Bonding Over Horrible Histories
All images are from the Horrible Histories Wix site.
I've been toying with the idea of writing a blog about Horrible Histories for a while - it's a programme and book series that's had a massive impact on my family - but I wasn't quite sure what angle I wanted to approach it from. I could talk about the fact that Henry is applying to Cambridge to read History, as a direct result of watching the programme. Or I could talk about the fact that I now know the words to most of the songs because Arthur made me sing them to and from school every day for months. Or I could talk about the books and how they captured our imaginations and brought all the gory parts of history into glorious (and sometimes revolting) technicolour!
However, in the end I decided that I wanted to focus on all the different things it has given to us, because, contrary to what the title might suggest, we've gained so much more from it than just a love of history. However, that's where we'll start.
I think it was probably inevitable that the boys would grow up with a love of history - it's a subject I have a keen interest in and their dad has a joint honours degree, of which history forms a part. At the age of five, Henry sat and watched a documentary about Cleopatra with me and asked sensible questions all the way through. However, it was the Dick Turpin sketch starring Mathew Baynton that Henry credits with kickstarting his passion for the subject. He remembers watching it at school and then coming home and asking to watch it again. He never looked back and Horrible Histories became a staple part of his TV viewing habits. When Arthur began to show an interest in the subject - probably because it's all his brother talks about - I decided it was time to introduce him to both the show and the books. We motored through Cruel Kings and Mean Queens at bedtime and when we finished it, he was most put out that I wouldn't immediately go back to the beginning and read it again! He was equally entranced by the TV programme and it rapidly became the focus of his latest obsession and he watches it every day to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. (We have the occasional diversion into Ghosts, Bill and Yonderland, but only because it's the same actors as the original HH.)
On a recent trip to Killerton, the National Trust room guide made the mistake of talking to Arthur and was treated to a five minute lecture on everything he knew about the English Civil War. She was impressed by his knowledge and asked where it had come from. 'The Horrible Histories song' was my answer. I was more impressed by the fact he could identify the era of every single portrait purely based on which King or Queen he thought they looked most like. When he had his Covid vaccine this week, the man administering it asked if he knew what the injection was for. Arthur told him all about how the smallpox vaccine had been invented by Edward Jenner and used the harmless cowpox infection to prevent the deadlier smallpox. Again, I was asked how he knew so much. My answer was the same as before - 'the Horrible Histories song'. When we went to the Roman Circus in Colchester, he spent ages talking to the guide there about Crassus - a song again!
Having now developed a more in depth understanding of the subject, Henry likes to use the programme as a starting point from which to teach his brother about the things they mention. Everywhere we go, we have our very own tour guide giving us more information than we know what to do with, but it certainly ensures our family outings are never boring!
Anyone who has ever watched Horrible Histories knows that almost every episode has a song in it. We've found appropriate places to sing most of them - Funky Monks in Glastonbury Abbey, The Ages Of Stone in Kents Caverns, The Few at Duxford, King of Bling and Divorced, Beheaded and Died at Hampton Court Palace, to name but a few. (All sung quietly and with due respect for other visitors, I hasten to add!) However, the fact that the songs in the programme are largely based on either specific songs or particular genres of song, means that both boys - due to me playing them the originals, or examples thereof - have been exposed to a wide range of music they might not ordinarily have listened to. It also gives Arthur the chance to sing himself - preferably, given half a chance, in the style of the originals, but often with his own lyrics!
It could be argued that with a parent who is both a writer and an avid reader, it was perhaps inevitable that the boys would develop a love of literature. However nothing could have prepared me for this conversation:
6yo: the Romantic poets are awesome
16yo: no they're not, they're pretentious
6yo: well I like them. Wordsworth is my favourite
16yo: you haven't read any of his poems
6yo: yes I have
6yo: at school
16yo: you're in year 1, how have you read Wordsworth?
6yo: it was my turn to choose the poem at the end of the day and I asked Mrs Cutts to read Wordsworth so she did. It was the one about daffodils.
