Top Ten Horrible Histories Songs: Introducing Katie James
Updated: Apr 26
The wonderful series developed from Terry Deary's books by Dominic Brigstocke and Caroline Norris is well known for hilarious sketches, gut-churning gore, and bringing generations of children into the marvelous world of history through a fact-laden voyage of fun and freakishness. It does so without condescending, Also, just because it is kids TV did not mean they held back or showed any less talent, which many kids shows do, where those involved only want a stepping-stone to an adult TV career. The superb cast and crew throw all they have into it, . Since then we have seen stars such as Mathew Baynton, and Jim Howick progress to a deservedly strong career in film & television.
All of that said though, I think many would agree that one of the things that really made this show was the songs. Funny, catchy, and yukky, but memorable and infectious. A highlight of growing up for millions of children across the world.
At the end of every series, there would be a collection of all the songs from the previous shows. Here is a list showing ten of the best. There were so many excellent entries that it is more of a list rather than a chart
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10 Learn Your Hieroglyphics Season 2 Episode 8
A parody of The Jackson 5's "ABC", sung by Mathew Baynton, with a backing chorus of children.
Matthew is a gangly, handsome, watchable, athletic, clown with excellently coordinated rhythm. Remember Frank Skinner dancing in his pants to Vengaboys? It is even funnier than that.
A travesty-tale about teaching Egyptian language and writing to a modern classroom. Absurd lyrics about using the arbitrary symbols of Egyptian traditional communication from that time, to try and convey simple things such as the phrase "ABC" and "123".
Dry, satirical, and pithy, it is a delicious anachronistic blend of modern sensibilities, behavior, and attitudes, alongside historical costumes, setting, and rules. The result is as pleasing as ever and peppered with hilarious neologisms used in an ancient setting. Works every time.
9 The Borgia Family Series 4 Episode 9
This song parodies the theme tune to The Addams Family and is sung by Jim Howick, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, and Ben Willbond.
It is delightfully-deadpan. The fantastic Jim Howick doing his best over-the-top Godfather persona as he portrays the power-mad papacy-dwelling Alexander VI, one of history's more controversial popes. Focusing on the quest for power in Spain. Then his violent and cruel son, Cesare, who is played with typical aplomb by the ubiquitous Mathew Baynton, and the infamous and bloodthirsty Lucretia, played by Martha Howe-Douglas.
It is particularly fact-heavy and teaches an awful lot about this very violent and world-changing European dynasty. So you could either pause it and learn things, or listen to it and laugh a lot. Either choice it provides the goods.
8 Owain Glyndwr: First Prince of Wales Series 5 Episode 7
this time a parody of Tom Jones classics "Delilah" and "Kiss" performed by Jim Howick with Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, and Ben Willbond.
It is not easy to parody songs that have been parodied and made fun of since they were created.
This time it is done in the backdrop of the 14th century in a nod to the 'First Prince of Wales'. Covering his rise to fame after being falsely labeled a traitor by his neighbor, then his rise to popularity and how he poached one of the Kings men, Henry Hotspur, to his side. It is addressed with the usual silly satire. We learn how Henry IV nearly drowned in his tent in Hereford, but then, as so often they do, it continued to chart the demise of the subject. this time the English monarchy recovers, and sanctions supplies to Wales. The subsequent embargo and the starvation and poverty it caused ensured victory for Henry IV and a great number for Jim Howick.
7 Australia Series 5 Episode 11
Sending up the lovely Kylie Minogue in a blend of her two songs: "I Should be so Lucky" and "Can't Get You Out of My Head", performed by Martha Howe-Douglas with Simon Farnaby and Ben Willbond.
As so often is the case with the HH gang the lyrics are morbid, depressing, gruesome, and describe suffering and blood-curdling vileness, all to Kylie bubble-gum pop joy. Stoic and unflappable, the versatile Martha Howe-Douglas puts so much into her singing you do forget it is not the real Kylie, though the words are very unlikely to have come out of Stock Aitken and Waterman! It is a testament to this great series, just how enjoyably poppy an ode to murderers and thieves being cruelly transported to an unknown land, often dying en-route, can be.
Production values play a huge part. Camera filters, sound effects, and the effort put into the costumes pay off. Those subtle extras that at the time are probably a huge pain, pay off so well in the end.
6 Mary the First Series 4, Episode 10
Sending up another of the most lampooned songs in the pop-world, "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush, performed this time by Sarah Hadland
The physically exerting routine done to this Kate Bush classic is beautifully edited from constant shots of Sarah Hadland leaping and prancing around the grounds of her grand home.
She laments on the attempts to usurp her ascension to the throne, and the subsequent sticky ends those souls came to. It also touches on the rivalry and betrayal by Queen Elizabeth and the protestant reign she ushered in. Humor used in spades to deal with one of the most bloody rulers England ever saw. Set during a time of violence and bloodshed, fueled by intrigue and espionage, religious persecution, torture, and attempted regicide. As always, the HH team is not intimidated and conquers yet another with consummate excellence.
5 Minted Series 5 Episode 4
Dizzee Rascal gets the treatment, his song "Bonkers" is parodied by Simon Farnaby.
It is as catchy and as infectious as the song it is taking off.
The editing and the flashy, nightclub scene and its anachronistic costumes are a total success. One of the most catchy numbers the team did.
