In the case of Horrible Histories — which you’ll recall from the previous entry as the children’s TV show making a bold bid for adult credibility — casting must’ve looked damn near impossible. Or, as they put it in press release-speak, “we spent some time finding just the right people to take on this unique challenge.”
Yeah, no kidding. The corner they had backed themselves into looked something like this:
Wanted: Character comedians sophisticated enough to pull off sketch comedy at a Python-esque level, yet willing enough to do so in the service of a children’s series. Must be charismatic enough to convincingly play historical heroes (and distract mums from the bodily fluids), yet amenable to having same routinely doused under beards, scars, dirt and of course fluids… frequently while singing and dancing…. Oh, did we mention the musical talent?
What eventually sealed the show’s credibility with any and all demographics was the discovery that, yes, such people exist — at least, around a dozen of them (plus a few more who took a flier along the way).
It would of course be asking far too much of the artistic fates for fully six of that dozen — one of whom wasn’t even originally hired as a performer — to naturally form a note-perfect comedy troupe… which may be one reason why they weren`t immediately acknowledged as such. That collectively they didn’t have enough name recognition to front a Wonder Bread commercial may also have factored in. At any rate, like everything else about the first series, casting became a matter of sorting the show everyone wanted to make from… well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
Eventually — ie., like everything else about the second series — they’d figured out what worked, and since then all things officially HH have starred that same sextet. In alphabetical order:
Mathew (Mat) Baynton — The skinny dark one with the gorgeous great eyes… yes, Dick Turpin, that one. Also, Charles II. The youngest member of the troupe, he has somehow contrived to be a strikingly beautiful, talented, Continentally-trained clown and indie-folk musician whilst remaining likeably funny and engaging throughout, which must be at least one definition of genius. At any rate, when added to an uncanny knack for genre mimicry, it qualifies him as the natural star of both the show’s music videos and its various fan-fictional spinoffs. More recently, it also merited a children’s BAFTA nom for Best Performer.
Simon Farnaby — The tall, squinty-eyed older one with the vaguely enigmatic air and yellow curls. (Not that this last is usually obvious, as it turns out very few historical figures had dandelion-fluff heads… their loss, frankly.) Imported, apparently much to his vaguely enigmatic bemusement, from The Mighty Boosh troupe; spends most of his HH screentime investing irredeemably dark and/or eccentric characters — Death, Caligula, that sort of thing — with the same combination of absolute commitment to the crazy and childish glee in its possibilities.
Martha Howe-Douglas — The beautiful blonde one with the great singing voice and a decided flair for WWII fashion. Also a highly capable comedienne, with a persona generic enough to be versatile yet strong enough to be memorable — as tends to be required on a show that mainly compensates for charting the White Man’s Route to Western Civilization by spotlighting the fiercest icons of herstory (Elizabeth I, Boudicca, Cleopatra, Victoria). At any rate, it was enough to score her the second of the show’s Best Performer BAFTA noms.
Jim Howick — The short, plump, deceptively cuddly-looking one, next-to-youngest and probably the most impressive all-round talent the show can boast. Certainly the only one to date to actually win that Best Performer BAFTA…. by virtue of his range and skill as a vocalist (fine enough to make even George IV’s fits of self-pity touching), celebrity impersonator (up to and including Rodrigo Borgia as the papal Godfather) and all-round nailer of even the most vile villains, whiny royals and bombastic hucksters with zero loss of viewer desire to own the fuzzy plushie version.*
Laurence (Larry) Rickard — The redheaded** one with the striking bright bIue eyes, deep voice and general air of off-the-wall quirkiness; largely due to his actually being hired as a writer, only to be summarily promoted from back of the camera to front in the first series after creating Bob Hale, ‘News at When’ special correspondent, and his extended monologues. Having thus proven his natural knack for the ridiculous, and with nothing else particularly to lose, he simply carried on filling odd comedic corners as needed and before long was established as the go-to ‘character actor’.
Ben Willbond — The very British one, with the looks of the dashing-yet-wholesome hero of a between-wars dime novel — “just six feet in his socks”, “boyish grin and honest blue eyes”, all that sort of thing — and the manner of the same hero’s particularly upright, uptight Civil Service foil. Somewhere in the middle is a sophisticated comedian self-aware enough to use each to play up the absurdity of the other — much to the benefit of both HH’s larger-than-life swashbucklers (Henry VIII, Sir Francis Drake) and awkward wannabes (war correspondent Mike Peabody).
The other half-dozen:
Lawry Lewin — The seventh member of the starring troupe in all but actual billing. Bears an uncanny resemblance to a stick insect, assuming said insect to be the star of a cheap-but-earnest educational cartoon (probably called “Scotty the Stick Insect Learns to Just Be Himself”)***. Proved his comedic worth as Simon’s understudy in Series Two and is since routinely brought on when what’s needed is neurotic/vulnerable rather than outright crazy. Along those lines, also does a killer takeoff of pop-science presenter Brian Cox.
Sarah Hadland — The petite, older, very Northern original female lead and approximately seven-tenths of its star power to begin with, she left the show after the first series and returned as ‘Also Starring’ in the fourth. Funny but dependent on a jarringly shrill schtick that can get wearing after awhile — and which became awkward in another way when she was paired with our overtly boyish leads.
Dominique Moore, Alice Lowe, Katy Wix — The remainder of the main female support, all strong solo comediennes in their own right, who pop in-and-out as their schedules permit. Moore, who is black, fills in most of the diversity requirement and possesses a killer singing voice; Lowe can also sing and is particularly brought on when a part requires overt delicacy and/or femininity (ie. Marie Antoinette).
Javone Prince — The other notable regular of colour, apparently shaping up as a member of the starring troupe before disappearing without trace after Series One. A great and game performer, but hamstrung as a perpetually rather obvious potential victim of “What`s the Black Guy Doing in Sherwood Forest?” Syndrome, so confined mostly to the Ancient Egyptian sketches.****
And finally, what kiddie series would be complete without a loveable anthropomorphic mascot? Meet “your host, a talking rat”:
Rattus Rattus (puppeteer John Eccleston) — Named for his species (ie., the black rat), as a riff on a similarly anonymous rat character from the books and a pleasingly historical-sounding reference into the bargain. Lives in a tastefully-appointed hole down the Time Sewers and — with the aid of a nifty line in teeny temporal accessories — appears in short bridging segments between sketches, explaining and clarifying the factual backdrop… in his own inimitable fashion (on the Black Death: “So that’s Rats 1, Humans 0.”).
*This extends to freakin’ Nero.
**OK, yes, actually chestnut-which-has-some-red-in-it. Semantics nerds, you may want to abandon hope here and save time before entering the reviews.
***Possibly the companion to this.
****There have been no Hispanic or Arabic regulars to date; those parts are usually handled by the white leads wearing fake tans, which of course doesn’t carry near the Unfortunate Implications it would this side of the pond (and thus is reason #98,453 why this show will likely never make it to America, even late-night PBS).