An interview with Horrible Histories author Terry Deary

Terry Deary

Terry Deary - Credit: Archant

Meet Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories and writer of Derby Theatre’s Christmas show - Horrible Histories: Horrible Christmas

Horrible Christmas - Derby Theatre

Horrible Christmas - Derby Theatre - Credit: Archant

Terry Deary isn’t an historian and doesn’t think much of education but he’s probably done more to bring the past to life than anyone over the last 20 years. His Horrible Histories books have captured the imagination of school children and parents alike and the result has not only been a publishing phenomenon but also a whole industry of spin offs – including a TV series and stage shows.

When Derby Theatre hosted two Horrible Histories – Vile Victorians and Terrible Tudors – extra performances had to be booked to cope with demand, so when it came to selecting a Christmas show for the city there was an obvious choice.

As a result, from 6th December Horrible Histories: Horrible Christmas will be delighting family audiences looking for an alternative to panto.

From wartime austerity to Tudor cruelty, from Herod’s massacre of the innocents to festivities in the dark ages, the production will gallop through the history of Christmas.

The show effectively brings the Horrible Histories concept full circle. Terry had already published 50 novels when he was asked by his publishers to write a Christmas joke book with a history theme. The publishers also asked Terry to ‘throw in a few facts’.

He says: ‘These odd facts were more interesting than the jokes. So what was commissioned as a joke book with facts ended up as fact book with jokes – and we had created a new genre.’

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For the Derby show he admits to having ‘plagiarised’ that Christmas joke book. ‘I went back to it and found some of the worst possible jokes to insert into Horrible Christmas – or do I mean the best possible jokes? It’s 23 years since I first wrote it so people will have to have elephant memories to remember them.

‘Horrible Christmas is an adventure story first and foremost. Our heroes are going back in time in order to save Christmas. They visit medieval England, Tudor times, the Blitz... looking at how Christmas was celebrated at these different times. ‘I have nothing whatsoever against pantomimes but I do think there is a need to offer an alternative. Just as I have nothing against children’s books but Horrible Histories offers an alternative where you can learn and laugh at the same time.’

Terry has played around with a Christmas show before. He says: ‘We did a show called Crackers Christmas, originally for the Sherman in Cardiff and then the following year in Barrow-in-Furness and they asked me to star in it – five weeks, two shows a day. It was an absolute killer and that was 12 years ago. I’m 67 now and wouldn’t want to do that again!

‘I still do my one-man show. People ask me to do talks – which I don’t really do – but I do a show with songs, jokes, audience participation. So I still perform and when I see the show on stage I think “I would love to be up there doing that.” At the Edinburgh Festival we did a special – two shows a day. I came out sweating for the cast wondering how on earth you could put that much energy into a one-hour show, take two hours off and then do it all again... and all week.

‘Yes, Horrible Histories is a gift for actors because people love it but boy do they earn their money. The idea that actors are lazy, just popping on stage for a couple of hours a day and for the other 22 relaxing, is not true. These people really, really work. I’m full of admiration for them.’

Audiences are also full of admiration for Horrible Histories and always seem to want more. Terry says: ‘It’s the 20th anniversary this year and people keep asking me “did you expect it to be such an amazing success?” and the answer has to be “yes”, because whenever an author writes a book they think it will be a big hit that will be there for all time. But the real rule is that a book stays on the shelves for three months maximum and then disappears. But when you are working on it you think “I’m writing a work of literature and like Shakespeare it will be around in 500 years.”

‘It is amazing the way it keeps growing and growing but, in my author’s imagination, that’s always what I expected.’

Despite Horrible Histories snowballing to such a degree, Terry says that he’s still very much in control. ‘The television show is very tightly controlled. They rehearse for a week, film for 12 weeks and show it for another 12. For the theatre, we discuss the plans well in advance and whether it’s audio, computer games or whatever, it’s all laid out. I don’t feel panic – just as well after 20 years.’

Terry certainly believes that the Birmingham Stage Company, which has created the theatrical incarnations of Horrible Histories, are fully in tune with his original concept. He says, ‘I’m so lucky. I had offers from other theatre companies and had done it as a one-off with a company in Cardiff but Birmingham Stage were able to take it around Britain and now, round the world. I think they are wonderful, they think I’m wonderful – in fact we have a competition to see who thinks who is the most wonderful.’

Terry is a professional actor as well as a writer and admits to finding it ‘distracting’ to see his own work on stage. ‘But I like to meet the audience afterwards,’ he says. ‘I like to stay in touch with the shows. I will be up in Derby on 6th December for the opening of this one.’

What gives Terry the greatest satisfaction is simply being able to write for a living. ‘I’m the luckiest person in the world. I love writing and the fact that my readers love what I write is the ultimate bonus,’ he says. He gets a massive amount of feedback from readers via his website... and from teachers, despite not being a fan of the education system. Terry genuinely feels that schools are a ‘waste of time’, invented by Victorians to keep kids off the streets.

He also believes that children like his books because they are subversive. ‘They are anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-everything schools stand for,’ he says. Certainly the formula works and readers now suggest their own ideas for future books. Terry says: ‘That’s not always possible as it interests them but it isn’t always commercial. Someone said “when are you going to write the Horrible Histories of steam railways?” Which I’m doing at the moment but for adults – Dangerous Days on Victoria’s Railways. It’s a very interesting subject but I don’t think I could do it for kids. ‘They want a book on Australia as Horrible Histories is taking off there but I don’t have the time to research such a vast subject.’

Indeed, Terry has to undertake a vast amount of research for his books, most of which is discarded. He says: ‘It’s panning for gold. You can read a 100-page book and most of it is gravel but every now and then you come across a nugget. My job is to take the nuggets and bring them to my readers so they don’t have to do it. That’s really what I get paid for – to sift through the hard and heavy stuff looking for good bits.’

Terry is going more into adult writing these days which will give him less time for Horrible Histories but he says: ‘The publishers are keen to talk about more... so watch this space.’ And there’s more stage work in the pipeline. ‘Barmy Britain is a two-hander in the West End at the moment and Birmingham Stage and I have just put together Barmy Britain 2 – a large scale touring show for all over the country which is booked through to 2015 – so that should keep us out of trouble for a little while.

‘Horrible Histories is a very pleasant thing to be associated with. I don’t know what I did to deserve it but it’s very heartening to know my life has not been in vain.’

Horrible Histories: Horrible Christmas can be seen at Derby Theatre from 6th December to 11th January. Go to or call 01332 593939.