Life & Culture

Making Horrible Histories into comedy gold

Songwriter Dave Cohen had a key part in the hit BBC children's show


Dave Cohen has been in the comedy business for 30 years, writing for such shows as Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You. But lampooning politicians or celebrities is not his greatest claim to fame.

He is one of the team that turned Horrible Histories, the BBC’s comic raid on the past, into classic children’s television. The CBBC series — based on Terry Deary’s books — was the first children’s programme to be named best sketch show in the British Comedy Awards.

One of the highlights of the show — whose fifth and final series ended this year — were the songs parodying historical characters in contemporary pop genres. The Leeds-born comic, who is now 55, wrote the lyrics to most of them. There was Charles II rapping as the “King of Bling” or Charles Dickens as Morrissey.

“The thing that I love more than anything,” he said, “is writing songs — to be able to tell a story in three minutes and 200 words.”

When he was recruited for the show, he was “quite nervous”, not having written for children before. “You don’t write a lot differently — you take the swearing out and certain subjects you can’t talk about. Writing jokes for eight to 12 year olds is not a problem because I have got a fairly puerile sense of humour. The whole premise of the show is horrible history — goo and muck, and heads being chopped off, and blood and gore.”

But there was no room to take historical liberties. “There would be times when I’d have a joke in the song and they’d say you can’t have that, it’s not quite accurate enough,” he said.

In fact, the first song he recalls being asked to write was about debunking myths. “The first series showed the influence of Terry Deary’s book. Terry had this bee in his bonnet about all the lies that got told at school.”

Part of one verse in the song went: “I’m afraid I must confess/ Though Dick Turpin was a highwayman/ He never owned Black Bess.”

It was when parents of his youthful audience began stopping the father-of-three at the school gates and asked him if he had written a particular song that the programme’s popularity dawned on him.

He will talk about the show, and his new book, “How To Be Averagely Successful at Comedy”, at the Limmud conference the week after next. Coincidentally, another Jewish comic-song writer, Daniel Cainer — who will be performing his “Jewish Chronicles” at Limmud — also hails from Leeds, although the two only met a couple of years ago.

Cohen’s career has followed a marked different path from his siblings — his brother Rabbi Reuven Cohen is youth director of Leeds Lubavitch, while his sister, Ruth Bell, also Lubavitch, runs the Jewish Heritage Centre there. Religiously, he has diverged from them too, being involved in a new Liberal Jewish group in Crouch End, the North London district where he now lives.

After Bristol University, he went into journalism. “I’d like to say I was at the Observer — it was actually the Pontypridd Observer”. But in late 1983, he moved to London “not really knowing what I wanted to do — and I ended up writing for radio and TV shows and doing stand-up comedy.”

He supplied material to Week Ending, the topical Radio 4 series where many a comic writer cut his teeth. In 1984, a show he co-wrote was nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The London circuit already had alternative comedians like Alexei Sayle. “After the success of The Young Ones [the anarchic TV show on student life], all the people doing the comedy circuit suddenly were big telly stars and so there was a bit of a void,” he recalled. “I was lucky enough to start performing when demand for performers was much greater than supply.”

He believes that he was responsible for coining the phrase “comedy is the new rock’n’roll”. But he quit stand-up in 1994, returning only last year for his show “Songs in a Flat” last year. For the show he revived “Sin in the Synagogue,” one of the numbers he used to perform as the guitarist in the spoof Jewish rock band, Guns N Moses, in the late 90s – although, he said, “I was actually the only Jew in the band.”

Over the years his credits has extended to TV sitcoms such as My Family and Not Going Out and he took a humorous look at the Jewish world in his 1999 radio series Travels with My Antisemitism.

An eighth series of his spoof musical show 15-Minute Musical will be broadcast on Radio 4 over Christmas and the New Year. It was his partner on that series, songwriter Richie Webb, who brought him to Horrible Histories.

The forthcoming 15-Minute Musicals include a camp send-up of Vladimir Putin, a Britpop Nigel Farage and “Goodbye Mr Twits – that’s about Michael Gove.” In one of their early collaborations, post-Iraq War, they cast American President Bush as “George W Formby, playing his ukulele” – a word which handily rhymes with “Israeli”. But, he added, “it’s very hard to do anything about Israel on Radio 4 because you get such grief really, however much of a middle line one tries to take.”

His book offers practical tips to would-be comics. But occasionally he has been almost lost for words. At one comedy class he gave in the 1990s, a young journalist came along wanting to do a piece on it for radio. The visitor then demonstrated his own stand-up routine – “which was the most insane act,” Cohen remembered. “I could not think of what to say to him. I couldn’t say that being a mujahideen terrorist without any jokes is not going to get you very far.”

Ten years or so later that he realised what had actually happened. He was watching some outtakes from the film Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s creation. “Borat was in a deli in America and there was rack upon rack of cold meat. And Borat went up and down each rack, asking ‘Is this meat’ ‘Is this meat?’”

The deli owner’s bemused expression reminded him of his reaction to the performing terrorist. The young journalist had been Sacha Baron Cohen. “I suddenly twigged – I was one of his early wind-up victims.”

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