Horrible Histories: Durham, death and Terry Deary’s dodgy drama

As Horrible Histories celebrates its 25th anniversary, creator Terry Deary takes Vicky Carroll on a tour of the dark side of Durham

From the Savage Stone Age to the Terrifying Twentieth Century, via Awful Egyptians, Rotten Romans and Stormin’ Normans, for 25 years the Horrible Histories books and hilarious award-winning hit TV series have shed light on the gristliest, goriest, gut-wrenchingly awful aspects of our past.

There’s blood and beheadings, murderers and marauders, dastardly deeds (and a lot of alliteration). After a quarter of a century kids still lap it all up and the generations who grew up with Horrible Histories are now studying history at university.

The books are sold across the globe – upward of 30 million copies of them – and the monstrously popular TV show has amassed a treasure hoard of awards. Who knew the darker parts of history could be so popular with kids? Sunderland-born dramatist-and-actor-turned-teacher-turned-bestselling author (and thwarted country and western star) Terry Deary did.

I never did history, never read a children’s book: just pass the 11-plus. That’s not education, it’s schooling

Deary is the author behind not just Horrible Histories, but upward of 270 books including 150 children’s novels, which have been translated into 40 languages. When the TV version started in 2009 it catapulted the already hugely popular books into the stratosphere and became an instant, multiple-award-winning smash hit with its delivery of ‘real’ history through sketches and songs that lampoon pop culture.

Written by top-notch TV comedy writers and delivered by a cast of actors including Matt Baynton and Simon Farnaby, as Peep Show writer, and fan, Jesse Armstrong says: “They’re blessed with great source material, the tone is perfect and it’s done in a non-patronising way… doing subjects that really interest kids – death, shit, blood and piss.”

Terry Deary and Vicky Carroll in Durham
History lesson: Terry Deary takes Vicky Carroll around Durham

Such a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment revolution is exactly what Deary hoped for: each book begins with an incitement to overthrow the boring old musty lessons doled out by uninspired teachers, question authority and dig deeper into history.

While Deary might not provoke the traffic-stopping mass hysteria of JK Rowling, he is arguably more influential. Just don’t call him a historian.

“I’m not a historian. I don’t have a historian’s voice – ‘Sit and listen!’” he says witheringly. Aged 72 he is still enraged by the horrors inflicted on pupils by teachers in his Sunderland schooldays, throughout which he was regularly beaten.

“The Class of ’52, we were just taught by rote for two years how to pass an 11-plus exam,” he says. “I never did history, never read a children’s book: just pass the 11-plus. It’s not education, it’s schooling. Education is preparing somebody for life, schooling is preparing somebody for school, to pass exams.”

When he left school he was told to get a job in the mills. “Nobody ever said you could go to university. It was ‘get a job in the mill’ because you’re working-class, or under-class really.”

We meet in Durham, seven miles from where he lives and a dozen miles up the River Wear from the former industrial heartland of Sunderland, where – like Britain’s first historian, Venerable Bede, he will later point out – he was born and raised. It’s a glorious chilly day peppered with icy showers through dazzling golden sun, cobbled streets bustling as we step back in time.

The castle was built there by the Normans to say, ‘You are peasants, we are your masters’

Beautiful, I say, taking in the dramatic vista that the city’s cathedral and castle cut on the skyline. “Why? What do you think that’s saying up there?” Deary demands. “It was built there by the Normans to say ‘you are peasants, we are your masters’.”

As we walk downhill from the station towards the town he points to a terrace of Georgian-style modern flats with red-brick facing, railing (not for the last time) against The City of Durham Trust, describing them as “self-appointed planning overlords” responsible for the “Disneyfication of Durham” by its insistence on a faux-Georgian overlay on new housing and shopping developments. “It’s meant to look Georgian but without the horse muck, people dying in gutters, foul smells and sewage,” he says.

We walk down North Road [number 1 on the map below] past charity shops, bookies and takeaways – ubiquitous in down-at-heel provincial high streets, surprising in Durham. So far this isn’t the historical tour of city landmarks I was expecting. He points out city centre shopping developments amplifying the City Trust’s Georgian imposition.

“They created a pretty Georgian dream that looks nice against the cathedral,” he sneers. “What I don’t like is THAT,” he says, pointing at the castle on the hill, built shortly after the Norman Conquest to keep down the Saxon locals. “It’s up there to say ‘we won, we’re here’.”

