Archive for July, 2011


The other morning the radio gently announced something about the Horrible Histories cast performing at the Proms.  In my semi-dreaming state I thought I might’ve imagined it, but a quick Google search (once I was more alert) confirmed that there will, in fact, be a performance of several musical numbers from the TV series at the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon.

Some of History's Most Horrible Characters

Like many people my age, I grew up reading Terry Deary’s Horrible History books.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend recommended the CBBC series last year, but found I genuinely enjoyed the sketches and musical numbers that have been created for television, using Deary’s work as a basis.  What’s not to like about Spartans breaking into song and dance High School Musical style?  Kids love guts and gore and there’s plenty of that to be found in the past, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there have already been three series of Horrible Histories.  However, it’s not every day that a show written for children, albeit by adult comedy writers, gets its  best sketches showcased in six Sunday evening slots on BBC1, presented by Stephen Fry.

Horrible Histories takes to the Stage

Indeed, it seems that Horrible Histories has become something of a phenomenon.  A few weeks ago myself and five fellow  history graduates went to see it on stage, at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.  We were definitely the oldest people there  (who weren’t chaperoning our own offspring anyway!) but although it was clearly geared at a younger audience, we all came out satisfied that our £12 tickets had been well worth the money.  The Ruthless Roman Army captured a Celt and took her to Rome, educating her about the brilliant and disgusting aspects of their culture along the way.  A highlight of the first half was the How To Look Good Roman sketch, in which fashion tips were given to our Celtic “girlfriend” with true Gok Wan panache.  During the interval everybody was given “bogglevision” glasses and there were shrieks throughout the theatre as 3D spears, floating heads and even a crocodile seemingly made their way towards the audience throughout the second half.  Of course, everything was eventually resolved with a little help from Boudicca’s ghost and the Romans fled, never to attack the Celt’s farm again.

As well as its transition to the stage, it’s rumoured that some of the Horrible Histories songs will soon be available on iTunes.  The accompanying CBBC website is also definitely worth a look in, if only for the interactive Terrible Treasures game, where you explore four different periods of history before taking the Time Sewer Challenge.  The whole Horrible Histories brand has become a full package of subtly educational entertainment, appealing to an older audience as well thanks to the comedic skill of the writing team.  The next stop is the Royal Albert Hall, Series 4 is on the way and as far as I can see, the only way is up for this show and the retelling of more gruesome delights from history.

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To my mind, how you watch television is not just about the physical act of positioning yourself in front of a screen.  It’s also to do with how you consume the content as it plays out before you.  Last September I finally began a media-related course after seventeen years in education.  I have no regrets that I didn’t take this path sooner, but it began influencing the way I think about television and film surprisingly quickly.

Paul Merton investigates the early years of Hollywood

Take the module on Documentary Film Making in the autumn term.  After the very first seminar I found myself questioning whether objectivity can ever truly be achieved, as we debated whether reconstructions should be used in the documentary genre.  The basic argument against reconstruction is that it plants an image in the viewers’ minds which may not resemble the situation it purports to document.  Fair point, but I believe reconstructions can actually be used to positive effect in many documentaries.  Let’s return to Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood: not only were situations in dining rooms and hotels recreated, but Merton himself then appeared as part of the scene to guide his audience through what was happening.  I particularly liked the fact that these scenes were shot in black and white, complete with monotone Merton.  Not something I’d seen in a documentary before, but very engaging.

The main reason it’s taken so long to write this blog is that I’ve been filming, digitising and editing footage for my own documentary – and moving house, but that’s another story. The three-part series on the Birth of Hollywood was well-timed, as it also made me consider the practical aspects of making television and films. How interviews are framed; the cut away shots that interviews are interspersed with; transitions between different narrative sections; the soundtrack…it’s surprisingly hard to decide on these things when producing your own work.  So tempting to go for overkill on the effects and forego the content, but Birth of Hollywood proved that keeping things simple with a few innovative touches is definitely the way to go.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s become impossible for me to watch anything without dissecting how it’s been put together and thinking about how I might do something similar in my little Marmite film and my Robin Hood documentary.  It’s not a bad thing, even if I do wonder just how many identical beige suits Paul Merton owns and whether they’re now dispersed across America.  Ideas can come from anywhere and I actually enjoy television all the more for having an insight, albeit a tiny one, into the many decisions that determine each scene.