Back on Brexit Day in 2020, the BBC provoked ire by screening a compilation episode of Horrible Histories that dared to suggest that Great Britain wasn’t all that great, actually. It put all of the right noses out of joint (Andrew Neil, Piers Morgan, the Daily Mail), so it’s gratifying to see that with Barmy Britain – fresh from a London run – the Horrible Histories crew are very much doubling down.
The two-man stage show is a characteristically anarchic romp through time, a timely corrective to the nationalist narrative, not so much portraying a history of the great and the good, wise and benevolent monarchs and glorious military victories as a procession of sadistic power-crazed egomaniacs, grasping opportunists and inbred cranks. Tales of hubris, idiocy and bizarre behaviour abound. Along the way, we learn of the Scots’ ill-fated attempt to set up a colony in Panama in the late 17th century – a move that practically bankrupted the country and led to forfeiting independence from England – and meet Edward Jones, the teenager who repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace for a look around Queen Victoria’s gaff.
This being Horrible Histories, there are some sharply observed parodies – of Top Gear and The Apprentice, in particular – and lots of songs (though, sadly, none that are quite of the quality of the TV show’s reworked versions). And, of course, there’s plenty of grisly, gory detail and toilet humour for the younger members of the audience to enjoy. Naturally, nothing raises a louder laugh than courtier Richard de Vere, 17th Earl Of Oxford, bending to kiss Elizabeth I’s hand and emitting an extremely long, squelchy and multi-tonal fart.
The show’s irreverence extends to the present day too, with mockery of the government and the current king and sly references to Prince Andrew’s predilection for visiting the Woking branch of Pizza Express. It effectively baits/trolls those who tediously complain that the TV programme is guilty of promoting a woke agenda and rewriting history, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that it’s simply adopting a more honest and less blinkered perspective on both the past and the present.
Primarily aimed at children though it may be, Barmy Britain has a deliciously subversive satirical streak disguised behind the silliness – one that, with the Tories once again drunk on jingoism and exceptionalism, underlines the fact that Horrible Histories is a national institution actually worth celebrating.
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Sat 23 Sept
words BEN WOOLHEAD