Terrific Terry

8th June 2012

With over 200 books to his name, and a string of stage appearances to his credit, Terry Deary, 66, is prolific and successful as both writer and actor. He’s best known, though, for his factual series for children: the Horrible Histories, bringing the past to life in all its gory detail. Titles such as Angry Aztecs, Gorgeous Georgians and Rotten Romans have made him a household name, and the printed material has generated both television and stage spin-offs. He’s been called the most influential historian in Britain today.

Grace Fuller gets to know the man whom alliteration demands we call Terrific Terry

At the Battle of Bosworth © Ian Tilton

In 1993, with around 50 books already under his belt, author Terry Deary was asked by his publisher for ‘a history joke book with a few facts’. He organised some research – and decided that the stories he was uncovering were too fascinating to waste. The end result was ‘a fact book with jokes’ and a fair amount of guts and gore, instead: That was Terrible Tudors, joined in the same year by Awesome Egyptians – and a publishing phenomenon (and a brand in its own right) was born.

“Nobody had done anything like them before,” Deary explains, “and they filled a desperate need.” There had been factual books for children previously, of course, but they were generally written by experts. They knew their subject but they didn’t know how to tailor it to a young audience. They might insert the odd joke, but the overall effect was patronising rather than engaging. Horrible Histories turned the convention on its head. Instead of an expert who couldn’t write, Deary was a children’s author who knew nothing about history. “I get all my facts from research. I do my research and say ‘you will never guess what I discovered’ and ‘phwoar, this is great’… I say I am not an expert in history – and this is why they work.” It must be flattering, perhaps even alarming, that people have tried to imitate the Horrible Histories approach, but he’s no fear of the opposition. “They never get it right because they use experts not writers.”

Deary couldn’t possibly have imagined, though, how popular the series would become? He agrees. He was accustomed to books selling for a few months and then going out of print… “I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling 20 years later, because books, especially children’s books, don’t tend to do that.” Other than Roald Dahl, he observes, he can’t think of anyone else who is still selling so well.

Horrible Histories has also developed a life and momentum beyond the page, with two television adaptations, and a stage show which is coming to the Watford Colosseum this month. Deary was heavily involved in preparing the theatre version, in conjunction with Birmingham Stage Company, and his own experience (he’s been a professional actor for 40 years) gave him valuable insights into how to make it work. “It isn’t the books on stage, we are not determined to be true to the books, we are writing for theatre.” He works well as a team with BSC’s Neal Foster to create what he calls “fresh and original work”. “Between us, we know what we are doing… We are not trying to write literary stuff.”

His books and plays are meant to amuse as much as ‘educate’, and he’s not a fan of schools, which must endear him to his young audience. His website says ‘I am campaigning to have all schools closed down and children set free…’ and I don’t think it’s entirely tongue-in-cheek. His own experience of education was negative, and he’s on record as having said he would rather his books were not read in classrooms, or recommended by teachers. He’d like children to discover them for themselves.

He’s firmly of the opinion that the young are resilient, but has had to bow to his publishers on occasion, and leave out some more unpleasant facts, such as certain acts of Saxon violence. “They were as vicious as the Vikings and when they invaded a Viking village they would find a Viking child, swing it by its legs and bash its brains out. But when I told the publishers they said ‘we can’t have that’ – which is strange as I can’t see it is any worse than some of the other parts which have been included.”

World War Two also presented a problem, particularly in the television adaptation. “We were sitting round the table,” Deary recalls, “and we talked all about the bombings and the blackout and got that sorted. Then we got to the Holocaust and there were six or seven pages and they read them in silence and then said ‘of course we can’t do that’. I am actually quite proud of the fact that television can’t do the Holocaust but I can.”

Recently Deary received a letter from a woman whose Rabbi had told her that Jewish children should not be exposed to facts about the Holocaust until they were 13, and asking what age his books were aimed at. The anecdote gives him another opportunity to express his anti-authority views, saying, “But it isn’t a matter of age, a child is ready when they are ready. You, the parent, should know your children and should know whether they are ready to read about these things.”

He expects a reaction, and welcomes it. “You shouldn’t not tell that story. All children should be disturbed by that story and to not tell them would be to lie to them.”

And children are lied to all the time, in his view. “When I went to school, it was all about the Romans. It was the Romans who brought civilisation, the Romans who gave us water supplies and aqueducts, the Romans who brought us straight roads… But the Romans were the most evil people there were. They are the only people who killed people for sport. Thousands of them would go to an arena and watch people killed for sport and they are held up as models of civilisation… children grow up thinking the Romans were really civilised.”

Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn © Ian Tilton

This tour focuses on Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, and I wonder why he thinks that these two eras are particularly appealing to children? Partly, he says, and not with any great pleasure, it’s because this is what they’re taught. He despairs of Whitehall instructions that mean school history is all about the Tudors, Victorians, Vikings and World War II. “There are thousands of children growing who are not learning anything about the Saxons, or the Normans, the Middle Ages or the Georgians. All because someone somewhere said children can’t learn so much… Someone even said that children will do Hitler three times on the school curriculum but never do the Middle Ages at all.”

For all that he likes to portray himself as a non-historian, he comes across as passionate about the past. He eloquently describes the ‘Tudor century’ as a time of real upheaval. “The Tudors were on the cusp between the Middle Ages and the modern ages. In some ways they were very modern and stable and yet in others they were totally barbaric. People were being burnt alive, hanged, drawn and quartered.”

He has some pretty strong opinions, too, and they don’t necessarily concur with the establishment view. “One of the points I try to make is that somebody, through an accident of birth, happens to end up on the throne and they are cruel or stupid. Henry VIII was a psychopath.” Deary rails against Tudor history as it is currently being taught. “Children in school are told he was cruel but he was a strong leader and therefore he was good. But he wasn’t. You know he emptied the treasury of England to go to war with France because that was some kind of fetish for him. He wanted to be seen as a warrior king… He was utterly barbaric and was able to be so just because he was born who he was. Monarchs are an utter waste of time.” Deary had, you won’t be surprised to hear, no plans to celebrate the Jubilee.

He is working on books for adults at the moment, including a novel about football, but he still isn’t straying too far from the past. “I am also doing a history series for adults… stories about real people.” In typical Deary-style he plans that they’ll be both humorous and “a bit gruesome”. They are in effect Horrible Histories for adults – “but we can never ever use that title…”.

Readers fondly imagine that he must have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the past now, but he denies that this is so. “I can’t retain it all in my brain,” he says, adding, “I often forget what I have written because I can’t hold all those facts. I pick up a Horrible Histories book, maybe to revise it, and I read something and think ‘I never knew that!’…”

Horrible Histories – Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians with 3D ‘Bogglevision’ special effects will play at Watford Colosseum from Friday 15 to Sunday 17 June.

For more info see watfordcolosseum.co.uk or call the Box Office on 0845 075 3993

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