“Horrible Histories isn’t my life’s work, because I am not dead yet,” refutes the venerable children’s author, Terry Deary to the utter impertinence of my insinuation that it should be.
I’ve pictured him furiously tapping out his reply to my questions in a smoke-filled room, surrounded by piles of leather-bound history books; scripts and comedy sketches spilling from their shelves.
The reality is more likely to be a hurried call to an agent as he flits from meeting to meeting, while turning over any number of upcoming project ideas in his head; but I like to maintain my romantic vision of the scribe.
Deary’s recognisable humour, something that invigorated the history lessons of my own youth, runs through his written responses to my questions.
“…I’m not dead yet. (At least I wasn’t the last time I looked),” he writes. Reading through his answers, he has already admitted to finding history dull at school and to the fact that how 95 per cent of his time is spent writing has left him feeling “a bit of a failure.”
Oh, you may not have known that Terry Deary, the author of works like Awesome Egyptians and The Terrible Tudors, is a professional actor. Writing was never meant to be the career he was best-known for by so many, but having drifted into writing plays for his acting troupe, it wasn’t long before the characters and stories he penned soon found themselves within the pages of literature.
“When the play tours finished, and the costumes were packed away, my characters and their stories disappeared, so I began turning them into books,” he tells me.
“History was not my choice of topic. It was a commission from a publisher and I wrote to order. I was never inspired by history, In fact school history made me think it was the dullest subject in the universe, (well, the solar system. It’s dull from Saturn to Pluto, trust me…)”
For a topic of no particular interest to Deary initially, he certainly managed to carve quite the corpus out of the Horrible Histories name. 23 titles sit in the original Horrible Histories series, a run first published in 1993. By 2013, at the announcement that Deary would no longer write the books, the series had hit 60 titles.
That was a full 20 years Deary had spent in the company of Horrible Histories and its cast of many a Rotten Roman or Vile Victorian; a lifetime sentence for someone who grew up ‘avoiding reading,’ but time enough for him to fall in love with the characters he had created through recounting the stories and tales – the best bits of course – that litter the course of human history.
This summer, Deary will see the world he dedicated his penmanship to for so long a time emerge on the big screen with its first Horrible Histories film, welcoming a cast that stars the likes of Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall and Warwick Davis to the comedic lore it has become so well-known for.
This isn’t the first adaptation of the book series for Deary. For a number of years now, Horrible Histories has both been an award-winning TV children’s TV series and a successful run of live stage shows, both of which have been – in some capacity or another – written by Deary himself.
On top of this, the author-actor-playwrite-screenwriter can add businessman to the CV, having moulded a successful licensing programme from the book brand, when he handed the merchandising reins over to Rocket Licensing.
“Handing over the [Horrible Histories] brand to merchandising involves a lot of trust,” Deary explains. “They are the experts in their fields – I am not…
“A writer has to hand over their work like a parent hands a baby over to a nursery. And trust they know what they’re doing. I generally advise licensees when asked. I always want Horrible Histories partners to keep going back to the books for facts and ideas to make their products really horrible.”
The number of licensees now working with the Horrible Histories IP is today, plentiful, among them being the toy industry’s own Paul Lamond Games, Winning Moves, Ancestors and Smiffys. Meanwhile, Rocket Licensing has made no secret of the surge it expects to see for the Horrible Histories brand when the movie lands this July.
So what is it about Horrible Histories IP and its heritage in the book market that has it resonating with readers and consumers in the way that it does? It’s a question best posed to the author…
“My drama teacher once said that ‘the aim of drama is to explore the question: why do people behave the way they do?,’ recounts Deary. “I apply that to my fiction and non-fiction. Horrible Histories are not books about ‘history’ – they are books about people, and their stories.
“Children and adults are 73 times more interested in people than they are in dates, battles, kings and conquerors. Why do people behave the way they do leads to the most important question of all… ‘why do I behave the way I do?,’ understanding that is the key to solving the problems of the human world.”
It’s towards the Man Who Was Thursday and Father Brown creator, GK Chesterton that we can direct thanks for inspiring Deary into the literary – and somewhat philosophical – world, and not the classics of Thomas Hardy that were forced upon him at school.
“My family had no interest in books and my primary school had no money for books,” Deary remembers. “I was introduced to books in school at about the age of 13, when we were forced to read the most awful novels (for a 13 year old). Things like Thomas Hardy were really not suitable and wouldn’t influence my pet goldfish to take up reading…
“At 16 I discovered GK Chesterton books and only then was i influenced and inspired.”
A long and arduous journey into reading for a writer that has become so synonymous with children’s books himself, it all leads to the question of what Deary thinks of children’s literature today… would it have passed 13 year old Deary’s palette?
“I am not a child, so I don’t keep up to date with children’s literature,” he says. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to offer an opinion on children’s literature at the moment. Better to ask an expert – a child. The only measure I can apply is sales figures, so JK Rowling, David Walliams, Jacqueline Wilson and Julia Donaldson are clearly massively talented people.
“Horrible Histories continue to sell because no one has successfully imitated them (though many have tried).
‘There is a secret to the Horrible Histories books, but I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.
Maybe then, Deary could tell us what is next on his list for success stories – a script advisor, a playwrite and an actor making guest appearances in live performances of the Horrible Histories stage plays, are already part of his repertoire and highlight his palette of skills in the world of entertainment – after all.
“I want to be shaking up the ‘heritage’ industry and getting museums away from the obsession with ‘objects’,” he says. “It’s the people and the stories behind the artefacts that matter, not the dead, dry artefacts in glass cases.
“I don’t want to influence the mausoleums they call museums – I want to revolutionise them, So watch this space.”