Ranking the Horrible Histories Songs: Part Five, The Top Ten

This is it. We’ve reached the end, the pinnacle, the true masterpieces of children’s television. The top ten Horrible Histories songs. The best of the best (in my humble opinion). These songs are iconic, emotional, truly part of British culture. They’ve taught me so much, and a lot of my love of history is owed to them. I cannot thank the writers of this show for creating them, you are artists and we salute you.

10. Pioneers of Transportation

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This song from series five is often forgotten, but boy do I love it. Firstly, it’s a Greased Lightening parody. Secondly, it involves the whole male cast, and the group efforts always turn out fantastically. Thirdly, there’s great dancing. Fourthly, the lyrics manage to pack a fairly big topic into a two minute song that you can understand and learn from. Documenting the work of George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers, and they made great advances in trains, steam ships, cars, and planes, to create something of a transportation revolution. It’s such an upbeat awesome little number, how can you not love it.

9. Rosa Parks: I Sat on a Bus

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And from feet-tapping musicals we shimmy on over to some old school soul to hear about Rosa Parks. Dominique Moore absolutely knocks this one out of the park (no pun intended) in her account of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which more or less kicked off the Civil Rights movement in America. Again, the HH team take an underrepresented history and present it in the most inspirational way, to one of the best tunes going. The use of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ makes an excellent nod to the peaceful nature of a lot of the civil rights movement. The song takes a small story which represents something so much bigger, and it pulls it off in the most touching way. I love it.

8. The Borgia Family

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FINALLY, some Early Modern subject matter, AND it’s in the top ten. That’s because the Renaissance is the best and we all know it. Anyway, this series four number instantly presents itself as an Addams Family parody within the opening notes of the song: those iconic clicks set the dark and evil tone of the whole song. And boy do the cast do it justice: especially Martha, who pulls one of the best vocal performances of the entire show. It documents the corrupted rise and fall of the Borgia Family, including Rodrigo Borgia who became the notorious Pope Alexander VI between 1492 and 1503. They were power-hungry and notorious, and the song captures the essence of them perfectly. Also, Mat Baynton as a Machiavellian Prince? YES PLEASE.

7. Dick Turpin

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Mat. Baynton. In. Eyeliner. Okay yes he looks incredible dressed as eighteenth century highwayman Dick Turpin, but there are several other reasons why this song has made it into the top ten. It is an EXCELLENT parody of Adam Ant’s Stand and Deliver: the perfect song to document the life of Dick Turpin. It captures the nature and sound of the song perfectly, slipping in little references to other songs by the artist, and the video makes great homage to the 1981 original. It also demonstrates one of the key aims of the show: to dispel popular historical myth. Nope, his horse wasn’t called Black Bess, and nope, he wasn’t this romantic killer of legend. Instead, ‘a ruthless killer with a ruthless killer’s heart.’ But with Mat taking centre stage, it’s hard to completely get rid of the dreamy aesthetic of the story.

6. Born To Rule

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The original. And one of the best. The first ever song from the first ever episode of the show, and it still stands strong and one of the favourites. The Georgian era is often a forgotten period of history, so it’s nice for this number to tell us a little bit more about it. Even if it does reduce the kings down the ‘the sad one, the bad one, the mad one, and the fat one.’ And this is what the show does so well over and over again: capturing historical stories and figures in presenting their essence in the tiniest phrase. The song isn’t parodying any one boyband in particular, but rather the genre as a whole: sitting on the chairs, swaying, standing up on the key change. It’s all iconic, and it remains one of the best songs the show has to offer.

5. Charles Dickens

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Hands down, this is the most sophisticated song in the show. I actually feel like it was written by Morrisey and The Smiths. Wow. Charles Dickens did lead a miserable life didn’t he? But he used this to produce some of the greatest works this country has ever seen. And the song documents the link between the two, which is an area of history little well-known. Well done team. But it’s the parody of the song which makes it rank so highly. Mat captures Morrissey’s voice excellently, and a lot of the lyrics are reproduced and adapted for Dickens in such a clever way. Also, Al Murray features on the drums. Perfection.

