From grooving with the Greeks to facing the terrifying Tudors, Horrible Histories illustrator and cartoonist Martin Brown has got up close and personal with some of the past’s most notorious characters during his career. He chats to Jessica Hope ahead of his appearance at Bath Children’s Literature Festival
Did you know that shaving a live chicken’s bottom and strapping it to a swelling bubo was considered a cure for the plague in the Middle Ages? Or that after the Battle of Waterloo, people would pull the teeth out of the corpses of fallen soldiers and sell them? Pretty gruesome, eh? Well these are just the kinds of facts that have been filling young people’s heads for the past 25 years thanks to Horrible Histories – the bestselling history book series for children.
“Henry VIII looks fabulous because of the way he actually looked. I didn’t have to do much to that. He did it all himself”
Recognised for its honest, engaging and funny take on times gone by, Horrible Histories has grown into a phenomenon, selling more than 30 million copies in 38 languages worldwide, as well as being turned into a multi award-winning television series and sell-out stage show – and now there’s even plans for a film about Roman Britain hitting the big screen next year.
Behind the weird and wonderful tales are dynamic duo author Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown. Having worked together since 1993, the pair have brought the stories of the likes of the Rotten Romans, Gorgeous Georgians and Vile Victorians to life, inspiring children (and many adults, it is freely admitted) to take an interest and engage with the past.
They will soon be appearing at Bath Children’s Literature Festival (28 September – 7 October), which Martin says is his “favourite book festival in the world.” While they’re fine-tuning their plans for the event, it definitely won’t be one for fans to miss, that’s for sure. “Terry very rarely does events, so this is the only opportunity to see him. He’ll talk, he might have his guitar. With Terry it is going to be entertaining, and if there isn’t singing along, then I will be very surprised,” says Martin during our meeting at The Abbey Hotel.
In association with Bath Festivals and Emery building contractors, Martin also jumped at the chance to be involved with the Minerva’s Owls of Bath sculpture trail, which opened in July. He has created Festivowl, decorated in characters and cartoons from Horrible Histories’ 25 years of publications, which can be found in the King’s Lounge in the Pump Room.After publishing more than 80 titles, and working for a brand that has produced the longest running children’s stage show in London’s West End, plus seven television series featuring big names in comedy and drama, Martin admits that he is still amazed by Horrible Histories’ success, after all this time.
“I remember the first time I did the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, I looked out at the stage and realised that 600 people had paid to see me, which is remarkable. You’re staring down the hall from the stage at these massive chandeliers, and you wonder how you’ve made it here.”
And despite being part of one of the biggest children’s book series on the planet, Martin still gets starstruck meeting other authors and illustrators in the publishing world. “I go into the green room at festivals and there are all these people that I want to go and hear speak live,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to hear Cressida Cowell speak about dragons? These people aren’t just friends and colleagues, they’re heroes of mine. Whenever I see anyone, I learn so much about the industry I am in.”
With a career that’s longer than most, Martin has witnessed how the children’s print industry has developed enormously in the past decades. “The industry as a whole has more influence than people really think. Whenever the New Year’s Honours list comes out, I always flick through it knowing full well that hardly any children’s book people will be on there,” he says. “These people are doing extraordinary stuff that really is changing young people’s lives, and influencing kids for the better. They’re showing children there’s a world out there that they can grab hold of.“It’s an industry that this country does particularly well, and I think it goes completely under the radar, which is a pity because it is beyond world class,” he says.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1959, Martin grew up with artistic parents. “For my amusement, I would doodle for hours and hours. I guess it was practice,” he says. “But it was cartooning which was my thing. My heroes growing up were editorial cartoonists like Johnny Hart, Bill Watterson, and Calvin and Hobbes, which is the finest cartoon strip ever produced.”
After leaving school, Martin briefly became an art teacher before getting a job as a stagehand at television company ABC Studios. With some money saved up, he decided to go travelling with the intention of returning to Australia, but instead, in 1983, Martin ended up in London. “I got a job at The London Graphic Centre and all of a sudden at my finger tips weren’t only the finest art materials, but also the names of every publisher, magazine, agency and advertising mob in London. So if I was ever going to be a cartoonist, then that was it.”
Martin spent six months knocking on every door around the capital he could, hoping to get into the industry. With some work at Reader’s Digest and a greeting’s card company under his belt, Martin learned how to hone his skills as a cartoonist and how to deliver a joke on the page to catch the reader’s eye.
One day he came across Scholastic, a children’s books and educational materials publisher, and the rest, as they say, is history. “I walked in the door, and walked out with a job. But it was definitely a right place at the right time kind of moment,” says Martin. After working with author Peter Corey on a series of Coping With… books, the publishers teamed him up with author Terry Deary for a project that would later become Horrible Histories.To coincide with the Key Stage Two curriculum, but making these time periods more interesting for readers, Martin and Terry first produced the Awesome Egyptians and Terrible Tudors. These publications quickly caught the attention of young readers for their humorous yet frank interpretation of history. While so many children’s history books tend to glorify the winners of the past, Horrible Histories reflects on what it was like for every member of society when wars raged and harvests failed.
