Imagine knowing the entire list of British monarchs by heart at age 10. Imagine knowing about cavemen courting rituals or what soldiers ate during World War I. Imagine becoming so invested in the life of the infamous King Richard III of England that you joined the Richard III Society, a group dedicated to finding his bones and solving the mystery of what happened to his nephews over 500 years ago.
“Horrible Histories” is a British TV show whose goal is to teach children history in a fun, engaging and memorable way. So memorable that, even a decade later, I still remember quirky facts and obscure knowledge directly from the show and the book series. Here are just a few reasons why everyone should watch “Horrible Histories.”
“Horrible Histories” is, first and foremost, a show about learning. It’s based on a book series by Terry Deary, which is chock full of fun, interesting, factually accurate anecdotes that students wouldn’t normally learn in class. In fact, the mission statement of the series is “history with the nasty bits left in.” If that isn’t enticing to curious children and adults alike, then nothing is.
For example, even in the first episode, the show comes out swinging with all the ingredients of a great “Horrible Histories” scene. It begins with the “Rotten Romans,” because all the scenes are headed by a funny and alliterative title that also matches with its own book.
In a humorous comedy sketch, the characters teach the audience that gladiator games were first started as entertainment at funerals. Then, when the losing gladiator died, they could have another funeral fight, and they wouldn’t even have to move. Efficient, isn’t it? Of course, the scene ends with one of the characters comically being knocked into the open grave by another gladiator fight. The Romans didn’t care much for safety practices.
But anyone can research the history of gladiator fighting. So what “Horrible Histories” does best is teaching their audience what they didn’t even know they were curious about. I bet you’ve never asked yourself what women did for fashion during the rationing of World War II. “Horrible Histories,” through a fake infomercial, advertises the use of TNT as hair dye for factory workers.
While it would make users’ hair nice and bright, exposure to TNT was rather problematic. And fashion was actually important for optics during World War II, because it showed the enemy that your economy was thriving. “Horrible Histories” is full of fun and obscure facts like these.
That’s right, songs. Each “Horrible Histories” has its own song, all of which have the same blend of informative and entertaining that the show is known for. In fact, “The Monarch’s Song” is where the aforementioned knowledge of the entire British royal family line comes from. It’s hard not to learn when they make learning so fun and catchy.
The songs are also often parodies of existing songs, which can make it charming for adults as well. The “Borgia Family Song” is a parody of the “Addams Family Theme Song,” complete with snapping. And, while very funny to all who catch the reference, the song is also very interesting and full of facts.
All to the catchy tune and in rhyme, they sing about how Rodrigo, the father, gained power by bribing Catholic Church cardinals to become the Pope. Also, when they sing about Cesare Borgia’s cunning (and murderous) ways, the audience gets to learn a little about Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
Or there’s also “William Shakespeare & the Quills,” in which Shakespeare sings about all of the phrases that he coined in his writing. For example, the phrases “it’s Greek to me” or “a wild goose chase” were all Shakespeare’s works. Furthermore, true to the style of “Horrible Histories,” these interesting tidbits are interlaced with amazing lyrics such as “Don’t call me flakey, I’m William Shaky.” These songs, while informative and educational, are also comedic gold.
It Can Be For Adults Too
While “Horrible Histories” is definitely a must-watch show for children, is it really worth watching for adults (for reasons other than nostalgia)? Aside from the fact that the humor and stories are interesting and engaging enough that adults will like it too, older viewers can also find some nuance in these comedy sketches that kids might miss.
For example, in the section “Fabulous French” in the third series, they show a scene called “Wife Swap.” Marie Antoinette, the very unpopular French queen who supposedly said “let them eat cake” in response to news of the starving masses and who was later killed in the French Revolution, goes to live in a peasant home. Meanwhile, “Mrs. Peasant” goes to live with King Louis XVI in the royal palace. This goes about as well as you might expect.
But in between learning about how the peasants had to eat grass because they were so hungry and just how awful that sounded next to seeing how Marie Antoinette decorated her hairpiece with fresh fruits, older viewers can see the nuance behind the French Revolution. Adults can see how the time of the guillotine, while awful, could be seen as justified.
Why You Should Watch “Horrible Histories”
Firstly, it’s pretty easy to watch. All five seasons are available on Hulu and Amazon. If TV shows aren’t your cup of tea, you can read the book series, which you can also buy on Amazon. And while the book series is aimed a little more heavily at kids, it’s still funny and factual. If nothing else, it’ll give students a break from history textbooks for sure.
Secondly, even if you don’t like history and would rather experiment in a chemistry lab or debate ethics, “Horrible Histories” is still an avenue of learning something new and interesting. It’s got everything from Egyptian embalming practices (a fact for the science and archaeology majors out there) and the invention of the piganino (pig piano), an instrument which produced sound by poking pigs (a fact for the musicians out there).
Lastly, if this point hasn’t been driven home yet, this show is absolutely comedic, even for those who don’t love crude humor (i.e. fart jokes). So if it’s been a bad day and you just want to laugh at dumb humor, check out “Horrible Histories.” It’s worth it, whether you’re nine or 99.