Crassus tells all about his enormous wealth, his alliance with Caeser and Rome. The unethical way he increased his fortune and how he was "the world's richest geezer."
Once again, it is someone telling of their sticky demise. Telling us that the rumor of being forced to swallow boiling gold (eeugh!) was false and that he was decapitated and his head used as a trophy in a stage production for the conquerors of this Roman man of ruthless cruelty and megalomaniac power.
Listening to Dizzee Rascal's original, it is hard not to notice the differences but in favor of the Horrible Histories version. Now that is a sign of a good sketch!
4 Charles Darwin: Natural Selection Series 4 Episode 2
One of the longer songs here is a send-up of David Bowie's song "Changes". Sung by Mathew Baynton, with support from Jim Howick.
Dealing with the trip to the Galapagos Isles by Charles Darwin, and noticeably sidestepping the copyright issues in the chosen source song, this is a technical highlight in the world of Horrible Histories songs.
Mathew Baynton's voice is perfectly capable, it has a rise and fall and builds with a genuine effort that leaves us with a very good song in its own right. The cute little send-ups of the stuttered delivery of the song's title in David Bowie's original composition are cheeky and fun.
It is rich in the history it uses. Facts well inserted that are brief, but complete, such as the birds evolving different beaks for different eating needs, the sleeping conditions on the HMS Beagle, as well as the personal and public turmoil Darwin both endured and had thrust upon him by his discovery and subsequent works. This is simply an excellent production. A definite highlight.
3 Charles II: King of Bling Series 2 Episode 2
This time the HH treatment is given to Eminem and his breakthrough hit: "My Name is". sung by Matthew Baynton with support from Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Ben Willbond, Laurence Rickard and Lawry Lewin. It opens with the welcome joy of Charles II proclaiming "I love the people and the people love me." Something that after the misery and pious terror the English population endured after his father, Charles I lost the throne to the New Model Army, was a fantastic boost.
As he points out, the straight-laced and religious purist Oliver Cromwell ruled until he died. After which came The Restoration, where the people decided that parliament had ruined any fun life had to offer. So after years without Christmas, music, plays, or even the Crown Jewels, they wanted a king back, and thus one of England's most beloved monarchs, Charles II was welcomed back on the throne.
He deals in typical HH class, with his imperfections. He mentions his adultery, the great fire (at which point the Eminem influence is very noticeable in the sound), but ultimately leaves a happy vibe with his parties and his reveling in the land and ruling the people who loved him. A lesson to learn that you don't know what you have got until it has gone.
2 Do the Pachacuti Season 2 Episode 12
Here is not a parody of any particular song performed by Mathew Baynton with Martha Howe-Douglas, Alice Lowe and Laurence Rickard (the latter is also of note as he wrote the lyrics). It is a number that deserves recognition as an original lyrical composition. As if that were not enough of a feat, it is, the catchiest song, not just in Horrible Histories, but it would give the most popular music of any age a run for its money.
It is a gruesome song about the Inca chief that was famous for his inventive, yet macabre methods of out-psyching his enemies. Whether it be turning his victims into human percussion devices, or convincing the populace of his supernatural ability to communicate with the earth to win battles.
Another mention is deserved to the superb Mathew Baynton, who uses his general likeability and energetic presence to deliver a performance of addictive catchiness and enduring charisma. As was previously mentioned, this is an original piece of work, and I am sure any person that listened to it twice would have it stuck in their heads for weeks. The greatest songwriters in the world struggle to do this with such impressive overall results. Once again the finished product is a cast-iron reminder of the fact that Horrible Histories is the children's television genre at its very best. Proving time and again that making that extra effort and going that extra mile, whilst painstaking at the time, is rewarding in the end and separates the o.k from the excellent in the annuls of light entertainment.
1 William Shakespeare & the Quills Series 4 Episode 11
Another creation that is not a direct parody of any one composition, rather the music type of "Big Band/Jazz" style.
Mathew Baynton plays the Bard but is assisted by "The Band" in the shape of Ben Willbond, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas, Laurence Rickard and Simon Farnaby.
The mannerisms of the leader of these big band sets are captured perfectly by the seasoned Baynton. If you get the chance and can re-watch it, you will notice subtle little inserts from the "musicians", including the sycophantic nodding along to the vocal solo (as we have all seen in Jools Holland shows!) and some funny modern grooving by Jim and the others in the anachronism that is their place: a functional modern band in Tudor garb.
Then comes the song itself. It is chock full of Shakespeare lines and smooth boasts. The lyrics fit in with such fluid pleasantness that Mr. Bacharach and David would be envious. The band plays along, and it rises and falls where it should and there is the peak, a crescendo set to the immortal line: "You can't have too much, of a good thing!"
A cross between a parody and a damn good little number with some hilariously subtle blink-and-you-miss-it treats that rounds off this fabulous recollection of the creme-de-la-creme.
It is a must for young children across the world. It is not contemporary to any living era so it does not age. It has its detractors but so does everything. If you have kids, let them watch it and enjoy it with them. If you do not have kids, watch it yourself. Then try and stop singing them. Never going to happen.
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All sources direct from the original CBBC Television series "Horrible Histories"
Lion TV/Citrus Television 2009-2013
Co-written by KATIE LOUISE JAMES