Mat Baynton and Jim Howick on Yonderland, Horrible Histories & more...
In the last of this week's chats with the cast and creators of Yonderland, here's Mat Baynton and Jim Howick...
The last interview of the day was with Horrible Histories and Yonderland stars Mat Baynton and Jim Howick. It’s gone lunchtime, and they come in full of apologies for their mouthfuls of crisps. As the journalists around the table introduce themselves and their publications, Baynton and Howick join in, introducing themselves as “one of the actors”, in a way that’s sort of adorable. (Yeah, there’s no “sort of” about it, really.)
Once everyone’s settled, we kick off with, um, a question about the bark. It’s the day’s hot topic, it really is so overwhelming…
Has it all come flooding back when you smelled the bark here today?
Jim Howick: Yeah, it did. Filming was a six week block, so the first three weeks we were in the town set, and the floor for the town set was sand, so that was a bit dry and got in our throats, and then the second block was the forest scene and by the end of the third week it had got a bit rotten. We actually had living plants, so we had lights that were on all the time to keep them alive.
Mat Baynton: Yeah, it was really hot and humid and stank! And we all had big beards on… The truth is, on Horrible Histories there were so many occasions where that was environmentally horrible; you know, freezing cold and in a loincloth in a quarry pretending you’re under the baking Egyptian sun. So we were match fit when we went into Yonderland! We didn’t complain all that much, because we were in a warm studio. Occasionally a bit too warm, but you can’t complain.
So what is Yonderland?
JH: It’s a magical place. Like Toys R Us! No, it’s kind of a parallel universe, from Debbie’s perspective, and the geography is basically that it is one land of many lands, and it’s the last land in the light, so to speak, that hasn’t been taken over by dark forces. And it’s full of weird and wonderful characters and species and good and evil.
MB: And a lot of stupidity. A lot of silliness.
You all play several different characters. What can you tell us about them?
JH: Well, I play a character called the Crone, who makes an appearance in the first episode, and does come back later on in the series.
MB: We had to bring her back.
JH: Yeah, the old girl, we had to bring her back.
MB: She was so beautiful, we just couldn’t live without her.
JH: And she’s the guardian, the keeper of the Oracle, which is a character Mat plays.
MB: That was a character I played, or an entity of which my character is part, I suppose. It’s like an egg with faces that come out of it, which was a pleasure to do, covered in KY.
JH: You were! About three tubes of it, I think.
MB: Yeah. A lot of it. In a way, I mean, there are fun individual characters, but the fun of it is how many you get to play. One day you’re doing a po-faced king and the next you’re a hideous old woman.
JH: It’s very easy to fall in love with every character you play but we were determined that, in order to make the world as rich as possible, some of the characters may only have an aside or a couple of lines as the camera’s passing through.
There’s a scene in episode 5 where Debbie visits a town called Ennythingoes and she meets Mat’s character Bombero – who’s featured on the poster, with the wild hair and unibrow – and as she’s walking through the town she bumps into a couple of characters who are on a stag do there. It’s a party town, so they’re on a stag do, and it’s just a passing thing but the makeup I went through for that character who had two lines was about three hours. We knew it was only a small part but we wanted to make the world as rich as possible – and not just have the puppets as the strange species but to create those roles for ourselves.
Mat, you play a Ninny, it that right?
MB: Yeah, there’s a race in Yonderland called the Ninnies, and without giving anything away in the plot, they’ve devolved. Evolution has reached a point, gone round a hairpin bend, and started coming back the other way for many, many generations, to the point where there’s this village of people whose steps lead to the wall next to the front door and things like that.
Dave doesn’t know his own name, he thinks he’s called Tom. Things like that. I think Ben and Larry came up with the particular concept of those characters as the best excuse to basically play clowns, to play complete naïve wide eyed idiots who know nothing of the world around them, and it’s a great excuse for physical comedy. That was one of my favourite characters to play.
It sounds like every day on set was just an excuse to play.
MB: Yeah! That’s what we tried to do.
JH: We really tried to do that and not get bogged down. Once we started filming, we wanted to trust the professionals and not get too involved on set and just enjoy what we had to do.
MB: Sort of take off the writer’s hat and put on the performer’s hat.
JH: Yeah, there is a danger you can hang around the monitor and get involved… it’s time consuming anyway but you have to pass the baby over to the director and the technicians involved, and enjoy performing.
MB: I think we all have a similar philosophy about comedy and comic performance which is that it’s at its best when you can see the pleasure the performer has, when you can see a glimmer in the eye, and as a group we spent most of our time on set trying to make each other laugh. That can sound like it’s self-indulgent but actually when I watch comedy I love to see that pleasure in the performer’s eye and that sense of cheek – and even those moments when you can see someone is trying not to laugh. We love to watch those.
Whenever they dig out footage of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the first clip they go to is the one where Dud starts laughing and ruins the sketch, and there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason people love watching blooper reels of actors falling about laughing. It’s so infectious to watch people having fun. So it’s was important to us to make sure that even though we’d written and created and world and come to really know it and love every detail, once we got on set it wasn’t about that, it was about being six friends trying to make each other laugh.
JH: Also, the puppets took a long time to film and it was all very technical and we weren’t indulged as much as we hoped we would be and I think that’s actually a good thing. If you’re only given three chances to get a line right, although I’m sure a director would want more, for us it keeps it fresh. Often when you’re filming comedy and you’ve done six or seven takes, the joke’s been done and you know you’re gonna have to say it again in another set up. I think it’s good not to be indulged too much.
