The Horrible Histories franchise has always been a masterclass in how to engage people with the past, and inspire them to learn more. The unashamedly tongue-in-cheek approach, and the fixation on the gory and disgusting truths of history has made it an enormously popular book and TV franchise. It’s strong basis in historical fact, and inspired, subtle ways of imparting knowledge through cartoons, staged scenes, songs, and above all comedy, have made it a favourite with the young (and not so young) generations.
Rotten Romans demonstrates much of the brilliance that underpins the phenomenon. Despite being targeted at young children, the film resists the temptation to oversimplify the past, openly confessing that there are disputes between historical sources, and even pointing out, through the example of uncertainty over Boudicca’s death, the problems of bias that exist due to the majority of our sources from the period having been written by Romans. The film also effectively presents the past in a way that the current generation can relate to, tracking the growth of Boudicca’s uprising through the medium of social media followers, and likening bearskins to onesies. Far from belittling the events and cultures portrayed, jokes such as these are part of the genius of the series, making the past relatable to the modern eight year old, ensuring a giggle from the audience, and, judging from the talk of the crowds as they headed for the exits, providing talking points for kids to revisit after the film.
From a film-making perspective, it has to be acknowledged that there are some blemishes. The plot is a slightly cliché story of ‘girls meets boy’, with the lead characters growing close after initially hating one another. The film is largely carried by the talents of Kate Nash (Boudicca) and Emilia Jones (Orla), whose portrayals of their respective characters contain a depth that is missing elsewhere. The tight budget of the film is also apparent from the small sets, and limited numbers of people on camera. A number of the running jokes quickly become tired, such as Boudicca’s rebellion being depicted as a rock start’s rave, a centurion’s rose-tinted longing for Rome, and a gag based on ‘I’m Spartacus’ (‘I’m Fartacus!’ goes the script).
However, underneath the clichés, and (literal) toilet humour, Horrible Histories has stayed true to its roots, and remembered the reason for its success: presenting a mischievous, gory and ‘gross’ version of the past in order to get kids engaged in history, and encourage them to learn more. In this respect, Rotten Romans is a triumph. Fast-paced yet subtle in the way that it covered everything from warfare (Roman Ballista’s and the Testudo, or Tortoise, formation), Celtic medicine (the use of dog saliva), and even roman numerals (‘Right everyone, you need to give this CX percent!’), it was impossible for kids (both big and small) not to come away educated. Most importantly, the history was centre stage, rather than the convenient backdrop. Roman and Celtic culture, domestic politics, and opposing views on the legacy of the Roman Empire are deftly woven into a story of Nero’s efforts to prove himself as a legitimate ruler, Boudicca’s struggles to unite the rival Celtic tribes, and the debatable premise of Rome’s ‘civilising’ mission. There were also some timely and important subliminal messages on how strong, ambitious women have shaped history, and of the value of appreciating and embracing different cultures. Ultimately, however, the film’s success was proven the closing credits. For once the entire audience did not rush for the exits, but remained in their seats to hear the explanation of the film’s historical basis. Clearly then, in the words of the TV show’s theme song, they had ‘all enjoyed Horrible Histories’.