Because I was taught history properly by my prep-school teacher Mr Bradshaw, my head is full of easily accessible dates which I know I’ll never forget.
Because I was taught history properly by my prep-school teacher Mr Bradshaw, my head is full of easily accessible dates which I know I’ll never forget. Obviously, I know Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), but I also know one or two more obscure ones like those of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet. This is because of a cunning acronym Brad taught me — a phone number BROM 4689 — which I dare say I remembered mainly because at the time I lived in Bromsgrove.
According to the new history-teaching orthodoxy, of course, dates are an unwelcome imposition on a child’s creative spirit. What matters now is not whether you can remember why, when or by whom great battles were fought, but how well you can empathise with the misery felt by their participants. Not royal or noble participants, obviously, because they’re insufficiently representative of the common man. This is why every Nu Generation history teacher’s favourite war is the Crimean War: because then you get to bring in Mary Seacole.
How do we stop our kids being bored rigid by this turgid PC drivel? How do we rescue them from the even more depressing new orthodoxy, whereby history is to be taught not as an exciting narrative about goodies and baddies shoving red-hot pokers up kings’ bottoms and sailing the seas in ships called Shit Fire, but as a multiplicity of competing viewpoints which render all attempts at objectivity ultimately meaningless?
One option is to drip-feed them at home with excerpts from proper old-school history books like H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story (republished by Civitas), Ladybird Series 561 classics like King Alfred the Great and Oliver Cromwell, or George Chamier’s more recent When It Happened in Britain. Another is to get them watching the BBC’s Horrible Histories (CBBC). Not that they’ll need much persuasion. If they’re anything like my kids, they’ll be on to it already — probably viewing it on computers via BBC’s iPlayer because that’s how the inheritors of the earth do things these days.
Anyway, Horrible Histories: it’s brilliant. So brilliant that when you watch it you keep wondering, ‘How did this happen? How did the BBC, of all institutions, manage to make a series for children that is neither patronising nor emetically right-on — especially one based on the really-not-that-good children’s books by Terry Deary?’
Deary, a former actor, theatre director and drama teacher, is one of those infuriating people who lucked out by thinking up an idea we should have had ourselves but annoyingly didn’t: a series of children’s books (Terrible Tudors, Rotten Romans, Measly Middle Ages, etc.) which cherry-pick all the most grisly and disgusting incidents and social practices from history, and which so far have sold over 22 million copies.
Rather amusingly, he recently had a go at professional historians by dismissing them as ‘seedy and devious’ because instead of writing ‘objective history’ (whatever that is) they will insist on twisting it for their own ends. ‘They pick on a particular angle and select the facts to prove their case and make a name for themselves…’ he complained, reserving his particular wrath for Niall Ferguson and his ‘deeply offensive right-wing’ claim that the British Empire was a good thing. Ferguson replied that having Deary comment on his work was a bit like ‘asking Rory Bremner for his opinion on George Osborne’s spending cuts or Sacha Baron Cohen to review Simon Schama’s forthcoming history of the Jews’.
Deary’s Histories are, truth be told, quite dull after the third or fourth page about Roman poo collectors or yet more weird, funny things they did in the Middle Ages to cure various ailments. What the BBC TV adaptation does is to flesh out these nuggets of trivia with properly developed, superbly acted and often hugely funny comedy sketches and song and dance routines, such as the memorable one from the first series Born To Rule, sung by the four King Georges (‘I was the sad one, I was the bad one, I was the mad one and I was the fat one’) and — from the latest — Spartan High School Musical and a spoof ad for the Inca Family Players, where Mum sings, Dad plays the flute, Little Capach plays drums and Grandma and Grandpa are the flute and drums.
Even though there are vast quantities of entirely gratuitous fart, bottom and wee wee jokes, the cumulative effect — bizarrely — is one of dumbing up rather than down. The actors, writers, directors and producers (all from programmes like The Armstrong and Miller Show) treat their audience like sophisticated, media-literate adults rather than ignorant kids. Children appreciate being addressed in this way. I guarantee, this TV series will do more to kindle their enthusiasm for history than anything they’ll ever be taught at school. And you’ll enjoy it just as much. Give it a go.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 12, 2010