Horrible Histories Live on Stage: an interview with creator Neal Foster

Horrible Histories returns to the London stage this August with The Best of Barmy Britain, a special compilation production to mark Barmy Britain’s fifth anniversary in the West End. We spoke to Neal Foster, the man behind all the Horrible Histories stage shows, about his favorite historical characters, the secrets to the shows’ success, and why kids will always love blood and guts…

London, UK. 06.06.2012. The Birmingham Stage Company presents "Horrible Histories" at the Garrick Theatre, London, UK. Picture shows: Neal Foster (as Rex) and Alison Fitzjohn (as Queenie). Photography by Jane Hobson.

Q: The Best of Barmy Britain is returning to London’s West End this August with a run at the Apollo Theatre – what can audiences expect?

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A: This show is a compilation of the three Barmy Britain shows we’ve done so far, and we’ve ended up with a riotous journey through British history from Roman to Victorian times. It’s a mixture of all our favorite bits – the stuff that we’ve loved performing and we know that audiences like best.

So we meet battling Boudicca and bad King John, experience the Black Death, find out what happened when Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn, see if Guy Fawkes managed to blow up parliament, experience the Great Fire of London as the Great British Bake Off, and have a party with Victoria the Party Queen. It’s a lot to cram into one show!

Q: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

A: First and foremost we want to entertain them: they’re meant to have fun. But if we can send them home thinking a little differently about how we got to where we are today, why we behave like we do, and what the future might hold, then we’ve succeeded.

Q: Your theatre company – Birmingham Stage Company – has been behind all the Horrible Histories stage shows. Why do you think they’ve proven to be so enduringly popular with both audiences and critics?

A: I think a hallmark is that it’s a real genuine family show. The adults enjoy it as much as the children, sometimes even more. We’re always putting in surprising facts and stories that parents might think they know but don’t. There’s nothing more enjoyable than a parent realising that what they’ve thought for the past 40 or 50 years is actually wrong. The truth is often far more interesting.

We also don’t talk down to children at all. The material we present is very sophisticated, because we know they can handle it. On the one hand, the kids love the shows because they’re silly, disgusting, rude, naughty, gory and frightening. But on the other hand, they also contain plenty of facts. I think it’s the combination of all those elements that has made the shows such a success.

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Neal Foster (as Rex) and Alison Fitzjohn (as Queenie). (Photography by Jane Hobson)

Q: How do you begin adapting Horrible Histories for the stage?

A: We always start with the books, because they’re so great. But we get inspiration from all over the place: from the radio, book reviews or the newspaper. The key is to find a way of making a story fun, but also shedding light on it from a different point of view. That’s always the objective. Sometimes the idea comes instantly and sometimes it takes a couple of months for you to work out how to tackle a particular story.

Q: Why do you think that Terry Deary’s book series has translated so well to theatre?

A: It’s not difficult to make Horrible Histories work on TV or on stage. Terry Deary’s background in writing was theatre, so his books are written in a way that suits theatrical exploitation extremely well.

We saw that from the very first performance back in 2005. We were blown away by the reaction – it was really quite stunning. It was like a wave of joy, excitement and horror had been unleashed, so we knew we’d got a big hit on our hands. And here we are 11 years later. There’s not been a single month during that time that Horrible Histories hasn’t been on stage somewhere in the world.

Q: The Daily Mail called one of your shows “as gleefully vulgar as a Roman poo stick” – why do you think that blood, guts and gross stuff are so successful at getting kids interested in history?

A: More than kings and queens, Terry Deary’s real interest is in the history of ordinary people. And for most of history, blood, guts and poo probably paid a more prominent part in ordinary people’s daily lives than it does now. Death was all around and so too, probably, was poo. Wherever there’s history there’s probably a fair amount of blood and poo to be discovered.

But how people dealt with that, both in their everyday lives and during extraordinary situations such as the Black Death, is captivating. We’ve not really had to deal with conditions like that for a long time. There’s a fascination about what it must have been like in a world that works in that kind of way, where death was commonplace and people did all sorts of crazy things and held all kinds of crazy beliefs.

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Alison Fitzjohn (as Queenie) and Neal Foster (as Rex). (Photography by Jane Hobson)

Q: What would you say to critics who suggest popular shows such as this ‘dumb down’ history?

A: My colleague’s daughter used to be obsessed by ponies. Absolutely everything was ponies… until she came to see her first Horrible Histories show. Then she became fascinated by history. She just devoured book after book of the series and wanted to visit every historical site in London. I think that just shows the value of it.

So I wouldn’t accept in any way that Horrible Histories ‘dumbs down’ history.
Obviously there’s an important place for lengthy serious exploration of historical topics, but Horrible Histories certainly isn’t trying to replace that. Instead, it’s a fantastic vehicle for getting people into history and shaking it up a bit. Nevertheless, we do make sure that everything we do is accurate and look for four or five sources to back up anything we have in the show.

I also think it’s has been really helpful for parents and teachers everywhere. Hopefully, it might give them ideas for how to present history topics to kids in a more exciting way.

Q: Barmy Britain goes up to the “Frightful First World War” – are there more challenges in adapting historical topics like this for a children’s audience? Do you feel the pressure to treat them with more reverence or respect?

A: Alongside the fun, one of the things we like to do is to allow ourselves to get serious for a moment. As you say, we’ve got a sketch about the First World War where Alan Sugar grills Lord Haig about his task to win the battle of the Somme. We have a lot of fun with it until we get to certain facts, like how the British lost two men for every centimetre of land they conquered. We let that be a quietly chilling moment. That’s the great thing about combining comedy and tragedy – you can have a lot of fun and then suddenly turn the screw and allow the cold hard horror of a situation to be understood by an audience.

I don’t think there are many historical topics we wouldn’t cover, it’s just about finding the right way to do them for Horrible Histories.

Q: You also act in the shows – who have been your favorite historical characters to play?

A: Terry wrote a really wonderful scene about Henry VIII, which is always fun to play – he’s just such a great character. We performed Terrible Tudors at Hampton Court Palace early this year, and playing Henry VIII in his own palace was amazing. I also like playing Burke, from the bodysnatching duo Burke and Hare, because he’s an absolute classic psychopath. Extremely charming and friendly, but killed 16 people in one year.

Q: What’s next for Horrible Histories Live on Stage?

A: We’re producing Horrible Christmas at the Lowry Theatre, Manchester. Oliver Cromwell makes an appearance, along with St Nicholas himself, Charles Dickens and Henry VIII. And of course Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer – we can’t forget him!

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The Best of Barmy Britain opened at the Apollo Theatre, London on 5 August and runs until 3 September 2016. Find out more here.