CHILDREN worldwide clearly know it already but Terry Deary is a very entertaining chap. He happily rails against the Establishment, recounts stories from his childhood days and reveals when he goes running it’s to the strains of the Scissor Sisters’ I Don’t Feel Like Dancing.
In between, the writer of the hugely popular Horrible Histories – which have sold 20m copies worldwide – explains that behind his delightfully gruesome tales he means very serious business.
By bringing history – the juicy, interesting bits anyway – alive to children, the 62-year-old is giving them a very different experience to that of school history lessons he remembers as a child.
“We had notes dictated to us and for the whole lesson we’d be copying down what the teacher said, absorbing the sort of facts like the 1066 date of the Battle of Hastings – there was nothing about the human condition. Education is supposed to prepare you for life; knowing the date of the Battle of Hastings does not prepare you for life.”
Reading history books written for adults revealed the kind of unpalatable details which Terry’s readers love hearing about, such as the fact the Battle of Hastings ended with Harold hacked to pieces by Norman soldiers who then marauded about, waving one of the king’s arms above their heads.
You’re not likely to get that kind of colour in a school text book.
Terry is also quite keen to take the lorded great and good down a peg or two. “My job is not to write plays or books. My job is to change the world,” he says. “Primo Levi (the Jewish-Italian writer) said ‘all righteous men should make war against undeserved privilege’.
“I want to give people a proper perspective. Horrible Histories are about the hard-up and unfortunate and showing what evil people the powerful and privileged are.
“The stories of poor people are always neglected and victims of suffering are often the real heroes – like Guy Fawkes.”
His Horrible Histories have just printed in their 40th language: Chinese. And Deary has been described as ‘the most influential historian’ – “by the Daily Tory-graph” he remarks dryly. The irony doesn’t escape him, nor the fact Cherie Blair has spoken proudly of son Leo reading the books.
It seems the Establishment don’t quite ‘get’ Deary. Prince Charles, interested in education, even invited him to give a talk. Terry told him to ‘bog off’, he says but didn’t really: he politely explained it would by contrary to his anti-establishment views. He also hits out at pop star ‘rebels’ like Mick Jagger who accept a knighthood.
Such forthright opinions have made him enemies. “I get hate mail from right-wingers and from the National Front when I wrote a book suggesting that the British Empire not one of the best things to have happened to the world but one of the worst.”
But he sees such reaction as a badge of honour and evidence that he’s doing something right in his world-changing mission.
He’s a cheery chap and tells a story which may go some way to explaining where he gets his thick skin – and sense of humour.
Next week, a stage show of the Horrible Histories – the Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians – opens at Sunderland Empire and Terry, who was born in the city but now lives in Durham, is recalling how he appeared on stage there himself as a child.
“At the age of seven, my mam and dad took me to Sunderland Empire to see a show which had a group from Tyneside who sang traditional songs like Cushy Butterfield.
“Because it was Christmas they wanted people to come on stage to sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
“My dad, who used to perform himself (he was a butcher who played clarinet in a dance band), said ‘go on son, get yourself up there’. So I did.
“And seeing the all the lights, and hearing the applause, I thought ‘this is what I want to do’.
“It was my first experience of going on stage and seeing the audience for the first time made me want to be an actor.”
Then on a later occasion, his father encouraged him to take part in a talent competition while on holiday in Blackpool and young Terry was sent on stage to sing Rudolph again - even though it was July.
Following his father’s instruction, he announced to peals of laughter that he would be singing ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in key C’.
“How cruel is that?” laughs Terry. “Would you do that to a child?” The embarrassment failed to deter him and he went on to become an actor and theatre director.
He joined a theatre company in Wales where he wrote his first children’s play. The sense of ‘there’s nothing left’ when it ended its run prompted his move to books.
And the rest, as they say, is Horrible Histories. He’s now written 185 books, fiction as well as non-fiction.
The idea of adapting his Histories for theatre came from Birmingham Stage Company and Terry’s immediate reaction was: “I wanted to write them and I wanted to star in them!”
He wanted to play Dr Dee, the character he sees, while writing, as himself. In the end it wasn’t to be. “In fact, I haven’t got the time,” he says, “but I did write them.”
But, if not in body, he’ll be re-tracing his seven-year-old footsteps at the Empire in spirit.
“Now, 55 years later, two of my tales are on that very stage!”
Instead of the books fuelling their imagination, gore-loving youngsters will be treated to 3D special effects which Terry and Middlesbrough-based Amazing Interactives have conjured up in Bogglevision.
“Kids today are very comfortable with virtual reality,” explains Terry, “and I wanted to bring that to the stage. “So, because it’s three-dimensional, when a head gets chopped off it lands on your lap!”
Adding to the fun will be the lively stories of Henry Vlll’s wives and the Spanish Armada, then the misery of 19th Century factories, mines and slums, plus ghosts, music hall songs and even the charge of the Light Brigade.
Deary’s young fans will also be delighted to hear he is working on two more Histories for the stage; has been busy with a CBBC series; and hopes to create a Horrible Histories visitor attraction in County Durham.
Right now, though, he’s off to an interview. A radio station has requested his five favourite songs, which is why he mentions the Scissor Sisters track he listens to while out running – “it’s the right beat to pick me up”.
He’s picked out four but struggles to think of a fifth.
Eric Clapton’s Change The World could be as apt a choice as any.
:: Horrible Histories is at Sunderland Empire from Wednesday, September 3 until Saturday, September 6. Visit SunderlandEmpire.org.uk or call 0844 847-2499.