Horrible Histories Durham map

We pause on Framwellgate Bridge [2] and he indicates the old Electricity Board HQ (now a hotel) where he worked briefly as a management trainee after leaving school. “One of my dad’s drinking mates worked there, and my parents saw it as respectable, my dad was happy I worked there,” he says. Six months after he started the job, his dad died. Soon after, he quit and followed a school friend to Sunderland College, studying English (one of his three A-levels) and drama.

His love of theatre, reflected in the dramatic storytelling in his books (illustrated in instantly recognisable style by Martin Brown), started young. He appeared in a play at junior school and had a crush on an actress who played Viola in Twelfth Night. After college he toured with a theatre group, acting then also writing plays.

I worked as a drama teacher. I was so bad at it they sent me to teach other teachers!

“I was struggling to make a living as an actor, or working in theatre, so I worked as a drama teacher. I was so bad at it they sent me to teach other teachers!” he jokes. Having hated school so much, did he find teaching frustrating? “You go in, you keep the hours, you’re a childminder for a week. Pick up your paycheque at the end.”

That’s when he started writing books. His first was rejected 23 times. His second, he says, was rejected 73 times. “Never, ever think because you’ve published a book you’ve cracked it.”

DID YOU KNOW…

Vendors buy magazines for £1.25 and sell them for £2.50. They are working and need your custom.

I ask about the famous Brutalist college building in Durham (Dunelm House, the student union) and he reveals his jazz band supported The Small Faces there once. Music is the other great passion of Deary’s life. He blames his late-blooming success as an author for thwarting his ambitions as a musician (“There went the country and western singer’s career. I became a novelist,” he wryly observes).

He gestures at the castle [3], pointing out where Scots’ heads were stuck on the walls during the 17th century, after the Battle of Dunbar. “The Scots’ relatives were upset by this. Enterprising Durham women said to the Scots’ families, ‘We’ll comb their hair for a fee…’” That’s a pretty horrible hairdressing job, I say. “That’s horrible history,” Deary replies with a mischievous grin.

Outside what’s now a branch of Superdry [4], he recounts “Durham’s answer to Dick Whittington, John Duck”. Probably Scottish, he tried to get work as an apprentice, “but nobody wanted to employ a Scotsman”. Divine intervention in the form of a gold coin dropped by a crow persuaded him to stick it out, and he landed a job as a butcher’s apprentice. “Within a year he’d married the butcher’s daughter, when the butcher died John took over. He was one of the richest men in Durham, owning coal mines and all sorts. They reckon he was into cattle rustling.”

On Market Square [5] Deary gets riled up at the foot of a statue of Charles William Vane-Tempest, an 18th-century soldier who became the area’s biggest landowner. “When the miners went on strike he said, ‘Get out of your cottages’ because they were tied houses, ‘And if anybody in the shops dares supply the striking miners, you’re out, too.’ Who created all the wealth? It was the miners! Where’s their statue?!” Deary demands. “The villages have a pit wheel, sometimes a plaque if there was a disaster.”

Descending steep, cobbled Saddler Street [6] he explains how Saxons attempting to flee the Norman invaders were trapped inside the city in a huge snow-storm. “It was on January 31  – icy cold. The Saxon servants inside the houses took their carving knives and butchered the Normans in the streets. Norman blood flows down this hill and it was so cold it froze.”

I suggest freshly spilled blood would be too warm to freeze solid, but with a reprimanding ‘look’ Deary reminds me that history is about good stories. One of Deary’s missions is to put women back into history – “They just don’t exist, I’ve tried to put that right.” And, of course, to tell the lives of the “peasants,” not just lords and ladies.

Horrible Histories: Fearsome facts…

  • 30 million books sold
  • Translated into 38 languages
  • Terry Deary has written over270 books
  • 626 people set a Guinness World Record for massed-reading of Horrible Histories: Measly Middle Ages
  • The TV series has won 12 prestigious gongs including Baftas, British Comedy Awards, Broadcast Awards and an Emmy

On Elvet Bridge [7] looking down on where the old House of Correction stood on the bank of the River Wear, he tells of a troublesome gypsy (Scottish, of course) who was imprisoned for seven years awaiting a death sentence. It was quashed by the son of George III “who was too mad by then” and a messenger dispatched, “riding for three days on muddy roads”. When he asked for the chief warder he was told that man was unavailable because he was at a funeral… you can guess whose.

From here we can also see the roof of Durham Prison, whose inmates have included Rose West and Myra Hindley. Horrible indeed, though not historical enough to dwell on. Mary Ann Cotton was a 19th-century mass-murderer who lived 10 miles up-river. “She got married, had children, but had fine tastes. The children got in the way of her lifestyle, and began to die…”.

