It’s the school holidays and I was looking for a way to entertain the children on a rainy morning, so we went to the local cinema to see Horrible Histories: The Movie. Since they graduated from CBeebies to CBBC, Horrible Histories has been a reliable favourite and, thanks to iPlayer and Netflix, we have watched the back catalogue exhaustively.
Much has been written about Horrible Histories as it has become an important part of the popular history landscape, especially for the young. Terry Deary started to publish books in the series in 1993, with the intention of presenting interesting facts in an entertaining way. The books ballooned in popularity and Horrible Histories became a multimedia franchise.
In 2009 the series was successfully adapted for TV by the BBC. There was a danger that the Reithian instincts of the BBC might have made the content didactic or patronising, but the programmes were more in the spirit of Monty Python than schools’ programming. The regular troupe of performers are drawn from the comedy circuit (including cult shows such as Peep Show and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) rather than children’s TV.
As such, the series has a loyal following of grownups. This grownup is a particuar fan of the Four Georges song, for obvious reasons.
The film largely retains the spirit of the TV series, and some of the cast. The big screen outing necessarily includes some celebrity turns, such as Derek Jacobi reprising his famous role as Claudius, and Kim Cattrall as his murderous wife Agrippina. Most of the cast are drawn from British TV, giving the film a Carry-On feel – along with its bum jokes, wobbly sets and ‘epic’ battle scenes featuring a few dozen people who don’t get hurt.
The modest running time whizzes by and none of the kids in the audience seemed to get bored. This was impressive, as the TV show relies on short skits that are more suited to a primary school attention span, whereas a film needs a longer narrative arc. The story is set in the time of Nero, who is struggling both with his scheming mother and a pesky bit of the Roman Empire called Britain, which is refusing to be subdued. Due to an unfortunate mix-up with some gladiator urine, a young Roman called Atti is sent to this grim outpost, where he is promptly captured by a Celt girl named Orla, who joins Boudicca’s uprising.
There is a nice gag where a Roman soldier scoffs at the idea of a British empire. And whether intentionally or not, the diverse cast is a riposte to the controversy in 2017 over a CBBC cartoon featuring a mixed-race Roman family, where rightwing commentators and internet trolls laid into historians like Mary Beard for suggesting that this was accurate for the time.
In this and other ways, the film is true to the period it is depicting. Horrible Histories has always prided itself on its accuracy, but the relentless ‘facts’ felt a bit more shoehorned-in over the course of a 90-minute narrative than they do in a short TV skit. Long-form storytelling also requires the writers to make more stuff up, and it is unclear whether children will find the factual gladiator urine more memorable than Orla’s fictional kleptomaniac grandma. The extent to which the form of historical writing impacts upon the content is a dilemma that all historians face.
Aside from this one paragraph of academic quibble, Horrible Histories: The Movie is a success on many levels. Most importantly, it is a lot of fun. I enjoyed it as much as the children did and it was great to see some of their favourite songs from the TV series getting a reprise here. Altogether now, ‘Boudicca, superstar…’