It has been nearly twenty-three years since Terry Deary published The Terrible Tudors (1993) and started off what would become the most successful popular history franchise in history. Horrible Histories, which Deary stopped writing in 2013, is still going strong in just about every single other media form: it has been turned into three TV series; the format has been repackaged for magazines, video games, board games, and even for a prom at the Royal Albert Hall; it has led to various spinoff series, most famously Nick Arnold’s Horrible Science; and Birmingham Stage Company Productions is currently touring the country with the eleventh and the twelfth Horrible Histories play they have put on since 1999.
Earlier this month, both Groovy Greeks and Incredible Invaders graced the stage of Oxford’s New Theatre, as part of a country-wide tour from 23 September 2015 to 16 July 2016. One can only wonder in amazement at this schedule, which must be gruelling for the actors: the cast consists of only four members (Hannah Boyce, Charlie Buckland, Ashley Bowden, and Laura Dalgleish), who put on both plays every single day. There is a part for Terry Deary, too: his recorded voice booms out over the audience as, in Groovy Greeks, he takes up the role of Zeus.
The play, in true Horrible fashion, presents an avalanche of facts that are interesting to children either because of their violence or because of their grossness, and preferably both. In her PhD thesis on Horrible Science, science journalist Alice Bell describes the Horrible franchise’s attitude as ‘irreverent deference’: of course it doesn’t actually intend to make its audience think science, or history, is something terrible or frightening. Instead, it gives its young audience a way to enjoy and admire its discipline in a way that is still ‘cool’ in this century. The Horrible Histories plays carefully follow this line of thought. Although they seem to make an absolute mockery of Greek history through a plethora of piss and fart jokes, they manage to teach the young audience (and even this reviewer!) a significant body of facts about ancient Greece.
Where the original books kept children interested by means of the illustrations by Martin Brown, which have become so characteristic that they were still used in the posters for this double bill, the stage show keeps its young audience occupied through a mix of multimedia and audience interaction. The latter is effective enough that the actors manage to make the young audience play the chorus, in full dactylic hexameter, in a very brief rendition of a Greek tragedy. The TV series has become famous for its mix of explanatory segments and songs, and the same format is adopted for the stage show. Most fascinating is Birmingham Stage Company’s tried-and-tested method of using a 3D screen as the background in the second half of the play. 3D goggles were handed out during the intermission, during which the children were kept entertained by the video loop that hurled rocks and javelins at the audience.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the play does not steer around sensitive issues. The Horrible books have at times conveyed information about past practices rather uncritically. Take, for example, the issue of slavery: “Wouldn’t it be great to have your own slave? … With so little to do, some of the smarter ancient Greeks used their time thinking up new ideas”, Nick Arnold writes in Suffering Scientists. The stage play, on the other hand, addresses the topic head-on: after an awkward parody of a home-shopping TV programme in which slaves are advertised, the four main characters discuss among themselves how terrible it would have been to be a slave — after which they emphasise that even in 2015, millions of people are enslaved, including children, including in Britain. It is a great achievement to introduce such a topic in a show that most of the time swings back and forth between hilariously funny and awkwardly gross.
As the second generation grows up with Horrible Histories, it is a comfort to know that their formula of education through grossness and violence is still as effective and entertaining as it ever was. However, a critical adult will notice that the ‘Horrible’ franchise has become very self-aware. The Groovy Greeks book plays a role throughout as a source for fact-checking and referring, the Incredible Invaders show is shamelessly plugged (the double bill is very lucrative indeed at £9.40 for a children’s ticket), and most striking of all, at the end of the show the Horrible Histories magazine is advertised on the 3D screen. When Horrible Histories is done teaching you about groovy Greeks and rotten Romans, it has a lot left to tell you about capitalism.