4. The Monarchs Song

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If you don’t know the chorus to this song, get out. Just, get out, and go and think about who you are. Because The Monarchs Song isn’t about any artist or music genre in particular, it’s about the great English (and British) Monarchy, from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth II. A simple rhyme and ditty for you all to sing along: and sing along we certainly did. This song has engrained the order of the monarchs in my brain forever more, ready to be utilised in any quiz question or party trick needed. It captures the essence of the show: to teach. If you haven’t learned it, go and do so. Now.

3. The Few

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Another boys group effort making it into the top ten. This time, they’re RAF pilots in the Second World War, parodying Take That like an absolute dream. The upbeat boy-band pop feel of the music is combined with cheesy lyrics referencing several of Take That’s biggest hits. As the opening number to series four, you can really see how the production effort has greatly increased for the show: it’s a slick, well-made, flashy music video. There’s dancing, great costumes, spitfires, the whole works, and really is the pinnacle of what the show can offer. And wow does the Churchill quote at the end really hit you where it hurts.

2. Finale: We’re History

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When the team announced Horrible Histories was coming to an end in 2013, there was a lot of expectation placed on what the final song would be. And I must say, they really pulled it out the bag with this one. It wouldn’t have worked if they had focused on a specific period or individual, so I was so pleased when they produced this epic number documenting every era covered throughout the shows run. It spoke of both the good and bad parts of every historical era, not exactly leaning towards progress, but rather highlighting how if there’s one thing history is, it’s horrible. Yes it’s a Eurocentric story, but that is what the show focused on. Over four minutes, the song builds and builds, creating an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and celebration of the show. It’s emotional. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

1. Charles II: King of Bling

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There could only be one winner. Because this song is an icon of British culture. Featuring way back in Series Two, Mat Baynton’s performance as Charles II is incredible. An Eminem parody, the song captures the essence of this seventeenth century Restoration Monarch in just two minutes, telling us everything we need to know about his reign. He restored the monarchy, he had a wife plus many many girlfriends, he personally helped out in the Fire of London, and he loves to party. It’s the perfect example of the show’s genius of taking a historical topic and transforming it into something we can understand and learn from. Here, they get it exactly right. And that is why it remains our true favourite. King of Bling, we salute you.

 

So there we have it. Every Horrible Histories song ranked, from worst to best. I hope you’ve read this and gone back to listen to them, to remind yourselves of just how great they are. Honestly, this show had an awful lot of influence on me choosing history as my degree subject, and to this day I continue to utilise it in my learning. It works because it doesn’t dumb down history, it dumbs it up, and it stays true to the accuracy of the past. So thank you, Horrible Histories, thank you.

Ranking the Horrible Histories Songs: Part Two, 45-31

In the second instalment of ranking all 60 Horrible Histories songs, we tackle numbers 45 to 31, shimmying into some of the better songs the show has produced. So what exactly makes it good? Whether it puts across good, easy to digest historical information; whether it’s a good parody of the artist or song it’s based off; and beyond that, probably just personal preference. Whether it sounds good, flows right, and just works. It’s hard to justify, I know, and it was even harder to rank these songs, believe me. Part two, here goes.

45. Real Life Cowboys

Real life cowboys sums up the series two songs in a nutshell: there’s the gradual transformation towards better musical writing, but it’s still not quite up to scratch. However, it does stick to the Horrible Histories ethos of dispelling historical myths: MOVIE COWBOYS ARE NOT REAL COWBOYS. There’s also a fabulous dance routine from the boys, and Westerns are cool I suppose. So overall, it’s pleasant, but not particularly memorable or mind-blowing.

