Terry Deary: 'I'm not some Koko the Clown coming over to perform for you'

As the BBC takes 'Horrible Histories' primetime, its creator, Terry Deary, speaks his mind to Kunal Dutta

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:32

It is the children's history series that took an executioner's axe to the dusty, date-ridden textbook and forever changed how children interact with the past. When The Terrible Tudors was published as the first in the "Horrible Histories" series in 1993, few realised it would spawn some 50 more titles in a global publishing phenomenon with sales of more than 25 million.

Billed as history "with the nasty bits left in", the humorous illustrated historical guides, with titles ranging from The Angry Aztecs to The Vicious Vikings and The Vile Victorians, are a welcome antidote to the national curriculum, credited with inspiring a generation of children to read books on subjects otherwise left to gather dust on the shelves.

To their detractors they are gruesomely violent and guilty of simple stereotyping. Their creator, Terry Deary, has been accused of being, among other things, anti-Scottish and anti-Catholic, and his books have been banned in some places, he claims.

But it was the Horrible Histories television series that propelled his tales into the 21st century, attracting some of the country's finest scriptwriters and fusing historical anecdote with contemporary adult references.

Horrible Histories has become quintessential national viewing that critics say has done more to familiarise Britain with the nuances of its past than the combined efforts of Niall Ferguson and David Starkey. Tonight, the show makes a symbolic jump from Children's BBC (CBBC) to a primetime Sunday evening special fronted by Stephen Fry.

But in spite of all that, Deary has a few scores to settle.

And the first is with politicians. "I believe the only person to have entered Parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes," he tells The Independent on Sunday from his home in County Durham.

Next is A C Grayling's proposal of a New College for the Humanities. "They'd never have me and I'd never teach there," he says. "Call it what it is – a school for the elite, not for the human race. My motto is: it's the duty of all righteous men to make war against unearned privilege, whether it's bought or foisted upon you. The whole concept is ghastly and I'll have nothing to do with it at all."

The show seems certain to extend the fan base of Deary's work beyond children and students to the wider population – not that the author is interested. "I still get letters from students inviting me to address the Oxford Union, to which the answer is piss off you public-school wallies. I'm not some Koko the Clown coming over to perform for you."

Insisting that his days of writing children's books are behind him, he urges the industry to follow suit. "Publishers are just idiots that don't know what they're doing. No wonder children's books are falling off a cliff," he says. "I have 210 books published, but only eight are available on the Kindle. Publishers are never going to recover unless they step up the pace. They need to start making deals with Kindle and other eBook providers. But instead, there is a very strong Luddite tendency running through the industry."

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His greatest indignation is reserved for Julia Donaldson, the recently appointed Children's Laureate, who has claimed that children should be researching their projects in the library, rather than relying on the internet to do the work. "She's a stupid Luddite. Subjecting children to library research is hard work, ineffectual and a total waste of time. Internet research is where the future is headed. To send children back to library books in the 21st century is like a modern-day King Canute begging his men to turn back the tide."

Despite the phenomenal success of Horrible Histories, at 65, Deary claims he is retiring from children's book-writing, leaving the television series in the capable hands of script writers that include Steve Punt (The Now Show), Jon Holmes (Dead Ringers), Giles Pilbrow (Have I Got News For You), Laurence Rickard (The Armstrong and Miller Show) and Ben Ward (M I High). "Every writer has a particular skill. Mine is history books, theirs are writing terrific sketches. I can never aspire to what they have done – they're geniuses. I'm far too humble to criticise their work. The time has come to allow them to get on with it."

Instead, he plans to focus on an acting and television-presenting career, as well as finishing 90 Minutes, a film on football that will air later this year. He is also involved in several charity projects, including a run along Hadrian's Wall.

Next month will see Deary notch another first, when the BBC holds a Prom in honour of Horrible Histories, featuring songs and sketches from the show, interspersed with classical performances. "I can tell you very little other than that I've been invited. Oh, and if they dare play 'Land of Hope and Glory', I'll be walking out."

Tickets for the Horrible Histories Prom, on 30 July at the Royal Albert Hall, are free and available from 8 July

Terry Deary’s favourite ‘Horrible Histories’ sketches

1. The Venerable Bede (series three)

St Bede – also known as the Venerable Bede – is widely regarded as the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon scholars. He wrote around 40 books, mainly dealing with theology and history. "The producer invited me to play a cameo as the Venerable Bede," Deary says. "He's from Sunderland and he's my hero."

2. Plague Song (series one)

The plague came in 1579 and again in 1581. Here an undertaker explains the origins of the plague through a song written by Deary. "First you feel a little poorly, And then you start to swell. Then you start to spit some blood, And then you really smell. Then you know its time to ring, Your funeral bell."

3. The Four Georges (series one)

Still one of the most popular of the song's pastiche numbers. Four Georgian kings sing "Born to Rule Over You" under moody spotlights. "You had to do what we told you to do, just because our blood was blue." "They are as recognisable as Boyzone," Deary says. "The song ought to have been released as a Christmas single."

4. MasterChef (series two)

A pirate outlines his options about cooking on historical MasterChef. "You got pork, chicken, duck, pigeon, whale, seagull, dolphin – we just keep the stew boiling throughout the voyage and throw in any meat we lay our hands on," the pirate explains. "The actors who played John Torrode and Greg Wallace got it absolutely perfect. It has me in stitches all the time."

5. We're burying William the Conqueror (series two)

When William the Conqueror died, all his belongings were stolen and his body was left rotting away. When they tried to bury him his stomach exploded, as we are told by a superimposed set of words saying, "This really happened". "It's hard to ignore this one – you really get it in the face."

The modern history he would like to attack

The National curriculum: The rage against schools

Terry Deary brands the national curriculum the "biggest disaster in British history".

"W B Yeats said education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire. The national curriculum has turned children into buckets. And teachers are just bucket-fillers now. Dividing knowledge into subjects is a very archaic approach to studying."

The war on terror: The idea that we learn lessons from history

History teaches us that war is "stupid and pointless" and yet we fail to heed that lesson time and again, he says.

"Oppression makes people stronger, not weaker. What's one of the most powerful influences of the last 200 years? Christianity. Why did it become so powerful? Because people were oppressed. And yet you have morons like George Bush citing a 'war on terror', and America which is still infected with the concept."

The death of Diana

The silliness of human behaviour

History is full of pointless deaths, says Deary, citing Michael Jackson. "The death of Diana is particularly unbelievable," he says. "Here was a woman who thought she was so immortal that she did not have to wear a seatbelt. But if I did it I would also throw in Rod Hull [the popular entertainer who died when he fell off his roof while adjusting his TV aerial]. He wanted to be remembered as a comedian – but what a way to go."

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