Yonderland is the colourful new family comedy that hits our screens on 10 November. Here’s our top five reasons why you should be tuning in!
1. It comes from the cast of hit CBBC show Horrible Histories!
The writer-performer team that brought us Horrible Histories, the off-beat, madcap and always entertaining historical sketch show that finished its successful 5-year run earlier this year, return with a new outlandish family comedy set in the fantasy world of Yonderland. Regular mum, Debbie, finds that life gets boring after her young kids start school, but when she finds an elf lurking in the cupboard little does she know that things are about to get very interesting indeed!
Mat Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond are familiar faces from the world of British comedy and their never-ending cast of comedy creations have been wildly successful with audiences. Here again we see them playing a host of wonderful creatures with hilarious results.
“Coming to the end of Horrible Histories,” says Howe-Douglas, “we started to talk about the fact that we didn’t want to leave each other and we started talking about what we could do as a group.” The result was the resurrection of an old film script Willbond and Baynton had worked on years earlier and they started developing it for TV. Writing as well as performing is one of the group’s biggest strengths and something that comes naturally, Rickard explains: “In terms of the writing, we very quickly found a method that works for us at the very beginning. We write as a group and then split up to write episodes in pairs and come back together.” The result is a family fantasy show, full of original characters and laughs that adults and children alike can enjoy.
2. It’s got a very colourful cast of characters.
From a talking stick to a portal-opening elf, from a trio of demon henchmen to a group of not-so-wise elders, the show is bursting with wild and wacky characters. It was important to the creators to create a look and feel and story that mattered. “We wanted to do something that wasn’t spoofy,” Baynton says, “where you invest in the world and care about the characters.”
One of the biggest influences on the show is the film Labyrinth for this very reason. He elaborates: “It was the biggest touchstone for us writing it. We were all fans of it growing up. It’s one of those films where when you’re a kid, you’re wrapped up in the fantasy, the story. When you grow up you realise ‘Oh! It’s a comedy.’”
Howe-Douglas takes on much of the responsibility for giving heart to the story with her character Debbie. “Initially,” she says, “it was a huge responsibility and I wanted to keep playing lots of parts [like in Horrible Histories], but it was a gift of a role really and I love playing her.” Debbie is surrounded by many extraordinary characters played by her fellow cast members, but also characters like Elf – a puppet.
3. There’s puppet magic!
Baker Coogan, long-time collaborators with the Jim Henson company, supply the puppetry on the show and the results are a wonderful mix of whimsy and charm. The influence of Labyrinth is most apparent when the puppet characters appear on the screen!
The craft of puppetry impressed the actors on the show, despite the fact that it slowed the pace of filming down a lot. “Because we’d come from Horrible Histories, where the pace was so frenetic,” Howe-Douglas explains, “we’d get on set and rehearse a scene and it would take say 40 minutes for the puppeteers to work out how they’re going to contort themselves. So it was a different style of working.” But it was important for the feel of the show, Farnaby adds: “There’s hardly any green screen so a lot of what you see was actually there.” “Yeah,” Rickard agrees, “there’s a certain charm in doing things that way.”
“It was a lot harder than we first thought it would be,” Howick describes, “and we have an enormous respect for the puppeteers and the craft. That was the biggest thrill for us – going into the workshop and seeing the characters being carved – seeing ideas being literally carved out.”
4. It’s a refreshing take on British comedy.
Unlike many of the comedic offerings on the TV schedules at the moment, Yonderland is aimed at families and has something for adults and children alike. With its delightfully silly set-up, quirkiness and humour, it’s already onto a winner. But the cast have got their comedy chops, having appeared in shows such as The Office, Extras, Peep Show, The Mighty Boosh and The Thick of It between them. Smaller characters too, such as Debbie’s husband, are played by comedy stars, in this case Dan Renton Skinner, better known as his comedy alter-ego Angelos Epithemiou.
Making the scripted and spontaneous comedy a focus has been a wonderful success. “We offer options,” says Howick, “but mostly we stick to the script.” “You try it,” Baynton adds, “at the end of scenes. If Steve [the director] hasn’t said cut, you try it and just carry on.” The style has led to many comparisons, most notably the common compliment of being compared to the legendary Monty Python.
Baynton notes that the styles are similar – scripted narrative comedy with sketch-like elements – but is still flattered by the comparison. “People mention Python all the time and we don’t feel worthy of the compliment!”
5. You finally get to see Jim Howick as a crone!
A Terry Jones-like creation with “Brian May hair” and “huge boobs”, Howick laughs: “I’ve always harboured a desire to play an old woman.” Long-time fans will probably know that Jim Howick spent quite a few years on the set of Horrible Histories trying to convince them to let him play an old crone. Well, he finally gets his wish and it doesn’t disappoint!
To see the crone for yourself tune in to Yonderland on Sky1 HD on 10 November! And check out the teaser below.