Assigned circa 1992 to write a “kids’ history book with a couple of jokes thrown in”, UK performer-turned-children’s-author Terry Deary wound up instead producing Horrible Histories: the exact flipside of the exquisitely balanced, benignly supportive world postulated by the likes of Elmo and Dora.
Instead of conscientiously demonstrating what human nature should be, the HH books revel in the vast black comedy (and that mostly of errors) that it actually, inevitably is.
Somehow, his young readers’ minds declined to be blown by this revelation. Possibly because it also comes naturally packed with just the sort of bodily-fluid-filled gags that warm their tiny hearts. At any rate, one multi-media franchise in thirty languages later, books like Vicious Vikings and Terrible Tudors have become best-beloved classics.
Thus, when it inevitably came time for the CBBC (roughly, the UK equivalent of PBS Kids) to get involved in a live-action adaptation, it was obvious that there was no way to create a typical children’s series of this material. But then again, neither was there license to go the adult route.
So the producers came up with the archetypal plan so crazy it just might work: take the third, entirely demographically-neutral option of sheer creativity, and see where that would lead them. Basically, they would create a kid’s show on the assumption that the kid in question was the precocious history nerd offspring of Monty Python & Rowan Atkinson. (In my head he looks a lot like the kid from Spy, only in a sweater vest instead of a suit.)
Anyway, short version: it worked, to the tune of (as of current date) one hit show across four series and multiple demographics, five children’s BAFTAs (for writing, performance and 3x Best Comedy), plus two British Comedy Awards for Best Sketch Comedy and a six-part prime-time ‘Best of’ hosted by Stephen Fry.
The longer version, as covered in these posts, involves a sewer rat named Rattus presiding over a randomly irreverent multi-era romp along the rocky road to Western Civilization, via a mix of live-action sketches intercut with quizzes, short animated bits, and at least one song per episode (later expanded into a full-blown music video).
All of which frequently involve parodies of current UK media programs and/or personalities, and are always prone to veering off in hilariously unexpected — and/or bodily-fluid-intensive — directions. It’s a ‘family show’ in pretty much the exact same way the Muppet Show was, if the drift is clear. (Right down to the goofy accents.)
Oh, and the cast… well, come to think of it, they’re an entire post all on their own.