‘Michael Palin asked me for royalties’ says Horrible Histories playwright

Neal Foster (as Rex) and Alison Fitzjohn (as Queenie). Picture: Jane Hobson.

Neal Foster (as Rex) and Alison Fitzjohn (as Queenie). Picture: Jane Hobson. - Credit: � Jane Hobson

Lucinda Borrell speaks to Neal Foster about the latest play in the Horrible Histories series.

When former Hampstead resident Neal Foster wrote a 40 minute play based on The Horrible History series for Regents Park, he never dreamed that it would become the West-End’s Longest running children’s show.

Yet five years since Barmy Britain made its debut on the London stage, the show remains a firm favourite with audiences both young and old.

For Neal, who has co-written and directed all four incarnations including the upcoming ‘Best of Barmy Britain,’ there is no doubt that the show’s success lies in the fact that it isn’t specifically written with a young audience in mind, despite being based on a children’s book.

“The original Horrible Histories are 25 years old next year,” says Neal. “We’re all aware that there are a lot of adults in the audience who did read the books when they were younger. I love kids and history but I also love Monty Python and when I write I make sure that I write what entertains me which helps.

“I once sat next to Michael Palin on the tube and I told him I made a living writing Monty Python–style sketches that teach children about history. He laughed and asked if he would be receiving royalties.”

Despite being one of the co-authors of all four shows (alongside the original series author Terry Deary), Neal admits that most of his theatre experience has been as an actor or director.

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Currently he is the manager of The Birmingham Stage Company who perform the Barmy Britain show, but previously he had directed on national tours of Fantastic Mr Fox, Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Jungle Book.

He’s most recently adapted and directed the national tour of Gangsta Granny by David Walliams but admits that before starting work on Barmy Britain, he had only ever written one sketch – 27 years before adapting the original stage show.

Despite this, Barmy Britain – Parts One, Two and Three were all sell out successes and to date there is no sign of Horrible History mania slowing down. On the contrary, Barmy Britain ticket sales are up 40 per cent and the company’s ‘Best of Barmy Britain’ show has moved from the Garrick Theatre, which seats 718, to the 775 seat Apollo theatre close by.

“Of all the Horrible Histories productions, Barmy Britain is the one that works best on the West End particularly because as a ‘children’s show’ we play under other shows that are being performed later on in the evening at the same venue.”

“Once we open at the Apollo we’ll be playing before the Go-Between. Our set designer has had to specifically make our stage on top of their set so we can get the entire thing off in ten minutes after our show ends. This was easiest to do with Barmy Britain and it is actually amazing what has been done.”

Teaching kids the gory part of history is a concept that “translated so naturally” to the stage that selecting the best material from previous shows became challenging when there was so much material to choose from.

“In the end we chose a combination of the funniest sketches, not only in terms of audience reaction, but scenes that the company genuinely love performing.”

These include sketched on The Black Death, Henry VII and a rapping Queen Victoria.

In addition, the show will also celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Magna Carter with a sketch about King John and Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament, which Neal jokes will appeal particularly to adults given the current political climate.

He’s also made sure to include his favourite character William Burke in the show who he describes as being “A wonderful psycho. He was a great charmer who then just started killing his guests.”

So what does Neal predict for the future of the Barmy Britain series?

“We would really love to do more of the Barmy Britain series and it doesn’t seem to be getting any less popular so that’s definitely something I’d like.”

Horrible Histories: The Best of Barmy Britain runs until 3 September at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Tickets start at £15, barmybritain.com