Horrible Histories: The best laughs are on children's TV

CBBC's Horrible Histories triumphed over its adult counterparts at the British Comedy Awards – and rightly so, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Ah, so cute – a children's TV series wins a grown-ups' award. You could almost cut the condescension with a knife as last weekend Horrible Histories, a CBBC show that usually engages school-kids at teatime, became the first children's TV programme to win a British Comedy Award. Also nominated in the sketch-show category were Harry & Paul and The Armstrong & Miller Show. But actually Horrible Histories, a TV version of the bestselling books by Terry Deary that include such volumes as The Terrible Tudors and The Slimy Stuarts, is in a long line of children's shows that are a lot funnier than many of their mainstream counterparts.

Okay, so there are a lot of fart, wee and poo jokes – but then there are too in Little Britain – and at least the audience for Horrible Histories are of an age when a fascination with bodily functions is expected. In an episode I watched last week there were also sophisticated – and quite dark – sketches involving Henry VIII on a This Is Your Life-type show, in which a succession of corpses of his beheaded former counsellors and ex-wives were wheeled on to the stage. Meanwhile, in a regular item titled "Stupid Deaths", we learnt how Elizabethan philosopher-author Francis Bacon met his end from pneumonia while experimenting on freezing chickens.

Horrible Histories has been dubbed (inevitably) "edutainment", which is why we get people urinating in buckets before washing their clothes in it – as apparently they did in the "Measly Middle Ages". Take away the history-lesson context and there'd be moral outrage across the land, as there would be about a sketch in which a dead granny had her head hacked off. No need for a hotline for soothing bereaved grandchildren, however, because this gruesome sketch was illustrating how the cavemen honoured their dead.

Actually, there is a long history of children's TV shows providing more laughs than post-watershed comedies. Two years before Monty Python's Flying Circus changed television comedy forever, the nucleus of the Python team – Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and (later) Terry Gilliam – were delighting younger children with ITV's Do Not Adjust Your Set, a wonderfully anarchic sketch show. Adults loved it, too, including John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and the rest is history.

Every generation has its example of a series that transcends the children's TV ghetto. The BBC's Rentaghost (1976-84) had the darkly clever idea of a hapless recently deceased ghost returning to Earth to set up an agency hiring out the services of other ghosts to still-living humans. The first seasons were intelligent and entertaining, as were other such classics as Press Gang (1989-93), written by future Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat, and Jon Pertwee's lovely portrayal of scarecrow Worzel Gummidge (1979-81).

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-94), meanwhile, retelling the Robin Hood legends with Robin demoted to a support part, had a distinct feel of Blackadder about it – hardly surprising given that it was written by and starred Tony Robinson of Baldrick fame, with (uncredited) script editing from Richard Curtis.

At last year's Children's Baftas, Horrible Histories (the eventual comedy winner) faced stiff competition from CBBC stable-mate Sorry I've Got No Head, a sketch show with a stellar cast of writers including Marcus Brigstocke and Mel Giedroyc that has been dubbed "Little Britain for kids". Actually, it's a good deal wittier. Also great fun is the hugely inventive Big Babies, starring two 10-month-old babies, Brooks and Rocco, with the heads of two men in their late twenties.

Over the last few years I have watched, along with my daughter (I hasten to add), a lot of stuff on the pre-school channels CBeebies, Milk Shake (Channel 5's kid's slot), Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and am constantly impressed by the wit and verve that goes into these shows. Perhaps all commissioning editors should be made to order at least one children's show before they are let loose on adult TV.