Just imagine if there was NO CHRISTMAS. Believe it or not, the Yule was once banned in England for 11 years. This is just one of the fascinating, historical facts you’ll learn if you take a festive, family day out to see a Horrible Christmas.
We had a chat with West End actor and director Neal Foster to whet our appetite for this exciting family show.
How did you first become involved with Horrible Histories and what attracted you to the idea of adapting the books for the stage?
The writer Terry Deary had the genius idea of telling history to children by concentrating on the gory, disgusting, naughty, silly and hilarious stories of people throughout the ages. In 2004 we had a wonderful Education Director who suggested we should think about turning Horrible Histories into great stage shows. So I searched for Terry Deary’s telephone number on the internet and rang him to ask if he would be interested in creating a Horrible Histories theatre production with us. Fifteen years later we’re still having glorious fun together.
How do you develop the script so that it works for all ages, particularly the youngest members of the audience?
The amazing thing about children is that once they get over the age of five, there’s almost nothing they can’t handle or understand. We’ve found that we can cover almost any topic and tell the story in a way that both children and adults can enjoy it together. We make huge efforts to avoid the need for a child to turn to its parent and ask: “Why is that funny?” or “What does that mean?”. Everything has to be really clear but children constantly surprise us with what they understand and enjoy.
The Horrible Histories series is a fantastic way to engage children who might not learn as much in the classroom. Do you regularly get positive feedback from parents and teachers?
We often get adults telling us they may have enjoyed the show more than their children. That’s because a lot of us think we know certain stories from history, but Horrible Histories' speciality is taking familiar stories and telling the truth about an event or revealing facts which surprise and amaze. So even history graduates tell us they learn a lot from the shows.
Is it linked to the school curriculum?
We don’t specifically tailor our shows to the curriculum but we do end up covering a lot of periods which children study at school.
Did you like history when you were at school?
I loved history at school because I was lucky to have two brilliant history teachers who used to stand at the front of the class and simply tell fantastic stories about the past. They were so inspiring I ended up doing two history A levels.
The Guardian has said that "The Horrible Histories stage shows have become a bit of a British institution". How does it feel to have created such a phenomenon and to know you will go down in history yourself?
Horrible Histories has become a huge part of my life and I can’t imagine life without it. We’ve been invited to perform our shows at Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, The Palace of Westminster, The Tower of London, Warwick Castle, Hillsborough Castle and throughout the world, including Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, New Zealand and the Sydney Opera House. It’s been an extraordinary adventure.
Who do you play in Horrible Christmas?
I play the fabulous parts of Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, Henry VIII, St Nicholas and perhaps my favourite of all – the Innkeeper himself!
Does Horrible Christmas involve lots of audience participation?
There’s a lot of audience participation in the show and it’s great to see the audience getting so involved
Are there Christmas carols?
We have a few carols in the show and a lot of funny songs
Will parents enjoy it too?
This is the sixth year we have performed the show and from our experience parents absolutely love it. It’s full of fun, songs, jokes and the history of how Christmas came to be what we celebrate today.
Are all the Horrible Christmas facts from Terry Deary’s books or did you discover extra ones for the stage play?
Terry has filled the show with fabulously fun facts and we keep adding more to make it a fantastic journey into the history of Christmas.
How do you know how Horrible to make it?
This is very much a Christmas show so there isn’t anything very horrible about the production. What makes it different to all our other Horrible Histories shows is that it is also becomes very touching and beautiful at the end, so it’s a really joyous experience
The Birmingham Stage Company has become one of the world’s leading producers of theatre for children and their families. What is the best part for you personally to have achieved global success on that level?
I love performing in front of different audiences around the world. One of my favourite experiences was performing Twelfth Night in Dubai and finding the Arabic audience understood Shakespeare’s jokes better than the audiences in England.
You’ve played a huge variety of roles, from Iago in Othello to Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine. Does this help with portraying characters in the Horrible Histories productions or is it a totally different process/style of acting?
Every part you play helps you understand yourself and how to act better. But Horrible Histories requires a type of acting that I’ve found very few actors can perform. It’s a combination of old-style vaudeville and totally truthful acting. I grew up watching Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howard, Sid James and Monty Python and they taught me more about how to act in Horrible Histories than anything else.
When you launched the BSC you hosted some of the biggest names in showbusiness for your fundraising interview series An audience with…Alan Bennett, Dame Judi Dench, Michael Frayn, Dustin Hoffman, Sir Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Sir Ian McKellen, Prunella Scales and Sir Donald Sinden. If you could cast any or all of these national and international treasures in Horrible Christmas what role would you give them, and who would play the big man himself?
Dustin Hoffman would be my first choice for the reindeer and Dame Judi Dench would be brilliant as Shirley Holmes the detective. Prunella Scales would be a fierce Mrs Cromwell and Sir Donald Sinden would be a brilliantly bombastic Henry VIII. To round it off, I think Sir Ian McKellen would be a classic Santa Claus. Sir Derek Jacobi became our patron so I’d give him the prize part of the Innkeeper!
What is your best, most dreadful Christmas joke?
What kind of motorcycle does Father Christmas ride? A Holly Davidson.
Does Horrible Christmas turn out less horrible in the end?
The show has a surprisingly moving finale which brings all the family together, so it’s a wonderful way to end the adventure.
Treat your family to a joyous journey through the history of Yuletide at the Opera House with a Horrible Christmas, 13th-29th December. Book tickets here.