By Jeremy Miles
Sitting in his studio deep in the Dorset countryside illustrator Martin Brown tells me he’s a lucky man.
He recalls a day, long ago, sitting around an office table with the writer Terry Deary, an editor and an art director sketching out plans for a yet to be realised childrens project.
It was a bright notion called Horrible Histories. The idea was to package up history in words and drawings in a way that kids would lap-up. How better than to deliver a warts-and-all look at the filth and the fury behind so called civilisation? It would go on to become an astonishing success - first a best selling-series of childrens books and now a BAFTA-laden TV show with Stephen Fry at the helm.
It’ s a British Comedy Award winner, a series of regular touring theatre shows and also became a big hit as part of the 2011 Proms. Martin says he was amazed to find himself sitting in the Royal Albert Hall this summer watching thousands of people loving every minute of the Horrible Histories production.
“I had to pinch myself. “When I think back to how it started. How we said ‘OK, we’ll give it a go and if it works maybe we can do some more.’ “Years later there I am sitting in the Albert Hall with thousands of people cheering. It was pretty humbling actually.” Not bad for a man who originally set out to be a cartoonist.
Since those early days, nearly 20 years ago, Horrible Histories has become a British institution. The books have sold a staggering 20 million copies worldwide and the critically acclaimed Birmingham Stage Company productions, The Ruthless Romans and The Awful Egyptians, are on tour. They arrive at Poole’s Lighthouse Arts Centre in November, two separate live shows playing the theatre from November 22 to 26 Like the books they are informing and entertaining but tell some thoroughly unpleasant truths about human beings capacity for cruelty in the name of advancement.
Among those in the audience at Lighthouse will be Martin himself who tells me he’s never actually seen these particular stage shows.
“I’ll be there purely as a punter and I’m really looking forward to seeing them. It’s such fun”
Australian born Martin admits his own education in European history was “broad but shallow”. I’ve learnt so much doing this.
Living in the 21st century amid the delights of rural Dorset is, he agrees, in a fairly safe position from which to view the horrors of the past.
He moved to the county from North London many years ago “swapping a shoebox for a three bedroom house near Blandford Forum” to accommodate a growing family. It has been home to Martin, his wife Sally and two daughters Emmy and Bella ever since. He has absolutely no regrets.
“I think this area is one of the best kept secrets in the country, I honestly do. People go past us on the way to Devon and Cornwall. That’s fine, they can just keep going. But we’re only two hours away from London and we’ve got some of the best beaches in the country. I’m sure one of these days the penny’s going to drop and you won’t be able to move around here.”
Martin says that when he first moved to Dorset he thought he’d be returning to the capital regularly. It never happened. “I go for a meeting now and I just can’t wait to get on the train and come home. We’re in an enviable position. People save up all year to come on holiday to places like this and we get to live here.”
Happily the success of Horrible Histories has ensured that the rural idyll enjoyed by the Brown family continues. Better still, Martin loves the work. “Let’s just say I can think of worse ways to earn a living,” he chuckles.
He admits that hopes of being something of a rebel tend to be dashed by the fact that teachers love the books almost as much as the kids.
“They’re very popular with a lot of teachers which is a little dismaying, particularly for Terry, as we really do try to slaughter as many sacred cows as possible.”
However he agrees that while Horrible Histories sets out to be “fairly disrespectful”, the facts are not a million miles from what you get at school, They’re just delivered in a slightly different way.
“If you were to try and design a national curriculum - given the broad strokes of history that you have to try and impart - you wouldn’t have a section on the way the Tudors hung their backsides over the edge of a bridge to poo into a river or the way the Roman’s wiped their bums with a sponge on a stick, but the kids love that kind of thing and it opens the door to understanding the way these people lived.
Commentating on current debates about how behaviour in present day society is gradually disintegrating, Martin is in no doubt that we are living in a very much more enlightened society than the one endured by the Romans. “The fact that riots and looting on our streets cause such shock and anguish is an indication of how rare such things are. We might marvel at the achievements of the Romans but the fact is they got there by pretty dubious means. We don’t have slaves for a start. Roman society was built on slavery and the way they treated what they called their undesirables was absolutely horrible. Cruelty was normal. It’s not just hyperbole or Hollywood, the Christians were quite literally thrown to the lions. At least in our society people have human rights.”
*Horrible Histories plays Lighthouse in Poole from Tuesday 22nd – Saturday 26th November 2011 with performances of Awful Egyptians and Ruthless Romans. For tickets or further information call 0844 406 8666 or go to the Lighthouse website at www.lighthousepoole.co.u