Monday, 13 December 2010

In Praise of Children's TV: Terry Deary's Horrible Histories

AS evidenced by my trip out to see the mighty Big Howard and Little Howard show on Saturday afternoon, my life is less hardcore political stand-up these days and more children's telly.
Now, unluckily for Miss H, being comfortable 21st Century 'pretendy' lefties, me and Mrs H have decided that there'll be no Disney Channel in the house, so Children's BBC is our mainstay.
Luckily the BBC is producing a handful of the best programmes airing anywhere on the planet, and the two funniest.
The first is the aforementioned BH&LH and the other is Horrible Histories, adapted from the best selling books by Terry Deary - more than 200 and counting. His latest WII novel Put Out The Light, signed by the author for Miss H on Saturday at an in store, is being devoured. It's a multi POV book which looks at the blitzes of the second war and how they affected both British and German Cities.
However, I think Deary will be known most for Horrible Histories because it's funny, witty, clever, intelligent and iconoclastic in its approach to explaining history to the pre-teen market.
Sure, it's light on context, but it makes up for its lack of methodological rigour in its post modern plundering of pop culture to explain the Romans, the Greek empires and British history of all eras. I have a friend who teaches Egyptology at the University of Liverpool who uses a sketch in an introductory lecture to first years.
The actors help too: Mathew Baynton, known for his work as Deano in BBC's Gavin & Stacey, Sarah Hadland (from BBC's Miranda), Martha Douglas Howe and the annoyingly talented Ben Willbond are among the pick of a cast which really gathers together a who's who of modern British comedy's top acting talent.
By far the funniest actor on display in the funniest ongoing sketch is The Mighty Boosh's Simon Farnaby as Death in the section called Stupid Deaths, where, er, stupid historic deaths are brought to life.
The sketches are brilliant but for my money it is the songs that win out every time. From heavy metal Vikings to High School Musical Spartans, its' clever appropriation of modern pop idioms to explain broad historical themes and periods - it is both laugh out loud funny and bears frequent watching, as our house can testify.
My favourites, however, are the Westlife style parody of the four King George's of England and the tipper toppermost is Baynton as Charles II of England as an Eminem-style, self styled rapping King of Bling.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Little Howard And The Magic Pencil Of Life And Death

Venue: Lenny’s Bar & Grill, Liverpool

It’s been a rite of passage of mine to bring young Miss H to her first comedy gig, I got to do that today thanks to Little Howard And The Magic Pencil Of Life And Death and the wonderful Tongue in Cheek Comedy organisation in Liverpool.
Part cartoon, part scatological children’s book and part stand-up, Little Howard And The Magic Pencil Of Life And Death is a brilliant vision of comedy at its truest.
Ostensibly children’s show, but with much double entendre-ing for the adults, it is an inventive riot of ideas.
(Big) Howard Read, stand-up and illustrator, took his animated six-year-old alter ego, Little Howard, on a journey to avoid the dark menacing force of Cartoon Death, (actually called Rodney and really Read in a Grim Reaper suit), as the latter seeks to steal back the magic pencil of life and death which allows you to invent and obliterate cartoon characters.
Little Howard and the various other characters come to life on the video screen thanks to Read’s masterful illustration and the wonders of an Apple Mac and a projector.
It’s an anarchic, witty brilliant show with 10 times the number of ideas than the average comedy show - especially in an era dominated by the cheap alpha male macho posturing of TV panel shows.
The first half was ostensibly a warmer for the post interval Magical Pencil of Death segment, which was, in itself, an extended CBBC show on stage.
But, in the first half, the illustration games, audience interaction, which saw children from the audience get up and ‘play’ with Little Howard, was just as enjoyable and, again, more inventive than any show I have seen for a long time.
In the second half Big and Little Howard defeat Rodney (Cartoon Death) but only after Little Howard uses the magic pencil to turn himself into a ‘real’ 3D boy who hovers round the room thanks to the 3D glasses distributed by Read, sorry, Rodney.
You’d be hard pressed to find any theatre experience more riotous, more funny or more life affirming than this as you hear children laughing like drains in a comedy club at three in the afternoon.
At the end of the day, the show’s success is all down to Read himself. He’s a masterful and likeable stand-up in his own right, and leaving aside his illustrations and the brilliant technology that brings the Little Howard world to life in the live environment, his ability to work an audience of any age is extraordinary.
As someone who sees a lot of comedy, I can honestly say that I haven’t laughed as much in years and, more crucially, neither had either my wife or daughter and it was the latter who was most important in our shared rite of passage.