Mathew Baynton appears for breakfast in a café near his north London home looking only slightly baggy-eyed. The 35-year-old actor/writer and his girlfriend have recently had a baby (Ida, a sister for Bo, five) and he’s getting used to late nights and early starts.
“We got a bit of sleep last night,” says this quiet, slight, thoughtful chap over a reviving peppermint tea. “She’s not too bad a sleeper but she’s had a cold recently so, the last few days, we’ve been getting through it hour by hour.”
Still, ever the keen student of TV comedy, the star of Horrible Histories, The Wrong Mans and Yonderland has managed to watch Motherland, the recent sitcom pilot (now commissioned for a full series) that bites close to home for anyone blearily deep in the child-rearing trenches.
“I loved seeing Diane Morgan in it,” he smiles. “She just has that indefinable comic presence where, as soon as she’s on screen, you feel like you’re in safe hands and you’re going to laugh.” Baynton isn’t one for humblebragging – he’s too genuinely nice for that – but you’d clearly put him in the same category. He brings an intrinsically warming appeal to a cast and character.
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It’s a quality that’s helped make him a star turn in Horrible Histories and Sky1’s Yonderland, created by a gang-of-six: Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond. But it’s also what’s propelled him to shine in other shows, like comedy thriller The Wrong Mans, which he co-created with his friend James Corden.
The Essex-raised youngest of three brothers met Corden on the set of Telstar: the Joe Meek Story, the 2008 biopic of the tortured Sixties music producer. Recognising in each other kindred spirits – up for larking about at the back of class, but ambitious with it – they began working together, first on Gavin & Stacey and then The Wrong Mans. The innovative hitman-com ran for two series before coming to a halt, partly due to Corden’s reinvention as America’s car-pool-driving, celeb-bagging talk-show host.
“Writing that show, the alchemy was utterly perfect between the two of us. Picking my words carefully,” he adds, “James demonstrated in Gavin & Stacey that an empathy and a warmth for your characters is key, especially when you’re doing a thriller or action. If you don’t find that, it’s empty and all surface. That was a shared sensibility.
“I get quite obsessive about rules and structure, perhaps more so than James. But he’s much freer with big moment ideas. So we complemented each other massively.”
Where the friends diverge is in their desire for fame. In simple terms, Corden is upfront about being upfront. Brash-free Baynton wouldn’t say boo to a goose, or yes to Eight out of Ten Cats.
The Wrong Mans
“Certainly America celebrates confidence and success. If you go to a meeting there and are self-deprecating, they just think that’s weird. But if you go in believing in yourself, they like that. And [unlike] James, I don’t really like being myself in front of the camera. I’d never be a presenter.
“I’ve been asked to go on panel shows but it’s not my thing. I love acting and I love writing. Cynically, there are times I’ve been tempted to maybe try do those things just because the profile helps,” he admits. “The bottom line with casting stuff nowadays is that the more fans they think you have, the more cast-able you are.”
Baynton’s comic tastes, refined at drama school in London, come from his dad, a retired engineer. “He had a taste for the surreal; stuff that is silly but smart. So it wasn’t Carry On but it was Python. There was a broadness and warmth to his wit. It wasn’t caustic or dry, and I’ve realised since I had kids that that’s what I have, and where I got it from.”
It’s a comedic preference that made the guest actor in Yonderland’s new, third season all the more appealing. Intent on making each series a standalone treat, the simpatico six needed a new narrative device. “So we started writing this rather fun, avuncular character who turns out to be less than lovely. Casting meant a wish list. And it was a long wish list; we thought we’d get to number 20 before anyone said yes. But Stephen Fry was literally the first person on that list. And he said yes straight away.
“We felt a bit like when the League of Gentlemen came and did sketches on Horrible Histories – it’s a dream thing for us because it feels like a connection to our own fandom. We’re serious admirers of Stephen; Blackadder’s always felt like a real touchpoint for everything we’ve done.”
While channel-surfing recently he caught The Whole Rotten Saga, the 2008 documentary marking 25 years of Blackadder. Baynton loved the rehearsal clips of Fry with Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson and producer John Lloyd. “They are turning over a single comic moment in the script and trying to work out the funniest way to do it. And...” he continues hesitantly, his arms wrapping and unwrapping as he sips his herbal brew, “you could see that the urge to make each other laugh was a big part of the process.”
He stops, winces and smiles again. “I’m faltering as I say this because I hesitate to compare ourselves to those people. But I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what it feels like in our gang!’ And when Stephen arrived he immediately sat into the gang in exactly that way. He didn’t behave like he was an elder statesman.” Fry plays a fruity panto villain called Cuddly Dick, a name that reflects both the team’s love of a classic double entendre and their merry blurring of child/adult humour. It’s something with which they’ve cheerfully wrestled from their earliest days working together – and which, for Baynton, is now coming home to roost.
“Horrible Histories was too grown-up to be on kids’ TV, which is part of the reason it worked. For the first time recently my son watched a bit of it and I realised he’s probably too young. It immediately threw up all these questions about the Vikings. ‘Did they really kill people, Dad?’ ‘Yesss...’ ‘But just baddies?’ ‘It’s more complicated than that...’ But that’s the trick with doing stuff for any age of kids,” he shrugs. “No 17-year-old ever read Just Seventeen,” he says of the late, lamented teen magazine. “It was called that so 12-year-old girls would read it.”
Back in Yonderland, one of Baynton’s many characters in the new series is evil overlord Voltari. He describes him as a “Bullingdon Club ass”, which might give David Cameron something to enjoy in his retirement.
Yonderland returns on Sunday 16th October at 6:30pm on Sky1