Successful comedy shows are TV’s rock stars – like Monty Python or Blackadder they stumble into life, hit an amazing peak of form, fall out and split up. Which is why Yonderland – Sky1’s new teatime fantasy sitcom – shouldn’t exist. The cast should certainly not be planning a new series just because they love working together. But then Horrible Histories always was a little bit different.
Launched off the back of the “history with the bad bits left in” book series, Histories started out as a kids’ sketch show but soon found an after-school audience, winning best sketch show at the British Comedy Awards in 2010 and 2011. The likes of Mark Gatiss, David Baddiel, Alexei Sayle and Al Murray begged to appear in cameos.
As soon as they knew the show was coming to an end, the first thing the cast – Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Simon Farnaby, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond – did was write a new show together. “We thought about what it would mean to not get together once a year and wear silly costumes, and decided that we had to come up with an excuse to keep doing so,” explains Baynton, currently the toast of the adult comedy world thanks to his writing/starring role with James Corden in BBC2’s The Wrong Mans.
Yonderland is like a cross between The Mighty Boosh, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. “Fantasy seemed like a natural step after histories,” explains Rickard. “You’ve got beards and wigs and things…” Willbond cuts in: “We wanted to raid the dressing-up box and speak in silly voices again.” Then Baynton: “We were hardly going to go from Horrible Histories to an office sitcom.” Indeed, they riff and joke so naturally you can see how they worked up scripts and characters between them. “No one was frightened of coming up with bad jokes,” adds Farnaby. “In fact sometimes I try and do really bad jokes…” “That explains so much,” Baynton deadpans.
Basically, Howe-Douglas’s character Debbie sends her twins off to primary school, then an elf shows up and begs her to save his world. She is the straight woman to the rest of the team’s grotesque clowns. “Debbie is basically your average mum trying to get her work/life balance sorted, between saving a magical world and picking her kids up from school,” she says. “It makes being a mum heroic. One of my favourite lines is, ‘I can do this – I’ve breast-fed twins’.”
Although there are only two and a half parents in the collective – Willbond and Baynton both have sons and Farnaby is about to become a father – they’re not worried their gags will go over a teatime audience’s head. “There’s this awful thing in children’s scripts where the writer thinks, ‘I don’t find it funny, but a nine-year-old might,’” says Baynton. “Growing up I watched Blackadder and Python with my parents and there was nothing in them that was too adult. So we tend to write what makes us laugh.”
Next up for the team: a BBC movie about William Shakespeare’s early years, called Bill. “We’re not megalomaniacs,” insists Rickard. “It’s just that there’s always a slight fear every time we work together that it might be the last time, so we’re always going, ‘OK, then, we can put another iron in the fire.’”