‘Horrible Histories’ has likely always been a part of the lives of a lot of young people in the UK, Ireland, and Australia, many of whom won’t be able to remember a time when the books, let alone the TV shows, hadn’t been around. The first Horrible Histories books, ‘The Terrible Tudors’, and ‘Awesome Egyptians’, came out in 1993, with ‘Vicious Vikings’, ‘Vile Victorians’, ‘Blitzed Brits’, and ‘Rotten Romans’, released the following year. It’s this last book, ‘Rotten Romans’, which has been the first to receive the big screen treatment, with ‘Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans’, coming to UK and Irish screens in time for the summer holidays, 26 July.
Lisa had the extreme good fortune to attend an advance screening of the new film, at BFI Southbank on July 11, as part of the 7th Annual LOCO London Comedy Festival. While there, she chatted to Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories books, Sebastian Croft, who stars as Atti in the new film, and Greg Jenner, the historical consultant on both the film, and the TV series.
First in our interviews was the no-nonsense yet completely charming Terry Deary, who obliged me by signing – and declaring to be beautiful – my extremely battered and much loved first edition copy of ‘Rotten Romans’, before answering some of my questions.
So Terry Deary – my gosh, it’s been a long time since Rotten Romans came out.
Did you in your wildest dreams ever imagine that ‘Horrible Histories’ would grow into the monster that it’s become?
Do you know any author who doesn’t think their book is the best one ever written?
You write a book, and you think, “a hundred years from now this will be a classic.” And there are many that after three months disappear off the shelves. So, people always ask me this question, and I always have to say, “deep in my heart – without being vain – you always think that.”
It’s history with all the gory bits left in –
What it is, it started out as a joke book with bits of history. Then we found the history was more interesting than the jokes, so then it became a history book with jokes.
And it’s told in bite-sized pieces, so children don’t feel intimidated. So a lot of autistic, or reluctant readers, pick it up, and they can just read a little bit at a time. And they feel good about themselves, because they’ve acquired facts, which parents tell me, they bore them with endlessly [Oh yeah, it’s wonderful!], which makes the kids feel good about reading.
So I get accused of driving people to do history at university – but I’m more pleased when parents say – “you got my child reading”.
Well it’s true! My daughter is nearly 23, and we found a copy of ‘Storming Normans’, it was our introduction to ‘Horrible Histories’, when she was in reception.
Oh yeah she started reading before she started school…
Oh most kids do now…
And she started on that…and it led onto all the rest!
Tonight we’re going to see ‘Rotten Romans’ on the big screen. Does it stick close to the book?
It doesn’t have to does it?
‘The Rotten Romans’ was an early book, so it didn’t have a narrative arc. Once I’d learned about history, each book started to tell stories. Yes, there’s still anecdotes, but they’re linked, whereas ‘The Rotten Romans’ is a bit more random. And this film also features ‘The Cut-Throat Celts’ (1997) so the writers melded the two and taken one very strong story of Boudicca, and her final battles. In fact there’s a small part of ‘Rotten Romans’ in ‘Cut-Throat Celts’. You can’t say it’s of the book, but it’s very clever how they feed in real facts.
And if you can stay until the end in the credits, Rattus Rattus pops up, and says “Actually, this was true! It might sound unbelievable but it’s true!” That was a joke of course. And when we did the television show, we always said that was going to be key, if we were going to make an outrageous joke, you have to have a narrator to say, “actually that was a joke” or “sorry, but that really happened”. So they brought him in the at the end, and the filmmakers have been really clever with that.
Thank you for talking to us Terry Deary! I have one final question – what do you wish someone would ask you in an interview but nobody ever does?
Which do you prefer writing? Fiction or non-fiction?
Which do you prefer – writing fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction every time! I’ve published 150 fiction books and 150 non-fiction books but fiction is my first love. I just LOVE it.
And why is that? Is that because you can make it up?
Because I can be creative! I’m not tied to facts, so I love my fiction career, I’ve had some good successes, ‘The Fire Thief Trilogy‘, ‘The Tudor Chronicles‘, and so on. They’ve never been as big as ‘Horrible Histories’ of course, which paid my wife’s bills and for which I’m very grateful, but I love my fiction.
