Exclusive Q&A with Terry Deary and Neal Foster

It’s time to prepare yourselves for Horrible Histories live on stage with a brand new show: Barmy Britain. Horrible Histories creator Terry Deary and Birmingham Stage Company's Neal Foster tell us more...

When you wrote your first Horrible Histories did you ever imagine the idea would go on to be so successful?

Yes, I think most authors believe their work will be a huge success even though most books disappear from print after a couple of months. It’s that hope that keeps us going. When I wrote my very first fiction book 38 years ago my publisher said,‘writing is like a sausage machine and you have to keep stuffing in at one end so something comes out the other end – it is like a process’. I kept writing book after book – fifty fiction titles before Horrible Histories came along - but I never imagined I would have a series which would become first of all iconic and secondly that would still be selling more than 20 years later. Roald Dahl has managed that, but I can’t think of anyone else who is still selling so well. What usually happens is that people have sensational ideas and they sell really well for a while but they do tend to come and go. It is a shame you can’t predict which are the ones that will last!

What do you believe is behind the popularity of Horrible Histories?

Terry: Nobody had done anything like them before and they filled a desperate need. There were fact books for children but they tended to be written by experts on the subject. They knew their history but they didn’t have a clue how to write about it for children. So with Horrible Histories, instead of an expert who couldn’t write, they approached a children’s author who knew nothing about history. I get all my facts from research. I do my research and say ‘you will never guess what I discovered’ and ‘phwoar, this is great’. It is actually a simple answer. I say I am not an expert in history and this is why they work. Down the years people have tried to copy Horrible Histories by doing funny fact books but they never get it right because they use experts not writers.

Why do Horrible Histories work so well on stage?

Terry: We work really well as a team. Birmingham Stage Company actor/director Neal Foster is very knowledgeable and experienced in children’s theatre. BSC has been going for 25 years now. I have been a professional actor for 40 years. So, between us, we know what we are doing. We are not trying to write literary stuff. It isn’t the books on stage, we are not determined to be true to the spirit of the books, we are writing for theatre. So it is fresh and original.

After all this research are you now an accidental history expert?

Definitely not. I know very little about history because I can’t keep it all in my brain. I have only got about three brain cells. I often forget what I have written because I can’t hold all those facts. I pick up a Horrible Histories book, maybe to revise it, and I read something and think ‘I never knew that!’ But I can be an anorak with facts. I was watching Horrible Histories on television and up came the Vile Victorians and along came Burke and Hare, the body snatchers. And I was jumping up and down and shouting at the television ‘no, they were 1827 - 12 years before Victoria came to the throne. They weren’t Vile Victorians!’ Now that is anorak.

Why and how did you form Birmingham Stage Company?

I started my theatre company when I was nineteen but I wanted to do a variety of work and I realised that as an independent company you have to have a specific identity. Cheek by Jowl does Shakespeare adaptations, Shared Experience does adaptations etc but I wanted to do Chekhov and children’s theatre and new plays and the only way you can produce such a variety of work is to have a venue. So for six months I looked up and down the country for a theatre in which to house my company and it was only by chance that I found The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham, my home town. It took twelve months to get the council to let me base my company at the theatre before we started in 1992 and so we celebrated our 25th anniversary last year. Our first Christmas show was Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl and that was what started our long association with this great writer. Fantastic Mr Fox was the first professional Christmas show at the Old Rep for twenty years and yet 17,500 people came to see it, which proved that there was a big demand for high quality children’s theatre. This has proved true during our tours all over the UK ever since.

Why do you enjoy producing children’s theatre?

I love children and I love children’s writing. A lot of children’s writing has really interesting characters. The writing and the characters are very challenging and so too are the audiences. Whereas adults go to sleep if they are bored, children will quickly let you know if they lose interest. Keeping that interest and keeping them engaged is difficult but very rewarding because they are so giving as an audience. They often respond in a way that you don’t anticipate and you never cease to underestimate their sophistication and what they will find interesting. You can never guess what direction they will want to go in when you tell the story. That is why children’s theatre is so exciting.

How did you come to get involved with doing Horrible Histories on stage?

One day we were all sitting in the office thinking what we should do next and my Education Director said “What about Horrible Histories?”. I thought it was a great idea so I looked up Terry Deary on the internet and gave him a call. He was delighted and that’s all it took just one phone call! The rest is Horrible history!

Interviews by Diane Parkes

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain runs from Thu 21 - Sat 23 Feb. Find out more