Terry Deary and Vicky Carroll in Durham

Two husbands, a lover and 15 children lost to ‘gastric flu’, a local newspaper looked into the unfortunate woman’s tragic life. From the latest fatality in her immediate family, their investigation resulted in an autopsy showing the deceased was fed arsenic. “When I was a kid they were still singing skipping songs about her,” Deary says, reciting one as we head towards an old church.

What was the best time in history to be alive? “The 1950s, when I was a kid. It was safer, unthreatening,” he replies without hesitation. “When I was nine or 10 years old I would get on my bike and cycle from Sunderland to Durham. Nobody thought, he’s going to be molested or knocked down by a juggernaut.” He says when he replied “1950s” to a schoolgirl who asked the same question, she replied: “Was that in the Middle Ages?”

The day after Brexit, do you know what will change? Nothing. The Establishment will still rule Britain

How does he think historians will look back on Brexit: “Bloody Brexit” or “Brilliant Brexit”? “The day after Brexit, do you know what will change? Nothing. The Establishment will still rule Britain,” he says firmly. By ‘Establishment’, he explains, he means “the people you don’t see, not the politicians”.

Durham Museum and Heritage Centre is around the site of the original Saxon church for St Cuthbert [8], the heart of Durham’s foundation myth. The “eccentric monk who used to have angels to dinner, had otters run over his sandals to clean them and had food left for him by eagles”.

After death, his remains were taken to Lindisfarne then evacuated to evade vicious Viking invasions. After a seven-year tour the coffin arrived in Dun Holm where monks heard voices; the coffin refused to budge further, and his new resting place had been found, on a hill above the confluence of the rivers Tyne and Wear.

Deary describes a wooden church built for the “humble monk” by Saxons on pilgrimage. He doesn’t disguise his disgust at the conquering Normans building their thunking great cathedral next door.

He shows me the replica giant knocker on Durham Cathedral’s door [9] where felons could claim sanctuary if they grabbed on to it, and we divert to the side chapel where in a small, modest room bathed in light, Deary introduces me to the Venerable Bede.

“He was born in Sunderland, about a mile from me. He was the greatest historian. It was Bede who decided to date everything from the birth of Christ. He wrote The Life of Cuthbert when he was dying. He dictated the last chapter to a young monk on his death-bed, and then died. Now that is what I call a work-ethic, work ’til you drop!”

Deary writes every day: “I can’t not do it. Nine till 12, an hour for lunch and shopping, then one to five.” He’s also working on  a musical, a fantasy novel, and a theatre and education project in Swindon to commemorate the Armstice.

Terry Deary and Vicky Carroll in Durham

We wend our way to our ultimate destination – St Cuthbert’s shrine behind the altar – pausing to allow the enrobed Anglican priests who have been conducting a ceremony to pass. Is Deary himself religious, I wonder? “I was christened and confirmed. I still have Christian values even if I don’t go to church. I do believe in ‘love your neighbour’.”

He is a supporter of a homelessness charity SHAID (Single Homeless Action Initiative in Durham), and will be running the Great North Run for the 21st time to raise funds for it this year (with HH illustrator Brown).

We hover by Cuthbert’s tomb and ponder the importance of access to books. “My dad only read one book his entire life – when he was terminally ill,” says Deary. “He had a good enough life – with a wonderful child he brought into the world! Mum read, especially after my dad died. She read everything Catherine Cookson ever wrote.” He continues: “Roald Dahl opened the door for me, without him I’d never have got away with Horrible Histories.”

But when talk turns back to the thorny topic of education, he suggests we leave the shrine. It’s an issue where he has never shied from controversial points of view: in the past he’s said he doesn’t want his books in schools. He is particularly incensed by a quote from a Teacher of the Year recipient who described their pupils as “little sponges”.

Nothing could change the schooling system. But technology can change things

“It’s not your job to pour water into the ‘little sponges’,” he virtually spits. “They are unique, and develop into individuals.” How would he fix education? “Nothing could change the schooling system,” he says. “But technology can change things. My twin grandchildren learn so much from their grasp of technology.”

As we ascend the hill back to the station, Deary is animated and energised, describing an augmented reality project that he’s working on: “If you’re using an AR app you’ll see Vikings coming over that hill towards you.” Which sounds brilliant. If anyone can bring history back to life, in all its horrible, gory glory, it’s Terry Deary.

Horrible Histories’ 25th Anniversary editions of the classic books, including Terrifying Tudors and Awful Egyptians, are out now (Scholastic)

Photos: David Lawson Photography