You can find more information about Terry Deary and his books on his official website.
We also had the opportunity to speak with Sebastian Croft, who stars as Atti, a young Roman teenager, with brains, but very little brawn. When one of his clever schemes sees him fall foul of the Emperor Nero, Atti is made to join the army, whereupon he is sent to miserable, cold, wet Britain, where the natives are quite literally revolting.
So Sebastian Croft! How did you get this role?
I auditioned about a year and a bit ago, and it started as a self-tape, which means I had to film myself, doing some lines. And the process was actually quite long, we had lots of chemistry reads with different girls, and I was still auditioning, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of me, or the girl; I didn’t know what was up, but it was quite a long process.
So for all you knew, there was some other guy who was doing the same thing as you were.
Yes definitely! And when I went for my first recall, there were like 12 other guys who looked exactly like me lined up. I’m kinda used to that though, it’s the same with all auditions, you see the same guys all the time. It’s just what you’re right for in the end. It was very nerve-wracking, and then I found out I’d got the part, and I was excited. And then my best friend in real life, Emilia Jones, was up for the girl part, but we hadn’t chemistry read together. And she came around and was all kind of weird with me, and I thought, “what’s up” and she played it all cool and announced that she’d been offered the part of Orla, and we just had this massive freak out, and a solid day of screaming.
Had you acted before together?
No we’ve never done a project before together.
Was that weird?
No not at all! It was very exciting! On the first day there were quite a few moments where we were filming and between takes we’d be like, “ahh how” together. But yes, it was the best fun. And to be fair, on set you generally become very close to people, but having someone who’s already my best friend, and having such a love team, we really became a proper family on this film. So it was just a dreamy project.
When you said you auditioned eighteen months ago – that’s a really quick turnaround isn’t it!
How long did it take filming?
This was really short as a shoot, it was five weeks, but the team who did it, did the original Horrible Histories TV series, and Caroline [Norris] the producer and Dominic [Brigstocke] the director, are just comedy gods, and they’re very well-versed in doing TV where you just have to be that quick. So they were the most prepared and most on it team I’ve ever worked with on a film.
So you guys had to work fast as well…
Exactly…but saying that, there was the chance that it could have felt it was very rushed, and Dominic was giving us the time to improvise a bit and play around with the scenes.
So what happens next for you after this?
I have a new film called, ‘I’ll Find You’, which is going into Film Festivals this summer, so hopefully it will be coming to the London Film Festival, and then I start filming in a week and a bit for a new film, and then I’ve got another one in September, but I can’t say anything about either of those!
That’s really good that you’ve got so much work lined up in a row – you get to eat!
I feel very lucky at the moment! It’s been a bit of a crazy journey, Horrible Histories, because it happened so quickly. The film that’s going into Film Festivals [this summer] I shot 3 years ago, so it’s my expectation of how long it takes to take a film to come out!
Yeah! You auditioned eighteen months ago, and in two weeks it’s going to be in the cinemas – that’s pretty damned fast.
It’s happened very quickly. I’m just so excited for everyone to see it. It’s nice because as a young person, when it takes three years – I was 13 when we shot the one that’s going into the Film Festivals this summer – so it’s exciting that I get to see a project that’s still relatively new, on the big screen.
Could you potentially see yourself going into further Horrible Histories films as a different character?
If I could, I would bite your arm off for it! It was the most amazing experience, and I think that all the cast have said the same thing. I think we’d all love to go back. I know that everyone’s got their eye on different bits of history that they’d personally like to do. I’d love to work with any of the team again, it was so amazing.
Have you done comedy before?
No this was very much my first comedy, and I felt slightly dropped in the deep end working with Nick Frost and Lee Mack! But no, it was really good fun, and out of everything I felt that comedy was a kind of natural thing for me.
One more question – what question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?
Oh that’s a hard one!
Have you done many interviews?
Yeah a few, but I’ve never been asked that one!
Can I ask you where you got your shoes from? They are amazing!
Thank you very much! My Mum calls them my sock shoes! They’re from a company called Acne Studios.
The question I’d want to be asked is….that is…I tell you what, next time we meet, I’ll have something for you!
Thank you Sebastian! It was lovely to talk to you and all the best with your new films!
