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Terry Deary, creator of Horrible Histories, speaks ahead of Barmy Britain show at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Interview by Diane Parkes

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain will be coming to the Cambridge Arts Theatre next week, starting its run on Tuesday, August 24.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet

A show for the whole family, Barmy Britain is a hilarious romp into the gory stories of British history, from Boudicca and the Romans, all the way up to Queen Victoria.

Terry Deary first published his Horrible Histories novels in 1993 and is still producing further editions. He originally began as an actor and created Theatre Powys in mid-Wales, where he wrote children’s plays. He has worked with Neal Foster, who runs Birmingham Stage Company (BSC), to create these popular live-action productions of his famous books. We put some questions to Terry:

Terry Deary, creator of Horrible Histories
Terry Deary, creator of Horrible Histories

When you wrote your first Horrible Histories did you ever imagine the idea would go on to be so successful?

Yes, I think most authors believe their work will be a huge success even though most books disappear from print after a couple of months. It’s that hope that keeps us going. When I wrote my very first fiction book 44 years ago, my publisher said, ‘writing is like a sausage machine and you have to keep stuffing in at one end so something comes out the other end – it is like a process."

I kept writing book after book – 50 fiction titles before HH came along – but I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling more than 28 years later.

Roald Dahl has managed that, but I can’t think of anyone else who is still selling so well. What usually happens is that people have sensational ideas and they sell really well for a while but they do tend to come and go. It is a shame you can’t predict which are the ones that will last!

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet

What do you believe is behind the popularity of Horrible Histories?

Nobody had done anything like them before and they filled a desperate need. There were fact books for children but they tended to be written by experts on the subject. They knew their history but they didn’t have a clue how to write about it for children.

So with Horrible Histories, instead of an expert who couldn’t write, they approached a children’s author who knew nothing about history. I get all my facts from research. I do my research and say ‘you will never guess what I discovered’ and ‘phwoar, this is great’.

It is actually a simple answer. I say I am not an expert in history and this is why they work. Down the years people have tried to copy Horrible Histories by doing funny fact books but they never get it right because they use experts not writers.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet

Why do Horrible Histories work so well on stage?

We work really well as a team. BSC actor/director Neal Foster is very knowledgeable and experienced in children’s theatre. BSC has been going for 28 years now. I have been a professional actor for nearly 50 years.

So between us, we know what we are doing. We are not trying to write literary stuff. It isn’t the books on stage, we are not determined to be true to the spirit of the books, we are writing for theatre. So it is fresh and original.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet

So what next for Terry Deary?

The Horrible Histories books have been published for 28 years now. Many people who read the books when they were young are in their twenties of thirties now but still remember the enjoyment they got from the books.

For those readers I created a new series called Peasants Revolting. They are a sort of Horrible Histories for adults. The Peasants’ Revolting Crimes was published by Pen & Sword in 2019 and the second book, The Peasants’ Revolting Lives, appeared in June 2020.

If you enjoyed Horrible Histories when you were younger you may enjoy these adult books. I am now working on more theatre projects, a TV series. In my hobby of running I have done the Great North Run half-marathon 22 times in its 40 year history. I have written a movie script that is being released for the 40th running of the event. There are also more new Horrible Histories titles rolling out.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain. Picture: Mark Douet

After all this research are you now an accidental history expert?

Definitely not. I know very little about history because I can’t keep it all in my brain. I have only got about three brain cells. I often forget what I have written because I can’t hold all those facts. I pick up a Horrible Histories book, maybe to revise it, and I read something and think, ‘I never knew that!’

But I can be an anorak with facts. I was watching Horrible Histories on television and up came The Vile Victorians and along came Burke and Hare, the body snatchers. And I was jumping up and down and shouting at the television, ‘no, they were 1827 – 12 years before Victoria came to the throne. They weren’t Vile Victorians!’ Now that is anorak.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain runs from Tuesday, August 24 to Saturday, August 28. For more information, and to book tickets, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.

Read more:

Review: The Woman in Black at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Christmas is saved! Drive-in panto will bring Horrible Histories to Cambridgeshire

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