible Histories is basically a historical programme aimed at children. As you can guess from the title it doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of history, if anything it actually highlights them. I have to admit that sometimes it's a little bit too horrible for me and I find parts of it quite disgusting but that's really the only criticism I have. It's a television show full of facts delivered in a way that children can understand and remember.
For me as an adult with a history degree it's just an entertaining way of revisiting facts and occasionally learning something new. I'm not saying that every single fact is necessarily historically accurate, I've never noticed anything that was inaccurate but that doesn't mean that it's all correct. Obviously being aimed at children it presents history in a very black and white way but I feel it does so in a way that leaves people open to the possibility that there are different perspectives. Of course a child may not see it in this way.
For children I feel that this is an interesting way for them to learn about history. Many different periods are visited in each episode so it never gets boring and the information seems to be manageable for children.
Most importantly it's entertaining and full of humour.
I would recommend this to anyone, regardless of age.
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