44. Work Terrible Work

The genius of the Horrible Histories’ songs comes in their parodying of artists and genres linked to the historical topic they’re portraying. But for Work Terrible Work, a series 3 song, the parodying is just too obvious, and it makes it not work. It documents the traumas of child labour in the Victorian period, but as Oliver the musical already does this, it doesn’t feel like there’s much thought involved in the song. It’s not sophisticated.

43. Victorian Inventions

Much like ‘I’m A Greek’ from series one, this series two number details the great inventions of Queen Victoria’s reign. And there are an awful lot. But with so much information being thrown at you, detailing everything from the automobile, roads, and steel, to cameras, lightbulbs, and typewriters, the educational value can get lost. Surprisingly, it doesn’t.

42. Alexander the Great

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In theory, this series five performance should be higher up the list, considering this was when the creative minds of the show were at their very best. And true, it has a sophisticated tone to it, creating big stadium rock sounds, and is sung well by Ben Willbond. But I just think it’s a bit non-descript and goes unnoticed or forgotten.

41. Joan of Arc

This should have been Jessie J’s Do It Like A Dude, not Price Tag. I still wonder about this creative decision to this day. Do It Like A Dude fits sooooo perfectly to Joan of Arc’s story, so I don’t know why they chose this instead. I also find the singing unpleasant.

40. Mary Seacole

One of the great things this show did was shine light on the some of the more forgotten periods, and people, of history. Mary Seacole was a favourite for this, and featured several times in the show’s history, detailing her story in the shadow of the more well-known Florence Nightingale. In series four, they give her her own song, parodying Beyoncé’s single ladies. But the attempt falls flat. It sounds too overproduced and artificial, is a bit clunky, and generally could have been done a lot better.

39. Funky Monks

Hunky, Chunky, Funky Monkey, Get down! What a line. And what a better topic that the corruption of the medieval catholic church. A winning combination, and I really really like this song. But objectively, it’s not particularly sophisticated, and the slow bits are dull. Essentially, it’s a classic series two song.

38. Boudicca

Girl power of a Celtic Queen, yes you badass girl. I love it when the show does songs about powerful women, and this is no exception. The harsh rocky feel just makes you feel angry in itself, like you want to go and kill a load of Romans. Wow it’s inspiring from the original Bloody Difficult Woman.

37. Hieroglyphics

A Jackson Five parody, sung by Mat Baynton (who doesn’t wear much in this song). What’s not to like? Hieroglyphics sound awful to learn, but this song gives us the smallest of glimpses into it. It’s upbeat, fun, and generally inoffensive as a song. Very fitting as we head into the middle of the road pack.

36. Ra Ra Cleopatra

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Note. This is a good song. It parodies Lady Gaga well. Martha is great in it. The production is the high standard of series three. Everything about it says it should be higher up the list. But it isn’t to my taste, I’m sorry. When I listen to the songs, this isn’t one I come back to often, and I don’t really know why.

35. Owain Glyndwr

In taking on a Welsh hero, there’s only one artist the production team could really use for this song. Tom Jones’ Delilah is employed to good effect to tell this fairly unknown (unless you’re Welsh) story of Welsh nationalism. In a series five appearance, the song demonstrates what the show did well: taking a specific song from an artist, but dropping in several lines from their other famous songs too. But again, I find this particular one fairly forgettable.

34. Crassus: I’m Minted

I couldn’t find this one on YouTube. But it’s a parody of Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers, which I expected was going to be used for a song about George III instead, but never mind. From memory it’s a good song, but I probably can’t say anything more specific than that.

33. Aztec Priests: Not Stayin’ Alive

Lawrence Rickard doesn’t often appear in songs, but when he does, it’s special. This Bee Gees number is no exception, detailing the death rituals of the Aztec’s. When I listened to it for this article, I actually found it to be better than I remember: the singing is good, the music production is good, and I remember the video being good too. But, as often with the Horrible Histories Songs, they’re not as memorable when they’re not about a famous figure in particular. Not Stayin’ Alive is a victim of this unfortunately.