Last but by no means least, we spoke to Greg Jenner, the Historical Consultant on both the film and the current TV series, and also the author of best-selling book, ‘A Million Years In A Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age To Phone Age’. Greg also has a role in ‘Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans’ – let us know if you spot him!
Greg Jenner! Lovely to meet you! And you’re the Historical Consultant on the film!
That’s my official job title, my preferred title is nerd, but Historical Consultant describes what I do.
Did you volunteer to be a part of this, or did they approach you…how have you got involved?
I’ve been working on the TV show [Horrible Histories] for eleven years, and I still make the TV show, and I started back in 2008, and I was working for the TV company at the time, and I heard them say they were making the show, and I just door-stepped my boss and said, I’ve got to work on this show, I love comedy, I love history, I’m an historian who writes comedy, so let me work on this show. So they said yes, and I’ve been doing it for eleven years.
Do you know Justin Pollard at all?
We follow each other on social media, I’ve known him from QI and so on…
He and I have worked on similar stuff. But yes! The past four years we’ve been working on this film, and finally it’s here!
So you’ve seen the rushes, or have you seen the full film already?
I’ve seen the full film four times, and I still really like it! In all seriousness, when I first saw it I thought, oh what if I don’t like it? What if it’s bad and I have to tell people it’s good!
As if it’s going to be bad!
When you make a movie for the first time, you are like, oh do we know what we’re doing? But it’s genuinely a really lovely film, I’m quite proud of it. It’s really delightful. It’s funny, sweet, charming, some nice songs, it’s a cutie. It’s a really cute little movie, and I’m very pleased.
Well I anticipate seeing it at least 3 times, twice with my kids, so…
Well it’s the kids we’re making it for, if the parents are into it, well that’s great but obviously the primary audience is what do the 7,8,9 year olds think of it. If they like it, job done.
How did you get into history?
I’ve always been into history, but I studied history at university, obviously trained as a historian. I couldn’t afford to do my PhD, but wanted to do public history, public engagement, so I got into the TV industry. I’ve done it for fifteen years, now I write books, and I do stuff like podcasts and so on.
My eldest son is reading history, and we’re saying to him, what are you going to do with this degree?
It’s a very useful degree, excellent transferrable skills. It’s all about critical arguing, logic, analysis, it sources texts, it’s good stuff.
It’s encouraging that he can get into something like this!
It’s a very employable degree, but obviously, it’s also important that he finds it interesting.
What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?
What a great question! No one has ever asked me that!
If you had a dream question…
I think what’s fun is when people flummox you with a genuinely amazing question that you’ve never considered before. A few years ago someone asked me how did people go to the toilet in Ancient Egypt, and I suddenly realised I didn’t know the answer, so I went and wrote a book about it, I wrote a book about the history of daily life. So those sorts of questions, the ones where you go, “I never thought about that”…
Wouldn’t they have done it like the Romans?
Well it’s a very different culture, but the answer’s quite interesting. According to Herodotus, women stood up to pee, and men sat down.
But Herodotus was a bit…
He was not entirely trustworthy no…
So those are the kinds of questions I like. And my book is about the history of daily life, so beds, and toilets, and food and drink and so on.
What was an Egyptian bed like?
Well I just did a Radio 4 programme last week literally about that! They were sloping, they curved in the middle and sloped downwards. Their pillows were solid, made of stone, so they had a headrest rather than a pillow.
That’d be terrible! You’d wake up in the morning and your feet would be all swollen!
But apparently it allowed you to have a nice hairdo!
Ah yes! And you’d be a man who would appreciate a bed that looks after your hairdo!
Yes I do have a lot of hair!
Well thank you so very very much for talking to me Greg!
‘Horrible Histories’ is the world’s best-selling children’s history book series. Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, has published more than 100 titles in the series, selling in excess of 32 million copies in more than 31 countries, and in over 37 languages since 1993. 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the global book franchise.
HORRIBLE HISTORIES: THE MOVIE – ROTTEN ROMANS is produced by Altitude and Citrus Films in association with Scholastic, Lion Television, Ingenious Media, BBC Films, CBBC, Silver Reel and with the support of Amazon Studios.
You can find out further details, including cinema listings and ticket purchasing, at HorribleHistories.film.