Sarah Hall: The historical should be hysterical

I would estimate that 97 per cent of the knowledge I have acquired about the ancient Aztec civilisation has been gained from a television programme aimed at 10-year-olds.

The three per cent I already knew was about them living in Mexico and building pyramids. All the interesting stuff has come from a comedy pastiche of the Bee Gees.

Television has also taught me quite a bit about Roman history over the past few weeks due to a series of really good BBC4 documentaries and the repeats of I, Claudius. Between them they filled a sizeable gap in my knowledge of the lives of the wives of Roman emperors. But did this lofty viewing lead me to discover the astoundingly brilliant fact that Romans thought they could be cured of any illness by rubbing a dog all over themselves? No it did not, back over to kids’ TV for this gem of a fact nobody ever taught you in history lessons.

If you do have children you’ve probably already twigged that I’m on about the completely and utterly brilliant Children’s BBC show Horrible Histories. You may also be one of the growing number of childless adults who secretly (or not so secretly in my case) watch it in complete hysterics, the laughter being regularly punctuated with mutterings of “well I never knew that”.

The series is based on Terry Deary’s books which for 20 years now have been getting young readers interested in history by making it as disgusting and gruesome as possible.

The TV show brings all that gruesomeness to life by the way of a comedy sketch show that has to be one of the best written to ever grace our screens.

I could happily witter on about the ingenuity of it all for days but my point is this – if a 40-something can find it so engaging, so entertaining and so educational then what must its target audience get out of it?

Sadly, school history lessons cannot be taught by people in fancy dress instructing children about the social history of the 18th century through a Georgian version of Come Dine With Me. Although if I was in charge it would be and I’d be straight on a teacher training course.

Television programmes, even completely brilliant ones, cannot and should not replace lessons in the classroom but they can make fantastic teaching aids.

In my day we still had schools programming. At least once a week we’d have the TV wheeled into the classroom and be forced to watch something on BBC2 which presumably must have made for pretty dull viewing because I don’t remember any of these shows or anything they taught me.

Thirty years from now there will be people who will know who Rosa Parks was because Horrible Histories featured a really catchy song about her.

Is that a dumbing down of learning? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it matters how you know what you know - as long as you know it.

History has always had an unfortunate reputation for being a dull subject when in reality its the most fascinating thing in the world. Get children interested in it at all costs, that’s what I reckon. And if the historians of tomorrow are encouraged into their profession by a comedy actor dressed as the Grim Reaper laughing at the stupid deaths of the past’s unfortunates then so be it.

And if a few adults get to add to their existing knowledge by singing along to a group of punk Luddites then even better.