Use the guise of comedy

Greg Jenner

Greg Jenner is a British public historian with a particular interest in communicating history through pop culture

As a historian, I am driven by discovering new information and facts. I enjoy reading New Scientist every week and it doesn’t matter to me whether it is science, politics or history I just want to know more about the world around me.

But let’s be honest, not everyone is like that. Many people are put off by a simple mention of the topics of science or history, and will flip the page of a magazine as soon as they read one of these dreaded words. I don’t know whether this is because of a bad experience at school or maybe they just aren’t interested in peering back into the past to learn about facts they don’t believe are relevant to their lives.

While checking the factual accuracy of Horrible Histories for the BBC, I realised that a good way to engage those children or adults is to teach history through stealth under the guise of comedy. This brings a potentially dry subject alive.

Take Cleopatra, the Egyptian Queen who lived over 2,000 years ago, what relevance does she have to an 11-year-old today? Well, give her a Lady Gaga makeover and tell her story through song then you access a totally different audience.

I believe the key to the success of Horrible Histories is speaking to your audience in a vernacular they understand. Our frames of reference are familiar to young people – they understand the narrative logic of movie trailers, TV adverts, music videos, the aesthetic of Snapchat and Facebook etc. Much of what we do on Horrible Histories is to use familiar vehicles to smuggle in new information. You can argue we are as much a parody show of 21st century pop culture as we are a history programme.

Isn’t this dumbing down I hear you say? Well, no, I think we all need to work on making our subjects entertaining and accessible to attract audiences who would normally turn the page or change the channel.

Greg Jenner is a British public historian with a particular interest in communicating history through pop culture. He is the Historical Consultant to all seven series of CBBC’s Emmy & multiple BAFTA award-winning Horrible Histories, being solely responsible for the factual accuracy of over 1,600 sketches and 100+ comedy songs, and is the author of A Million Years In A Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age To Phone Age, which is an entertaining romp through the evolution of our daily routines. He tweets at @greg_jenner.

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