Sunday, February 05, 2012

Playwright who wants to tear up the curriculum

I'm including the full text because as that's the announcement of a particular performance, it might not be kept on the site.

Terry Deary is the author of the phenomenally successful Horrible Histories books and a hero to any teacher who has ever struggled to get an understanding of the past into a child's head.

His 60 titles in the series have notched up 25 million sales in 40 countries by turning children on to history.

They are as far removed from textbooks as Charles I was from his head. This is history with the boring bits cut and the nasty parts pored over.

So when his Horrible Histories stage tour returns to Plymouth from Thursday to Saturday next week, schools will empty to pack out the Pavilions' daytime performances.

Naturally, Deary is delighted – at the schools emptying bit.

"I am campaigning to have all schools shut down and children set free," he says.

But if you're waiting for him to laugh, you're in for the long haul. Deary is deadly serious.

"More schools are failing every week," he continues. "Literacy rates are falling.

"The politicians say, 'we must pour more money in and rescue these schools'.

"What is the point? Why pay teachers to childmind for 12 years, teaching them very little that is useful?

"Teachers are very low-grade people."

But surely he's cashing in if schools pack out his shows?

"The trips are an excuse for teachers to put their feet up," he says. "I am doing myself a disservice by saying that, but it's true."

There is a lot more deeply felt comment on that theme from Deary. He loathes the national curriculum, which he says has promoted the concept of children as empty buckets into which teachers should pour information.

"It's awful. Children get a mark in the exam if they put the date 1066 down [for the Norman Conquest] and nothing if they put 1096.

"But what matters is what happened and why, not the exact date.

"We should be teaching understanding and preparing them for life," he concludes.

Whether you subscribe to that view or not, there is no argument about the reach of Deary's Horrible Histories as books, the stage shows, which he writes, and the award-winning BBC TV series.

The secret, he says, is: "I am not interested in history, I am interested in human nature and the lives of ordinary people in history, not just the kings and queens.

"There is not enough history about ordinary people's lives, especially women and children."

For the record, Deary, now 65, did not enjoy his own time in school. He says he was bullied and beaten by abusive teachers.

The Sunderland-born author worked in his father's butcher shop – a good place to develop a taste for gore, perhaps – and went on to become a professional actor, with theatre companies in Wales.

"For a third of the year we toured to schools," he says. "We ran out of plays for children so I started writing them.

"We always needed new work and I didn't want to ditch the characters so I thought I'd write a children's book."

The rest, it has to be said, is history – except that he suffered 24 rejections from publishers before getting into print.

Much of the established work has dried up – Deary hasn't much faith in publishers, either, at least not in their ability to plan ahead in the face of competition from e-books. Instead he is busy with other writing, including stage work.

The two Pavilions shows, Terrible Tudors and Vile Victorians, include ground-breaking 3D work – Deary is no Luddite – and he eagerly awaits the impact of his latest, Barmy Britain, which opens in the West End this month.

"It will play to children and families during the day, leaving the theatre free for [the musical] Chicago in the evening," he says.

"A summary of 2,000 years of British history in one hour in a two-man show," he promises. That's quite an education.

For tickets, contact the Pavilions on 0845 146 1460 or go to

Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, above, and Protestants versus Roman Catholics in his stage show The Terrible Tudors, top

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