A grown-up, grossout approach to history

Mixing facts with bodily fluids, kids’ show Horrible Histories shows that teaching history needn’t be patronising.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

The past may be another country, but that doesn’t seem to stop it popping up on British television with increasing regularity: a sure sign that TV schedulers have noted that it may be exam time for many households up and down the country. This weekend, desk-bound, cramming students could have taken their pick of dubious excuses for ‘research’ on the box, with BBC2 running new miniseries The Kennedys up against Channel 4’s Camelot, all mopped up with the BBC1 Sunday primetime unveiling of its children’s history show, Horrible Histories.

Admittedly, one hopes that wizards and dragons are still not quite on the GCSE History syllabus (and sadly absent from the Malory-free English one), but given Camelot does feature rather a lot of clothes-shy Bond Girl Eva Green engaging in a lot of, er, essential–to-the-script work, we can safely assume which show wrapped up the teen demographic. If so it would have been a shame, because there was an interesting tale being played out across the two other programmes about the state of contemporary history education.

Not that ‘interesting’ would have come instantly to mind while watching The Kennedys. Having courted controversy from the word go for its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of the American political dynasty, the show exploded into popular consciousness having been dropped by The History Channel US for perceived inaccuracies (a damning verdict indeed from the channel which brought us The Nostradamus Effect). Yet with a prime cast including Greg Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes, this glossy, HBO-style miniseries seemed impossible to resist as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and the sudden resurgence of Sixties styles in the wake of Mad Men.

There really should be a name for the genre of TV series which effectively present themselves as classy and sophisticated dramas that you would never have given a second glance to if advertised as the forgettable TV movies they are. I’ve never really forgiven Brothers and Sisters for putting together an all-star cast of quality drama actors (plus Ally McBeal) and advertising itself as the spiritual heir to Six Feet Under, before emerging as the unholy twenty-first-century mix of Dynasty and, well, Ally McBeal.

Certainly, The Kennedys is not quite as bad as that, but it takes a special skill to devote eight hours to a blandly workmanlike trawl through the heady Aeschlyean family drama of the Kennedy clan. The truly depressing thought is that one day, probably not far from now, they will make something like this about the Clintons (a ‘cigars and all’ account?) with Kosovo recast as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Oh, they already sorta did, in the shape of Peter Morgan’s The Special Relationship. Well, at least the suits are better here.

A more revealing slab of history was to be found in BBC1’s decision to screen Horrible Histories outside of its regular CBBC children’s slot. Based on the hugely successful series of books credited with bringing history to life in all of its grossout glory for kiddies, the television version is an equally charming successor to such beloved and much-missed comic gems as Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, where successful comedians bring an adult’s comedic sensibility to nominally educational shows that parents can watch alongside their kids. It can be pretty clever stuff at times, and very funny: Sunday’s compilation show featured a suggested Victorian Dragon’s Den where every technological, labour-saving innovation is rejected by rent-seeking capitalists in favour of exploiting child labour. Even Marx could have had a good chuckle at that, if the endless poo-jokes hadn’t made his carbuncles boil.

More revealing is the manner with which a series that started life, in the words of its creator Terry Deary, as ‘a history joke book’ aimed at prepubescents has become something of a touchstone in the ongoing public debates about the history curriculum. For some fashionable academics and educationalists it is the answer to their prayers, offering a template for the kind of ‘living history’ needed to prevent today’s digital native youngsters from turning their backs on dry, dusty rote-learning of an imaginary yesteryear; for others it is part of the unacceptable dumbing down of the curriculum, filling the void left by the decline of ‘proper’ history in schools as advocated by the likes of education secretary Michael Gove.

It is, of course, neither. It probably doesn’t help matters that Deary himself is a chippy, anti-establishment type prone to launching public attacks on a subject-based curriculum and academic historians for being boring, right-wing and not centring on the human aspects of history. That those have been firm canards of the establishment view of history education under New Labour, and are likely to be replicated in a different form by Gove’s reforms, seems to have been lost on him. This is an anti-establishment radical, it might be remembered, who attacked Anthony Horowitz’s ‘pomposity’ in campaigning against the corrosive criminal-background checks for anyone who works with children.

That Horrible Histories is treated as fit for discussion in debates about history education at all says a lot about today’s attitude towards education. Still, while Horrible Histories may be gross and childish, it is nonetheless a piece of entertainment which engages your brain a hell of a lot more than most grown-up history today.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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