Horrible Histories' Barmy Britain comes to 2012 Edinburgh Fringe

This article is from 2012

Horrible Histories

Superbly ill-humoured Terry Deary pours scorn on his success but praises Birmingham Theatre adaptation

Talky Terry Deary is in a brilliantly bolshy mood. For sure, the Horrible Histories creator is excited about the Edinburgh production of Barmy Britain, a new adaptation of some of the true tales from his children’s books. But as for other outposts of his hugely successful, enormously entertaining brand, the author refuses to play all nicey-nice. No wonder kids love him.

So, he’s dismissive of criticism of his best-sellers by Americans. ‘They’ve not got a sense of humour: “How dare you say the Americans came in at the end of World War I and World War II and claimed victory? It wasn’t like that at all!” Ah, well, actually it was,’ tuts the Sunderland-born, County Durham-based author.

A 1999 US-animated adaptation of his 20-year-old series that has sold over 25m copies in 30 languages? Also rubbish. ‘They got it very wrong. Not horrible, not funny and historically inaccurate.’ A wonderfully witty writer who put in the research leg-work when penning the likes of Rotten Romans, Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, Deary also decries errors in the current, fourth series of the BBC’s award-winning TV iteration of Horrible Histories.

When the hilarious show – written by ‘professional sketch writers’ based on Deary’s books but with no direct input from the author – did a skit on ‘our Edinburgh friends’ Burke and Hare, Deary says they branded the bodysnatchers as ‘Vile Victorians … No, they thrived in Georgian times. They were long dead before Victoria came to the throne.’ While he lauds the TV show as ‘being absolutely brilliant’, he is also concerned that in appealing to grown-up viewers, it risks leaving his priority – children – behind. ‘The sketches are getting too long and too adult. They’re getting a bit up themselves. But I didn’t say that,’ he smiles.

And don’t, finally, get him started on Scholastic, publishers of the books and owners of the Horrible Histories brand. ‘We hardly ever speak these days,’ he grumbles. It’s this irreverently two-fingered attitude that informs Deary’s books, and has made them such a runaway success. It’s also why he’s thrilled at his partnership with Birmingham Stage Company on theatrical adaptations of his baby. He’s collaborated with the group in sell-out productions of Terrible Tudors, Rotten Romans, Awful Egyptians and Vile Victorians.

‘There’s quite a maverick quality about our company which fits in with Terry’s philosophy of life,’ suggests the company founder Neal Foster, who co-writes, directs and stars in the shows. Now troupe and author have joined forces in Barmy Britain, which is in the middle of a record-breaking run in London’s West End, catering, Deary notes, for ‘the tourists’.

It is, in effect, British history’s greatest hits, played out by two actors and a big dressing-up box with lightning invention and equally speedy wit. There are songs, dances (based on the death rattle of hanged criminals in Georgian London), snacks (putrid Roman delicacies derived from fish guts), and poo and gore galore (before Florence Nightingale came along, the hygiene in British army field hospitals left something to be desired). It’s fantastically funny and extremely entertaining.

As Deary puts it with a twinkle in the eye, ‘we’ve cobbled together … no, that sounds a bit amateurish. We assembled, no, finessed the best bits of the Tudors, Romans and Victorians, and filled in other bits with new material.’ Especially for Barmy Britain’s Edinburgh run, there are more new sketches still, ones tailored to the Scottish-cum-international needs of the Fringe. ‘I’ve always been a fan of William Wallace and Burke and Hare,’ says Foster, ‘so I’ve written two new sketches for Edinburgh.’ Wallace, he admits, was a challenge. ‘His story is not very funny. So to try and make it amusing was quite hard. But then I hit upon the idea of the dating show Take Me Out: Edward I wants to take out William Wallace, and Wallace wants to take Edward outside. So that worked out really well.’

Birmingham Stage Company have ‘done’ Edinburgh before. Their 1999 version of Speed-the-Plow was, recalls Foster, awarded ‘five stars’ by The List, while The Dice House, their 2003 adaptation of Luke Rhinehart’s cult novel, did well enough to transfer to London.

‘But I always thought we should take Horrible Histories to Edinburgh,’ notes Foster. ‘I just thought that anarchic style would be a perfect fit for the festival environment. It’s very accessible, the way we do our shows. It’s really history for every man, woman and child. If you’ve got an hour to spare in Edinburgh over the festival, I struggle to think of something that will be quite so much fun, but also probably a family would come away with a lot to talk about. That’s what I like about Horrible Histories: it’s kind of like doing a factual version of Monty Python. You can be as stupid and ridiculous and silly as you like. But you actually throw up an awful lot of information about people and society and how we got where we are in a very short space of time. You can cover a lot of history in an hour.’

Deary himself will be paying a visit. He calls the city, ‘my home from home’, and he has ‘Horrible Histories of Edinburgh’ running on the capital’s tourist buses. As an actor too, might he also make a special appearance onstage? ‘Oh no. Neal and his team are very professional. If I popped on for a little cameo they would throw me straight off the stage.’

How about playing a corpse? ‘Yep, well,’ he muses, ‘I suppose they’ll need lots of corpses for the Burke and Hare story.’ So would he agree that this new Barmy Britain is a bespoke, tartanised version? ‘Stop putting words in my mouth!’ he cries good-naturedly. ‘“Deary says this is a tartanised version,”’ he says, imagining the headlines. ‘Then I’ll get the Scottish separatists attacking me.’ Us Scots: savage? Never.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain

  • Directed by: Neal Foster
  • Written by: Neal Foster, Terry Deary

The hit book and TV series is brought to the stage in a quirky exploration of the history of Britain. Based on the children's books by Terry Deary.

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