The TV show carries over the graphic style and much of the content of the Horrible Histories book series.It maintains the franchise's overall irreverent but accurate focus on the dark, gruesome or scatological aspects of British and other Western world history, spanning from the Stone Age to the post-World War II era.The books and subsequent spin-off materials are intended to pique young children's interest in history via short, factually based but humorously told anecdotes highlighting aspects of the subject not usually covered in more traditional educational sources.

A new series of special episodes began airing in 2015, featuring a new format and cast.

Horrible Histories is based on the British children's historical-comedy book series by Terry Deary, first published by Scholastic UK in 1993 and since expanded into a multimedia franchise.

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To do the material full justice, Brigstocke and series producer Caroline Norris used their industry contacts to put together a creative team consisting mostly of veterans of the adult UK comedy community.

The BBC readily agreed to this cross-demographic experiment.

Individual historical eras or civilisations are defined and named as in the books, with sketches from several different time periods combined within a single episode.

Live-action sketches—which often parody other UK media or celebrities—and music videos are intercut with animations and quizzes.

The starring troupe are Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, alongside a large supporting cast headed by Sarah Hadland, Lawry Lewin and Dominique Moore.

The black rat puppet "host", Rattus Rattus, appears in short bridging segments, explaining the factual basis for each sketch.

In 2011, a spin-off game show, Horrible Histories: Gory Games, was launched on CBBC.