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May 4, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Something for the Weekend: Horrible Histories!

I like Horrible Histories very much, and often while away several happy hours watching them on youtube when I should be doing something important. Horrible Histories is a BBC programme for children, based on a very successful series of books by Terry Deary in which the Victorians don’t get particularly good press. The two specific books are Vile Victorians and Villianous Victorians: now, Deary’s USP is the ‘bottom up’ method of history for children – gruesome deaths, bizarre toilet habits, lethal beauty practices, etc – but Georgians are ‘Gorgeous’, Egyptians are ‘Awesome’ (and ‘Awful’, admittedly) and the Greeks are ‘Groovy’. Not everyone gets bad press! Any fans of the show will know that they really don’t seem to like Queen Victoria.

Which brings us to the above. The programme as a whole presents the Victorian period as one of industry, of urbanisation, and of Empire – as a result, the age is also presented as one of cruelty, materialism, and callous acquisition. While I appreciate that this is a children’s show, it is interesting to note that Horrible Histories is relentlessly ‘on message’ when it comes to its periods. Victorians are awful, cruel, mean, factory-owning men; exploited chirpy cockney urchins; a wizened old woman out of touch with reality (that would be the one ruling the country, just to be clear). It’s not necessarily a terrible, cynical thing to focus on certain aspects of one cultural period in order to make a coherent point – but that doesn’t mean that which one you choose does not warrant examination. In this case, the Arts and Crafts resistance of my last post is completely ignored in favour of images of children in factories.

We can probably date the age they are singing about roughly – the Elementary Education Act (1880) made school attendance compulsory for children aged 5-10, while the Industrial Revolution is generally held to have occurred between 1750-1850, and the first Factory Act (which addressed child labour) was passed in 1833.  Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) has as its protagonist the child chimney sweep Tom and is particularly pointed on the subject of child labour.

Having said that, anyone know that tune? ‘Work, Terrible Work’ is sung to the melody of ‘Food, Glorious Food’ from the musical Oliver! (launched as a musical 1960; became universally known when it was released as a film in 1969; based on Dickens’s 1838 novel Oliver Twist)Suddenly, this starts to look multi-layered – the Horrible Histories gang ‘reveal’ a gruesome truth about the Victorian industrial age using images, tropes, and motifs that are as likely to have come from the 1960s as they are the 1860s. Urchins, (terrible) cockney accents, factory owners, sack-like smocks in a fetching shade of grey, co-ordinated dance routines…

While their core message (Victorians employed children! Children like you!) is perfectly correct, surely it is problematic that a programme ostensibly dedicated to revealing the ‘truth’ about history seems unable to clearly indicate the separation of the two eras via cultural indicators? Which is the satire, and which is the precious ‘truth’? As a neo-Victorianist, of course, this is fantastic – clear evidence that our contemporary cultural recognition of the Victorians, and our relationship with them, is irrevocably tangled.

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