Do you know the unluckiest day of the festive period or who sent the most Christmas cards in British history? Horrible Histories does, and to celebrate the Christmas run of the hit show Barmy Britain Part Two!, star and co-creator Neal Foster exclusively fills us in on how the show came to the West End and divulges the company’s favourite five perfectly gruesome festive facts…
Birmingham Stage Company has been producing Horrible Histories live on stage for nine years, but one of our most successful shows Barmy Britain started out as a show for Lollibop [the UK’s largest children’s festival] in Regent’s Park, for which we put together some of our favourite scenes for a 40 minute performance.
A week later Nimax Theatres called us and asked if we wanted to bring Horrible Histories into the West End and I realised that Barmy Britain would be the perfect vehicle. Inspired by Tommy Cooper, when he used hats and props to create multiple characters, Terry Deary and I wrote four new scenes and Barmy Britain was born! We had no idea it was going to evoke such a fantastic response and it became the longest running children’s show in West End history!
We set about writing Barmy Britain Part Two! with entirely new material and that seemed to work even better. It combines a host of stories about London and the country that even adults don’t know, so they are entertained along with their children. Sydney Opera House came to see it and a few months later we found ourselves performing the show in their Concert Hall to a sold out house; now the production is touring to Dubai, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Singapore and back to Australia for a tour of the country.
The secret of the show is that we aim to entertain first and to teach the history under the radar, so the audience doesn’t realise how much they’ve learnt until the end. It’s learning by accident! But it’s fascinating to discover how much information you can pack into a short sketch. We sometimes contact universities to look over our scenes to check the facts and emphasis. For example, our scene involving General Haig and Lord Sugar was checked by the foremost expert in World War I, Professor Gary Sheffield. We take our history very seriously, however silly it gets! It’s a great family show because it generates so much conversation afterwards as everyone leaves discussing their favourites stories and new facts. Now I’m also performing in the show, it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved with.
To celebrate Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part Two!’s Christmas run at the Garrick Theatre, here are five Horrible History gruesome, disgusting and downright astounding Christmas facts:
1. William the Conqueror thought Christmas Day 1066 would be a good day to have his coronation. All his lords watching inside Westminster Abbey gave a huge cheer when the crown was put on William’s head but unfortunately the guards outside thought there was a rebellion going on and started burning down all the houses in the area giving the population of London a real roasting Christmas!
2. In 1975 Werner Erhard sent a record number of Christmas cards – 62,824. Bet his arm ached after signing ‘love from Werny’ so many times!
3. The reason why carol singers knock on your door and pester you when you’re trying to watch your favourite TV show is that hundreds of years ago they were thrown out of the churches! Medieval priests were upset by carol singers who danced through their churches at Christmas. The priests claimed they were doing the work of the devil so threw the carollers out and ever since they have gone round singing outside houses instead.
4. Good King Wenceslas, celebrated in the carol of the same name, was actually a duke not a king. In AD 929 Wenceslas of Bohemia spread Christianity throughout his country. This annoyed his mother and brother who met him at a church door and chopped Wenceslas to pieces – he didn’t do a lot of gathering winter fuel after that!
5. 28 December has often been thought an unlucky date. In many countries no one would marry or start a new building on that day. There was even an old English custom of beating children on that day to remind them of Herod’s cruelty in massacring all the babies in Bethlehem. Luckily this custom seems to have stopped by the 18th century!
Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part Two! plays at the Garrick Theatre until 3 January. You can book tickets through us here. The show is also one of many family productions taking part in this year’s Get Into London Theatre promotion.