Frightful First World War and Woeful Second World War, Grand Opera House, York, November 9 to 11

11:54am Friday 6th November 2009

By Charles Hutchinson

WHAT history lessons can we learn from Terry Deary, the North Eastern author of the Horrible Histories books?

“History is about understanding humanity,” he says. “I say that as an actor and drama teacher, who was told that the only thing that mattered was understanding why people behave the way they do, and I take that one step further by saying, ‘Why do I behave the way I do?’. You must measure yourself against others: you say, ‘They behaved like that; how should I behave?’.”

Two more of Terry’s Horrible Histories have been adapted for the stage for Birmingham Stage Company’s performances of Frightful First World War and Woeful Second World War, which are playing the Grand Opera House, York, today and tomorrow with the added attraction of 3D Bogglevision.

Terry is loath to use the word “history”. “I hate calling the study of the past ‘history’ because that has all the connotations of being about kings and queens and dates and wars,” he says.

“I remember meeting Ken Clarke about a year and a half before he came back to the Tories’ front bench, and he said, ‘All that matters in the teaching of history is fact, fact, fact’, but Mr Gradgrind was parodied for saying that 150 years ago in Hard Times.”

Terry prefers to focus on humanity and social issues. “Any age can learn about humanity, in fact you do that every day of your life. To say that you know enough at 16 or 18 to cope with life is wholly illogical, or that you stop learning at 16, that’s just as illogical,” he says.

“And to say that teachers can teach that subject [history], when they can’t even look after their own lives, is absurd.

“Schools will never be successful as long as they can’t get rid of the incompetent teachers, of whom there are far too many. That’s not me being personal: that was The Sunday Times saying that.”

Terry Deary has been called Britain’s “most influential historian”, but you will not be surprised to learn he is not entirely happy with such a tag. “I’m not sure I want to be called a ‘historian’ with all the baggage that goes with that. ‘Educator,’ I prefer,” he says.

He will settle, however, for being considered “influential”. “I get emails from people all the time telling me I’ve changed their life. They say things like, ‘I didn’t like history until I read your books; now I’m studying it at Oxford’, to which my answer is, ‘Don’t blame me’!” he says.

“Of course, the advantage I’ve got is that I’m a children’s novelist first, and in order to educate them, first you have to engage with them – and you have to do that on their terms and not say ‘I’m going to write a book and it’s up to you to read my book’. That’s so arrogant.”

He tells stories of the past “through people, through anecdotes”. “The fact that Germany invaded Poland, or that Hans killed Gregor one to one, is not the thing that mattered. It’s about looking at the microcosm; leave the macrocosm to the historians,” says Terry. “I look for anecdotes that we can all relate to.”

Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War, for example, is based on one of Terry’s Gory Stories novels, Blackout In The Blitz, wherein he combines the German blitz of Coventry with the exploitation and bullying of evacuee children in Wales and the running of a meat black market.

His books run counter to the “bland school history idea of little Britain against the rest of the world, when it’s not like that at all”. “I’ve just read a book about how badly equipped the Luftwaffe were and how the orders of Goering were more damaging than the Spitfires. That is not to denigrate what the Spitfires did, but you have to remember that the Germans lost the war as much as the Allies won it,” says Terry.

He is not only an influential storyteller but a pioneering one too, spreading his Horrible Histories empire from books to television, theatre and even to a Nintendo computer game based on his Ruthless Romans book. Now, after being instrumental in the creation of 3D Bogglevision for Birmingham Stage Company’s shows, Terry is looking to future possibilities of presentation.

“The Chinese are developing 4D, based on my books, or in fact it’s a British company based in China, who will be introducing the senses of touch and smell,” reveals Terry.

He foresees such developments coming into play not only in theatrical shows but in museums and visitor attractions too. “Unfortunately museums are not doing a very good job,” he says, attributing the fault to museums being run by curators rather than being designed or modernised by designers.

“Museums try to come into the 21st century but they don’t use technology well. It’s all just gimmicks. I see kids pushing buttons just to see what happens but they don’t engage with it,” laments Terry.

“History is about people but where are the people in museums? So when I build my history equivalent of Jorvik in Durham, I will not have models but re-enactors.”

How is your Durham project progressing, Terry? “It was flying before the recession but it still has the backing of all the major bodies in the city. Feasibility is what they’re still doing. That’s the key word, and they see Jorvik in York as the ideal model as it does its job of drawing people in,” he says.

Terry will continue to forge head with diverse projects, letting others join the bandwagon, much to his mockery. “When you’re trying to catch up with the bandwagon, you don’t have time to think about it,” he says. “It takes courage to be different but it takes cowardice to rip off the Horrible Histories, which publishing companies have tried and failed to do. And why did they fail? Because they got historians to write them!”

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Horrible Histories: Woeful Second World War can be seen at 10.30am and 7pm tomorrow (WED). Box office: 0844 847 2322 or www.grandoperahouseyork.org.uk

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