Art of Horrible songwriting

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The music composer of the hit TV show based on the Horrible Histories books, Richie Webb, is coming to Sheffield next week to speak at the Children’s Media Conference.

The extent of its success seems to have surprised everyone. “We were starting from a point where the brand had been established by the books but the TV seemed to hit a nerve and was popular right from the off and it snowballed from there to the extent there are now Proms at the Royal Albert Hall,” he says.

You won’t get Webb (pictured) to proclaim it, but it’s the songs which have given Horrible Histories its broad appeal with their pastiches of different pop styles whether a Viking heavy metal band or the Charles II King of Bling rap. So where do the ideas come from? “The process is a team thing,” says Webb. “There’s the producer and the historical consultant and it’s really four of us in a room tossing around ideas. The historical facts get presented to us and we go from there. Dave Cohen will write the lyrics and then I will write the tunes.”

Not only that but he plays all the instruments which are recorded in a studio near his home in Warwick, Most of the time the style will emerge through discussion, although “on the last series the producer made one demand that there should be a Smiths package somewhere (and he obliged by fitting it to a portrait of Charles Dickens as a tortured soul).

“In terms of writing in styles I have done so many pastiches that it comes easily and it’s something I enjoy doing. The challenge is coming up with the idea but whether it’s Simon and Garfunkel or Jessie J I enjoy doing it.”

He says his ambition is always “to write good tunes rather than songs for kids,” although with CBeebies you try and come up with “something hooky for two or three year olds who you want to be shouting back at the telly.”

Horrible Histories is different. “I am amazed how children have taken to the songs. The lyrics that namecheck all the kings and queens is a real tongue-twister and you would never write it for them to learn but it’s become a playground song.”

The father of children aged 14 and 10 is described as comedy writer, actor and composer. “About 50% of my work is music, 25% writing and 25% acting,” he explains. He does a lot for Radio 4 for whom he has just finished the third series of The Music Teacher which he writes and plays the title role of Nigel, a musician who feels he has wasted his talents.

Although he was briefly a primary schoolteacher, this is clearly not autobiographical.

At the Children’s Media Conference which takes place in Sheffield next week from Wednesday to Friday Richie Webb will be on a panel discussing how important music is to young viewers.

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