Greg Jenner’s original plan wasn’t to be responsible for more than a decade’s worth of Horrible Histories sketches (2000+ to be more exact).
He didn’t set out to teach millions of children that Incans used urine as shampoo, or that Pythagoras died whilst evading a field of beans. Greg Jenner’s original plan was to go down the academic pipeline of PHD to Professor of History.
But a series of knock-on effects meant that he would have to find another route. After a trying time with his mental health, Jenner missed out on a double first as an undergrad, which meant that he had to take out a loan for his masters and left him unable to finance his PHD.
Whilst doing work experience on Days That Shook the World at Lion TV, however, Jenner felt he had found his answer in historical consultancy. For a few years he continued working on documentaries and period dramas before happening to overhear Lion’s Chief Creative Officer saying they had the television rights to Terry Deary’s series of history books for children.
Jenner recalls that, despite being “cripplingly shy” at the time, he stepped outside himself and knocked on the door, saying: “I’m so sorry, I’ve been eavesdropping, but I really need to work on this.
“I don't know what role that would be. I will make the tea, I will do the photocopying, I will be a dog's body. But also, I think you might need a historian on this.”
Greg Jenner worked as the sole historical consultant for the first five years of Horrible Histories, a period which many consider to be its golden age. He later headed a larger team of historians.
Working alongside the writing team at the inception of Horrible Histories, Jenner had a lot of problems to solve. The first: how to ensure younger viewers can both laugh and learn. The answer was 'Rattus Rattus', a puppet narrator-come-historian who is effectively the rat embodiment of Jenner on screen.
“I would be doing what Rattus is doing, saying to the writers ‘no, this is genuinely true’, and we realised we needed a historian not just in the writers' room but also in the show."
“Rattus is essentially footnotes for children, which is an incredibly sophisticated tool. He’s there confirming and denying in situ, live as you watch a sketch. It’s like going to see Oppenheimer in the cinema and having an animatronic historian next to you going ‘he never met Einstein, that’s not true.’”
Another question to answer was who would fill the spare roles of the many corpses and “blinking idiots” required for the background of sketches. Here, Jenner and his self-described “yokel face” stepped up to the plate. “With the curly hair and the beard, I look like I should just be in a ditch somewhere covered in goat poo, I’ve got a very historical face and I’m quite good at playing dead bodies.”
Being in the writers' room, and sometimes assisting with or writing sketches, Jenner often encountered Horrible Histories' head writer and now Ghosts creator and star, Laurence “Larry” Rickard.
What resulted was a writers' room micro-battle where “the joke would always be, writing in the stage directions: 'a character who looks just like Larry Rickard gets covered in poo'.” When the writers returned a week later, the script would have been changed by Rickard to 'a character who looks nothing like Larry Rickard gets covered in poo.'
Despite such scatological skirmishes, across a ten-year run, the Horrible Histories team won two RTS Awards and were nominated for a further six.
From Daisy Jones and the Six to Gentleman Jack the amount of period dramas is ever on the rise. When asked why he thinks this is, Jenner apologises for his “boring technical response”: “It probably comes from the rise of streaming platforms with huge budgets that want big international hits. You’re not necessarily seeing such a focus on dramas made for the domestic market - there’s more of a focus on international co-partnering.”
After thinking for a moment for a more anthropological reason, he does not disappoint: “We don’t want dramas about inflationary crises and global warming disasters. We want to be reassured that people in bonnets are going to fall in love.
“Period dramas are often more about the time in which they're made than the time in which they're set. The past allows us to work through our current fascinations and concerns and allows us the romance and the glamour and the beauty.”
Although this might spark some concern over what the salacious Regency romance drama Bridgerton is telling us about 21st century pent-up sexuality, Jenner reminds us that the trend goes back far further than this, with examples dating back to Shakespeare. “Macbeth is definitely medieval Scotland and NOTHING to do with James I.”
When asked to name and shame some historically inaccurate period dramas, Jenner asserts that its simply not possible to have an entirely historically accurate drama. “To make a drama about the past, you’re always going to have to make stuff up.” There isn’t documentation on the exact words said and the exact food served at a random dinner party in 1603, so, when writing one, you have to make up some details. However, Jenner does think that there are those who try a little harder, namely Poldark or Mad Men.
“Mad Men was incredibly forensic. They were so spot on with their costuming, and really impressive with reading newspapers for that month, that year. They would know exactly what was going on in February 1962.
“Some shows are just like - it’s about a King, off we go…”
Horrible Histories obviously had to take some historical artistic licence. Back in the 16th century, you probably wouldn’t have seen Henry VIII singing an Elvis-inspired “a little more reformation, a lot less monasteries”, accompanied by dancing nuns wearing handcuffs, as he did in Jenner’s song which he says he composed “mostly in the shower.”
Similarly, scholars of the Restoration Period and Hampton Court staff probably didn't expect to see Mathew Baynton as King Charles II "pimp walking" down the table of the Great Hall, surrounded by uninsurable tapestries, as he did when the crew became the first to ever be given the privilege of filming there.
He also points out that Chaucerian dialect doesn’t make punchlines hit quite as hard for children, whereas the sentry saying “alright, bro” will get a laugh. “It’s innately funny to kids when historical people speak like us”.
Jenner speaks of the importance of including historians in creative projects. “If you phone up a historian and say, ‘tell me 10 stories that would be great movies', we can do that in 20 minutes. Our heads are full of them.”
Having written Dead Famous (2020), a non-fiction novel that examines the lives of more than 125 of the world’s first celebrities, Jenner is over-qualified for suggesting a topic for a biography series. His personal passion project is the life and times of the Black British boxer Bill Richmond, who rose to fame in ‘the Jane Austen era’.
“Through Richmond’s life you can see racial politics and the abolition of slavery, the war with America, the war with France, and poverty. There’s gambling, culture, masculinity, art and sculpture, violence in the streets, the role of fatherhood and parenthood, fame, and whether there’s an economic safety net for people who are famous in their 50s. You can examine the entire society through this one man.”
If someone else wants to make it without me, I won’t be angry, I just want the story told.”
Finally, Jenner appeals to all producers to bring in a historian at the conception of their period drama, rather than as a finishing touch. He describes the latter role as more of a historical etiquette coach than a collaborator.
“If you involve historians in your creative projects, they will surprise you. As a screenwriter or a producer, if you get a historian involved, they can tell you stuff that is 100% true that you will not have thought about. It will change the dynamic, the destination, or the route your story might take, because historians are dealing with what people actually did. And sometimes those stories are incredibly unpredictable and bonkers.”
For more of Greg Jenner, listen to his BBC Sounds podcast You’re Dead to Me, or check out his range of books for both kids and adults. All episodes of Horrible Histories are available to stream on BBC iPlayer.