In just 70 minutes we go from Stone Age, Viking, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian periods to World Wars One and Two! Our main problem at this stage is to stop laughing.
For the first time in my life I’m acting and directing at the same time, which is very tricky. It’s amazing how difficult it is to judge how the scenes are working when you’re also performing in them. So I’ve enlisted the help of Alison Fitzjohn to watch rehearsals, as she’s been in all the Horrible Histories shows since they started in 2005. In fact this year is the 10th anniversary of Horrible Histories live on stage and during the run of Barmy Britain – Part Three! we’re celebrating with a special Gala Performance on 27th July at the Garrick Theatre featuring HH writer Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown. It should be ninety minutes of mayhem, with Terry and Martin making their West End debuts.
I started writing the Horrible Histories shows with Terry Deary when we produced the First Barmy Britain at the Garrick. Nimax Theatres had the idea of inviting Horrible Histories into the West End and we looked for a way of producing an hour long show that could run underneath the evening production. It gave birth to Barmy Britain which went on to become the longest running children’s show in West End history. The only complaint we received was that it wasn’t long enough, so Barmy Britain - Part Two ran for seventy minutes which seemed to make all the difference. Terry and I always start with a discussion about what stories to include. One of my favourites came from a display I saw in the Jersey Island Museum about the Second World War. I was so astonished by the idiocy of the story that it stuck in my head and five years later it sprung back into my mind when we were deciding what to include in the new production. Jersey Museum were very helpful in supplying all the facts behind the story so we could be sure we’d got it right, as it is frankly unbelievable.
"I can’t imagine my life without Horrible Histories."
In fact I am often cheeky and ask for help from professors around the country. When I wrote the new Magna Carta scene I sought help from the UK’s leading expert, Professor David Carpenter, whose new book had just been published. The joy of the internet is you can track people down so easily that within ten minutes of searching, I was emailing the professor with my script and that afternoon he sent his reply, with some wonderful advice for the scene. I have pushed the boat out a bit further with our scene about the Duke of Wellington – and emailed the Duke of Wellington himself. I’m referring of course to the current Duke, not the first Duke of Wellington, although he still lives at the same house as his ancestor, which has the fantastic address of No.1 London. I was relieved to hear the Duke wasn’t too offended by the portrayal of his illustrious predecessor.
HH shows are a dream come true for an actor like me who just happens to love Monty Python and history in equal measure. In fact when I found myself sitting next to Michael Palin on the tube three months ago I told him I owed him everything. He was very pleased and asked for royalties. The only difference between Python and HH is that everything in HH is true, even if it sounds unbelievable. In fact the greatest accolade we can receive is when a parent grabs us after the show and says “that story can’t be true, can it?”. I think it’s why the shows appeal to adults as much as children. Parents often come to shows for children expecting to sleep till it’s over, so it’s wonderful to find them as interested and bewildered as their children.
Children don’t fall asleep in shows. If they get bored, they chat, throw sweets or go to the toilet. It’s why they are such a challenging and rewarding audience to entertain. If you can keep an audience of children quiet for seventy minutes (except where you want them to laugh!) you know the show is working. There is a bizarre theory gaining currency that children can no longer concentrate. So-called experts tell us the internet and smart phones have changed the way children think. It’s nonsense. The reason children lose concentration with so much television, for example, is because so much of it is rubbish. My experience is that children love complex and sophisticated material and positively lap it up. The TV series of HH proves how popular televised history could be. We will never cease to underestimate children and the joy of live theatre is being able to engage with them on a daily basis in the most interactive way possible.
We launched Barmy Three on top of the Trafalgar Hotel overlooking Trafalgar Square, where the views are amazing - the perfect spot to launch a show featuring Admiral Nelson. Barmy One was launched in the Houses of Parliament where we performed our scene about Guy Fawkes. We somehow forgot to warn our hosts we were bringing Guy Fawkes into the building but their noble lordships were happy with our performance of Who Wants to Blow Up Parliament. Barmy Two was launched at Kensington Palace thanks to Historic Royal Palaces, the place where Queen Victoria was born and the perfect setting for Viccy to do a rap.
I can’t imagine my life without Horrible Histories. It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life to be involved in its crazy, gory, irreverent world. I will be very nervous when we open on 25th July. Let’s hope it’s a bit cooler!
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part Three runs at the Garrick Theatre between 25th July and 5th September 2015. Please visit www.barmybritain.com for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet
Photo Credit: Mark Douet