Horrible Histories’ Greg Jenner: “We don’t treat kids like they’re stupid”

Greg Jenner, historian and 'chief nerd' on the Horrible Histories TV show, tells The Big Issue how the original books inspired a generation

The secret of Horrible Histories books is they don’t patronise or lecture kids. It’s history with the gory bits left in, the darker side of it, the poo and wee. It’s quite anti-authority. Terry’s politics are pretty strong and pretty clear in the books. He doesn’t like that tradition where kings and queens are important, everyone else is just peasants covered in muck. He likes to do history about ordinary people, ordinary lives – food,  fashion and health. He’s got quite strong opinions.

The tradition of old-fashioned history teaching Terry was railing against in the 1990s is long gone now, the Horrible Histories style is a key part of how we teach today. Loads of history teachers love the books and the TV show, and use them in their classes.

Obviously Terry’s books were hugely successful before we ever made the TV show, selling in crazy numbers. That’s because they are really good, because the history’s good, they are funny, distinctive, allow children to think for themselves and challenge history. And they are beautifully illustrated by Martin Brown, he’s got a very funny sense of humour, gives real personality visually.

When we started the TV show in 2009 we wanted to distil that ethos into a comedy show. Obviously sketch comedy is a different format, different jokes. They are quite different, but they share the same DNA. We are trying to be really funny, really silly, but also factually accurate – which is why I’m there, to tell [the writers] which bits are true. And Rattus Rattus helps kids see which bits are silly and which are accurate.

Horrible Histories really changed how children relate to history

We make sure we are not patronising and condescending, we are giving kids all the information but in a really funny, uptempo way and taking the mickey out of popular culture – pop songs,  Masterchef, Great British Bake Off or Match of the Day.

The trick is making history feel quite familiar and not intimidating, not boring and not irrelevant; treating kids like they’re smart, clever young people who can learn stuff and memorise it. They have amazing memories, they quote stuff to me all the time that I’ve completely forgotten about! We respect kids, we don’t treat them like they’re stupid. We think they are really smart, switched on, they want to know about the world, to laugh and be entertained by the subject. And I hope that they see that.

Horrible Histories really changed how children relate to history. I teach at a couple of universities and the kids I was making the TV show for are now history students. Last year was the first time I was lecturing undergraduates who had grown up watching Horrible Histories. They knew all the songs and sketches – and they are now history students, some will go on to be historians.

Some people might just read the odd history book, see more films about history. I know what an effect a great kids’ history TV show can have: I became a medieval historian because growing up I loved Maid Marian, the Tony Robinson comedy! It made me interested in history.

We are currently writing a script for a Horrible Histories movie – it’s not 100 per cent happening, fingers crossed, it’s very funny! The Horrible Histories story is not over yet.

In this week’s Big Issue, Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary takes The Big Issue on his own terrible tour of Dreadful Durham sharing the dark side of the city that inspired his 270 books