Distorted Recognition: the pleasures and uses of televisual historical caricature

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Associated with hammy acting or representational dishonesty, the term ‘caricature’ is usually employed as a withering put-down when applied to portrayals of historical figures on screen. But, while ‘serious’ dramatizations aim to avoid caricature’s excesses, many British television series have exploited them to comedic ends. Such examples indicate the way in which television both contributes to and draws upon popular memory, a culturally shared sense of history (Anderson, 2000). Television caricature is usually associated with satire (Wagg, 1992), but in article I consider its functions beyond political subversion. I explore in particular how televisual caricature draws upon two central pleasures: that of instantaneous recognition, dependent on the continual recirculation of images of historical figures, and of distortion, of an exaggeration of certain aspects of the personality to create ironic distance. Using recent sketch comedy programmes, Horrible Histories (CBBC, 2009 – 2013) Drunk History UK (Comedy Central, 2015 - ) and Psychobitches (Sky Arts, 2012-4) as its case studies, the paper will analyse the form and function of televisual historical caricature. It explores how performance, costuming and intertextual reference are exploited in historical caricature, and the pleasure they offer an audience. It considers how these performed caricatures are addressed to a particular ‘knowing’ audience, one which will enjoy both the recognition of, and the distortion of the famous and powerful historical figures that are the targets of these caricatures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)280-297
Early online date18 Jun 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jun 2019



  • Television
  • British
  • Comedy
  • Children
  • Caricature
  • Postmodernism

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