Our country is experiencing a time of profound uncertainty. Decisions made over the next year could shape the destinies of generations to come. At times like this, it can be reassuring to reach for the certainties of our past. And this show highlights three historical certainties in particular: it was horrible, it was barmy, and it was liberally peppered with poo jokes.
There’s enough barminess in British history to allow for multiple variants of the Barmy Britain show – More Best of Barmy Britain (‘MBBB’ for short) is the fifth. It’s scaled-down when compared to previous Horrible Histories adaptions reviewed here: whereas Incredible Invaders featured an elaborate set, 3D visuals, something of a narrative and even an interval, MBBB is basically just two performers, some fancy dress and a few props. It’s a roughly chronological sketch show with tenuous linking dialogue during costume changes between skits – more Fast Show than Wolf Hall.
As with Incredible Invaders, the references in the show are clearly targeted at parents. Fast Show was one of them, and we were pretty sure that – being in our mid-20s – we were the youngest in the audience to get it. Thankfully, the humour and fun didn’t rely on references: when two flouncy Tudor tailors stuck a hat on an audience member (who’d bravely volunteered to clamber on-stage), and exclaimed “Suits thou Sir!”, the littluns found it just as funny as the parents. Appealing to adults as much as kids, without endangering the engagement of either, is key to the show’s populist appeal. A quick line about Theresa May has the oldies chortling knowlingly without bamboozling the youngsters too much, and an infeasibly well-soiled nappy being hurled onto someone’s face will only fail to tickle the stoniest of mums and dads.
Inevitably, some of the sketches work better than others. The two performers (Ashley Bowden and Laura Dalgleish) are winning, witty and whimsical, and the best moments are those which seem to make the most of their personalities. They throw themselves into the musical numbers and prance with infectious glee. The less successful parts of the show seem somewhat thrown-together and less well-refined, such as an overlong section in which Elizabeth I lays into Shakespeare using only phrases from his plays, and a slightly forced Apprentice parody in which General Haig has to explain his callous use of cannon-fodder to a cantankerous Lord Sugar impersonation. Legitimate questions could be asked about the ethics of getting children to chuckle at the numbers of volunteer soldiers killed at the Somme, in the same way they might laugh at an over-groomed pillock fluffing his lines in the boardroom, but it also just wasn’t very funny.
Horrible Histories shows are crowd-pleasers and money-spinners. The piles of merchandise available in the foyer do make them seem a tad less charming than the cheeky little books we used to read as kids, but perhaps they’re just inevitable products of the series’ popularity (yes, a weak pun). If you want your kids to engage in the complexities of history, or to be touched by the tragedy of past conflicts, MBBB ain’t for you. Neither is it for you if you want fresh, challenging children’s theatre. But if you want to giggle at some eccentric historical tomfoolery, it most certainly is.
Perhaps, like the books, shows like MBBB and Incredible Invaders are a good way of sparking that initial interest in history, by way of farting Victorians and Tudor bum-scrubbers – young children watching the show could be led from historical flatulence today to emulating Mary Beard in a couple of decades. Or maybe shows like MBBB substitute whimsy for wonder: you don’t have to resort to bowel movements to engage little people in history, as, for instance, Andy Cannon’s work on Scottish history and culture has shown. He draws the audience in with ideas of adventure, identity and home, rather than with guts, dumps and bum-burps.
Modern-day cultural critics of the Frankfurt tradition would see Horrible Histories shows as numbing and infantilising corporate entertainment which trivialises history and erodes critical thought. Fun-loving families will be singing the songs on the way home, re-enacting their favourite farts and discussing how hilarious it was. They’d both have a point.
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