“Some of my favourite characters are the peasants. We’re so used to these A-list celebrity heroes of history, whether they’re goodies or baddies, the kings and queens. But the poor sods who had to cope with it all, like the Norman invasion and the English Civil War, were the ordinary everyday families. These people who had to grow a crop, make a living, raise a family, and they did that all while this history was happening around them,” says Martin.
In order to recreate the lives of past civilisations in cartoon form, Terry provides Martin with a manuscript of each book with pointers on where illustrations and cartoon strips are needed. “Terry is such a great writer, he feeds you the perfect material to work with. History itself is fascinating, but the way he writes it makes it much more fun,” he says.
And depicting the characters of the past isn’t always as difficult as you might think. “The thing about non-fiction is that it has the best stories – the material is so good. Henry VIII looks fabulous in the books because of the way he actually looked. I didn’t have to do much to that, he did it all himself.”
Despite drawing illustrations, there is still an important element of historical accuracy to Martin’s work. “A lot of cartoonists would try with a knight, for example, to draw them in a generic suit of armour. But what I like about Horrible Histories is that you can be quite specific. So if I were drawing a knight from 1350, I would do a suit of armour from 1350 – but it’s still a cartoon. A Norman-style knight would wear different kit. Because the armour is different, you can have fun with it. And you have to be as historically accurate as much as you can be with a cartoon,” he says.
“You have to be mindful that these books are for kids… You’ve got to be careful. You can show cruelty, but you can’t be gratuitous, even though history is full of it”
While Martin and Terry have been working together for 25 years, it is surprising to find out that the pair rarely see each other as Martin lives in Dorset, whereas Terry is based in County Durham. “We just understand one another. It’s been good fortune to be paired up with him. We make a brilliant team, but have hardly been together,” he says.
As well as helping to popularise history for children with its use of satire and fun facts, Horrible Histories’ appeal also stems from addressing difficult subjects that can be missed out from the school curriculum. Although Martin admits that there can be challenges in creating humour about events that have happened in more recent history.
“We make jokes about Henry VIII knocking off two of his wives’ heads, but that is a monstrous thing to do. There are echoes of Isis there, so it is the distance in time that allows you some artistic license. But the closer it gets to modern times, then the harder it is to poke fun at. Whether that is the carnage of the First or Second World War, and the wilful slaughter that happened – that slaughter certainly happened before the wars, such as the religious persecution of the 17th century – but somehow that is so far away, that it doesn’t hurt so much anymore.Horrible Histories’ author Terry Deary
“You can say some very serious things with cartoons,” says Martin. “You can’t make a joke about the trenches or about being gassed, but you can take a non-funny editorial cartoon to talk about the cruelty.
“And you have to be mindful that these books are for kids – for eight to 12 year-olds, but I know that kids who are younger and older read them and love them. You’ve got to be careful. You can show cruelty, but you can’t be gratuitous, even though history is full of it.”
In order to reflect on more serious events in history, Martin uses illustrations to explain the situations to children, or to add some light relief. “You can use a rat or peasants as observers to either deflect some of the horror, or to prick some of the pomposity. They’re great commentators when kings and queens are dealing with great matters of state. You can come down to reality with a rat, or with an onlooker who has to deal with it,” says Martin.
“One thing we realised when we began to grow was that we didn’t have a stock character – like in Where’s Wally or Shaun the Sheep – that we could market, as every book has a different cast of characters. So the only characters that have cropped up more than once are the executioner (who isn’t a bundle of laughs), the mythical figure of death who is around during plagues and wars, and rats. Rats appeared on the back cover of the Awesome Egyptians and have been around ever since.”
Away from a school curriculum where some may argue that there is an emphasis on remembering dates and prominent figures of state, Horrible Histories discusses the past from a different angle. “The books are educational, but not preachy. You might learn about a date along the way, and there are timelines in all of the books, but that’s not the story we are telling. In a way they are story books. Terry is accused of being a historian, which he strongly rejects. He says he’s a storyteller.”
“The poor sods who had to cope with it all, like the Norman invasion and the English Civil War, were the ordinary everyday families”
It is this that has brought Horrible Histories worldwide acclaim, all while being able to, quite unusually for the world of publishing, sell equally to both young boys and girls. And having produced these books for a quarter of a century, many of the original Horrible Histories readers are passing down their favourite books on to their children.
“The fact that readers have got fond memories of them is great, still after all this time,” says Martin. “When people in their mid-30s come up to you at events and say ‘I grew up on your books!’, it’s really, really nice to hear.”
With the Horrible Histories film set to be released next year, this is likely to inspire more children to take an interest in the past. Martin tells me why Roman Britain was chosen as the backdrop. “It was a pretty wild time. The place was changing remarkably, it was cutting-edge stuff. It was so modern, and so suddenly different to before with regeneration, technology and society. The story of Boudica’s rebellion is well known but somewhat untold.”
And that’s exactly what Horrible Histories has been doing for the last 25 years – providing young people with a bigger picture of the past and encouraging an interest in history. And long may it continue.
Horrible Histories: Terry Deary and Martin Brown is on Saturday 29 September, 1pm at the Forum, Bath. Tickets: £9, ages 7+. For tickets, visit: bathfestivals.org.uk or call: 01225 463362