32. Evil Emperors

This song had so much potential. It’s Michael Jackson for god’s sake. And it’s the Romans. A winning combination, in theory. However, what I really don’t like about this song is the singing from the four boys. It’s hardly singing, more talking to music. And it ruins it for me.

31. William Wallace Scottish Rebel

The production of this song is great: it has a great hard rock sound, Ben’s singing, complete with Scottish accent, is great, and the story is easy to taken in. But the reason this song isn’t higher up the list is because it isn’t parodying anything in particular. Taking on a specific artist is what makes the show so special, and unfortunately, this one doesn’t fully make use of that.

 

So that’s the end of the bottom 30 songs! I’m sorry if some of your favourites have been included in here (fight me in the comments). But from here on, we’re dealing with the really good stuff, and I’m so excited.

Review: Usborne’s Politics for Beginners

Recently, the British Election Study team published a report discussing the ‘youthquake’ of the 2017 election. In the weeks and months after June 8th, it was largely thought that Corbyn’s ‘success’ was due to an overwhelming turnout by the 18-24 demographic, but it turns out that this wasn’t exactly the case. Instead, the youth vote didn’t significantly change between the 2015 and the 2017 elections, but rather there was a bigger jump for the 30-40 age group. But there still seems to be general opinion that the youth just aren’t interested in politics. That isn’t good, so what do we do about it?

Luckily, the lovely people over at Usborne Publishing have put together Politics for Beginners, a no-nonsense guide to politics for children (and adults). It’s being published this month, and they sent me a copy to have a look through. At first glance, the book is instantly tackling the ‘politics is boring’ stereotype. With bright colours, captions, and cartoons, it looks exciting and intriguing, but in a sophisticated way. It may be aimed towards children, but not once does it talk down to them. From the off, it’s asking the basics: ‘what do kings and queens do?’ ‘am I a citizen?’ and ‘who decides what is legal?’ These are the fundamental foundations that we so often assume we already know, but we can’t study politics if we haven’t nailed down the answers to these questions.

Inside, Politics for Beginners is split into six sections: All kinds of governments, political systems, elections and voting, political change, political ideologies, and big questions. It goes back to ancient political systems of Greece and Rome, and continuously cites historical examples when discussing ideology and big political questions: from the Russian Revolution to the Iraq War, to the story of Hannah Arendt. Most importantly, it doesn’t pass too much judgement on different ideas, but rather subtly presents the pros and cons, which aims stimulates thought and discussion for the reader.

I expected it to be more based on modern British politics, but this isn’t the case. It has international scope, and provides the foundations for readers to go on to engage in the British system. There are charts of ‘where do you stand’ as either a socialist, conservative, communist, fascist, classical liberal, or anarchists, and questions on whether you’re a capitalist or not. So hopefully it leaves the reader with some confirmation of their views, it certainly did for me.

The last section, on ‘big questions’ is by far the most relevant to contemporary politics. And the questions are tricky to answer: is there such a thing as human rights? Why are some countries richer and some countries poorer? What is freedom of speech? And is underrepresentation a problem? Even as someone heavily involved in politics, I’m still not entirely sure about these issues, and Politics for Beginners introduced the discussions well. It leaves the reader thinking hard, even if they don’t come to any conclusions about issues.

So to put it simply, Politics for Beginners is great, and I recommend it to every child and adult who wants to learn a little bit more about politics. It’s informative, and it really gets you thinking. It’s exciting, and it’s layout doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading about politics. It’s rich with content, but never feels overwhelming. It inspires, offering suggestions of ways you can get involved in the political system, from writing letters to your representatives, to protesting, or even standing for office. I loved reading this book, and I hope so many others do too.

https://usborne.com/browse-books/catalogue/product/1/12821/politics-for-beginners/