16yo (looking slightly nonplussed): fair enough. I still don't like them.
(He did however buy me the complete collection of Keats poetry for my birthday as he knew I hadn't read much of his work and 'because I thought you and Arthur could read them together'.)
They had a similar conversation about the merits of the Brontë sisters. When Henry rightly pointed out that he'd actually read Wuthering Heights, Arthur immediately demanded to read it. Obviously at 6, I thought it might be a bit too challenging for him, so bought him a young reader version, which he read and declared he loved. He's now partway through a book about the lives of the Brontes, with the rest of their books lined up to read afterwards (all from the same young reader series). He also insisted that he wanted to read the poems of the Romantics, so his bedtime audiobook is currently Michael Sheen reading a selection of their poems. (My personal favourite is Arthur's rendition of Jerusalem in the style of Michael Sheen - it's VERY passionate, although his Welsh accent needs some work!) We also now have a trip to Wordsworth's house and the Brontë parsonage planned for the summer holidays.
There has been a multitude of words that Arthur has added to his vocabulary as a result of the programme, the most recent of which I had to explain was 'oik'. It's also made for some interesting phrase choices on his part - 'Mummy, would you be so kind as to please cut this out for me' had me in stitches and of course, when I asked where he'd heard it (because literally nobody in this house speaks like that) it was on a Horrible Histories sketch.
Watching the programme has reignited my own creativity in ways I would never have expected. I have almost completed my cross stitch A-Z of Horrible Histories and designed so many more figures for bookmarks for the boys. However, it's also given me fuel for my own writing. In recent months, I've written two short stories inspired by 'The Few' and George IV's song lamenting that he's only remembered for being fat. Henry's poems are largely historically based and Arthur has begun attempting his own writing - admittedly much of it is plagiarised at the moment but as he's only six I'll let him off - mimicking the topics in the Romantic poems. It has also fired his imagination and he can often be found pretending to be Dick Turpin, or various monarchs! It was funny when he was being Simon Farnaby's George III and pretending wave to the crowd at Hampton Court Palace. It was less funny when he aped Ben Willbond's Henry VIII and declared 'Vegetables are for peasants!' at the dinner table, particularly when he prefers vegetables to meat!!
The drawings. Hundreds of them. Literally. As I sit here typing this blog post, Arthur is finishing off his drawings of the American Presidents, having spent the last few days asking Alexa who each one was so he could draw a picture of them. We have playing card style pictures of Henry VIII's wives (from Divorced, Beheaded And Died), which were followed by real-style pictures based on their portraits. The latest ones were copies of pictures he'd seen at Hampton Court Palace but all based in history. In the summer we're having a few days in London and one of the things Arthur has asked to do (along with visiting the Tower of London to see where Anne Boleyn was executed, Banqueting House to see where Charles I was executed and doing the Terrible Thames cruise) is visit the National Portrait Gallery so he can see the original paintings of the Tudors that he's spent so long looking at in books.
None of this includes the various card and board games we have played over the last few months, or the multitude of conversations, discussions and arguments that the books and programmes have prompted. Nor does it include the history podcasts such as Greg Jenner's 'You're Dead To Me' that we've now started listening to. Arthur is now beginning to work his way through the books in one form or another and is eagerly looking forward to the arrival of Louie Stowell's 'Loki' audiobook (because it's read by Ben Willbond - although it was already on my list of books to buy for him) and of Simon Farnaby's children's books, which I'm equally excited to read! Nor does it include the many other examples I could give of things we've talked about because of something he's seen on the programme or read about in the books.
All of this has come from one children's TV series, which in turn came from Terry Deary's brilliant books. I owe a MASSIVE debt of gratitude to everyone who has been involved at any stage of the books or the programme - the original author and artists, the sketch writers, the people behind the songs, the actors and everyone behind the scenes - because they have had a huge influence on the life of my family. There are times when I look at both my boys, particularly when they are mid-argument about which of the Ptolemies cut off Pompey's head, and think that I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I introduced them to Horrible Histories. However, if I had that time over again, would I change anything?