STEPHEN LEWIS talks to a children's author who believes in making history as horrible as possible...

TERRY Deary never meant to write any Horrible Histories. The actor turned children's author actually meant to write a book of historical jokes - but somehow the gruesome bits got in the way. He had originally been asked to write a Father Christmas joke book, featuring jokes such as "What's Tarzan's favourite song? Jungle Bells!"

"The book was a great success," the 57-year-old says. "So they said why don't you do a history joke book? Things like 'where do the French buy their guillotines? The Chopping Centre!'"

But then he found a strange thing happening: the historical facts he unearthed during his research were actually more interesting than the jokes. "How do you test a guillotine? Well, how do you?" He pauses for effect. "What they did was use corpses from the local mortuary!" he says triumphantly. I make the appropriate "eugh!" noises. "So instead of a joke book with facts in, we had a fact book with some jokes."

That book was The Terrible Tudors - a gory history of the 16th Century, Henry VIII, headless wives and all, written specially for nine to 12 year olds. It was the first of a hugely popular series of Horrible Histories, including The Vile Victorians, The Rotten Romans and the Vicious Vikings, that have kept youngsters and grown-up children alike enthralled with horrified glee for the past ten years.

He insists his books aren't just for children. "They are marketed for kids, but they are written for human beings," he says. "I'm fascinated by people. Actually, I don't think my books are about history. They are about people. I'm interested in human beings and how they behave to one another."

He's unearthed some great stories about the vikings that show what he means. If a Viking warrior got shot by an arrow or stabbed in battle, he says gleefully, there was a simple test to see whether his stomach had been pierced. If it had been, there was no point trying to save him: if it hadn't, he had a chance.

"They would feed them sage, onions and garlic - and if the smell came out through a hole in the stomach, you knew there was no hope!"

Then there's the one about the Viking woman whose husband asked her for some of her hair to make a new bowstring. She was angry with him because they had rowed a couple of days before: so she refused. "And they both died!" says Terry - presumably because the viking archer couldn't defend them.

There's a manic energy about the way he tells stories such as this. So it's no surprise that he's turned his Horrible Histories into a one-man stage show. He did, in fact, train as an actor and drama teacher long before writing, he admits.

He will be putting that stagecraft to good use when he turns up at the Archaeological Resource Centre in York's St Saviourgate on Friday to deliver one of his one hour shows. It won't, he says firmly, be a talk. He doesn't do talks. "It's the Terry Deary history roadshow. There will be songs, stories, role-play and audience participation, all based on the Horrible Histories. It looks at history from the Rotten Romans right up to the Second World War - if I don't run out of time first! Sometimes I only get as far as the Vile Victorians."

The show will feature songs such as "They destroyed my father's grave to build a sewer" (a genuine Victorian song, Terry insists) and a song penned by himself: "Henry VIII was a big fat man." Kids in the audience will be roped in to play his "victims". They will have their heads chopped off!" he says.

They won't be the only ones to be victimised. "I like to find a teacher in the audience and test them to destruction!" he says. "Generally humiliate them with impossible questions!"

Most of them love it, he says. "Only a couple don't get the joke."

For all his delight in the horrible and gruesome, he's clearly proud of the fact his books are so popular - and says he takes pains to ensure the facts they contain are accurate.

The books can be read on several levels, he says. "There are the cartoons, so some very reluctant readers will pick them up. Then you can read the text next to the cartoons, which makes them make more sense. Then you can read the longer passages. Eventually they will have read the whole book. I get people saying things like 'My son had never read a book. Now he's read two!'"

One person who hasn't read them - or any other of Terry's many books, for that matter - is his 23-year-old daughter Sara. She's studying landscape architecture at university. "She's a highly articulate, intelligent young woman," he says. "But she doesn't read. She has never read one of my books."

There are plenty of other people who have, however - and the chances are they will be queuing to see him in York on Friday, April 25.

Updated: 08:55 Wednesday, April 23, 2003