What was it like being surrounded by these puppets?
MB: It was great.
JH: It’s really interesting because when you see the show, it’s so nice and so magical, because when you’re there filming you have to ignore the three people camped behind the puppet lying on a skateboard and that’s when the magic happens really. You can see an interaction on screen but you don’t see the puppeteers, you just see the puppet and you see it come to life. When you’re filming it’s very technical, you did a scene where you were –
MB: Yeah, there was a scene where Martha and I were literally standing on a heap of five bodies. Of five different puppeteers! Because it was a puppet character holding another puppet character. That sounds too weird, I have to explain this: Elf is holding what looks like a pair of binoculars but is actually a creature with big eyes who describes everything he can see, so that puppet is being operated by someone but someone else is operating the Elf’s arms, and someone else is operating the Elf’s head, and all in it was four or five people, like, legs entwined. It was like a game of Twister, and Martha and I had to try not to tread on people while performing the scene. The shot looks like there’s nothing chaotic or bunched up about the characters in the frame but if you tilt the camera down it would probably look like a Bosch painting or something orgiastic. Not that you can print “orgiastic” in an article about a family show.
Horrible Histories was a kids’ show that took on an extra life because adults liked it too, does Yonderland have stuff in it for adults?
MB: In a way I don’t really see them as that different. In some ways we get to be a bit more cheeky in a teatime slot but there’s a lot of cheeky stuff in Horrible Histories. The feeling for us is that if you try and tailor-make something for a demographic you always muck it up. If you’re trying to second guess what a boy of 12 likes then you’re just gonna get it wrong and all we did on Horrible Histories was try and do something we found funny. There are things you can’t do because it’s on kids’ TV, so no swearing and whatnot, but ultimately we weren’t going “oh I’ll do this because I think kids will laugh at it,” we were going “I’ll do this because I would laugh at it”. And it’s kind of the same with Yonderland.
JH: I don’t think any of us had had any experience making children’s television before Horrible Histories, we’d all done quite adult stuff, so the idea was just to approach it as any comedy show. We didn’t know it was going to be such a success and I think the show only grew up after the first series. When you watch the first series back it is very childish, and in the second series we really widened the show and it grew up a lot. So when we made this, the idea was that – it was supposed to be for 8.30, wasn’t it, and it was a lot more near the knuckle, and we pushed it back to 6.30…
MB: Which I think was probably to its benefit, ultimately.
So did you have to cut things out?
MB: We had a few jokes that were slightly over the line in terms of doing a teatime show…
JH: You get a quota of the words you can use and how many you can use, like three “craps” and one “nuts” and a few “balls” and stuff like that. Literally, we were sat down and told you can use this many “craps”…
MB: No “craps”, actually in the end.
JH: And no curses.
MB: But it ends up that by solving those problems you end up with your favourite jokes. Those limitations – it’s the equivalent of B-movie horror films where they can’t afford to make, Jaws, for example, you can’t afford to make the shark look good so you do most of it with ominous music and a fin and it’s so much better as a result. It’s the same with comedy because you’re forced into innuendo, you’re forced into ways of making things cheeky through the audience’s imagination. You have a line like Wizard Bradley saying “it looks like a wand”, and an adult audience immediately decides what “it” is, and they go south. But kids will just think that that’s an innocent line.
JH: It’s like a pantomime, really. And Horrible Histories, what was great was that we had to work without boundaries, we couldn’t swear, there was no nudity, apart from a few caveman and Egyptian scenes, but pushing against the boundaries helped because of that anarchic feeling of a naughty child in a school.
MB: That’s the thing with out-and-out adult comedy, it never feels naughty because there is no boundary, no sense that a teacher might tell you off. I think so much of what comedy is, is that, that feeling of being in the classroom… I might actually be drifting into my own background now…
JH: And me! I think we were the same child.
MB: You’re just trying to make your friends laugh and the presence of the teacher made it all the more delicious. It’s not a metaphor for comedy at all, that’s just my life.
Let’s talk about The Wrong Mans quickly. That’s going brilliantly. People love it, don’t they?
MB: I think so, yeah! We couldn’t have – if you’d asked me to sort of guess at what the response would be I couldn’t have dreamt it would go down this well. Again all you can do is make a show that you think is funny and you think is good and then you release it into the wild and who knows? It might get mauled or people might pat it on the back. So it’s just been hugely gratifying to see people quote lines from it and it’s just, yeah, wonderful. The thrill for me at the moment is that, quite by chance both these projects were being worked on for years and they’ve ended up landing at almost the same moment and they’re so different and both so distinctive and unique and I’m so proud of them both. I just feel incredibly lucky to be involved in both things.
And you got to work with James Corden, who you’ve worked with before…
MB: Yeah, it’s the same with both things, you get to work with your friends and work with people who you think are amazing. The cast we got for The Wrong Mans is the equivalent of the feeling when I work with these guys on Yonderland, it’s that I can’t really go wrong because I’m surrounded by excellence…
JH: Keep going!
MB: And when you’re surrounded by brilliant people it really is just easy to do your job. Yeah, I can’t really put it better than that.
Is it weird that you have no control over these things, they go out when they go out, but you’re suddenly on the telly lots, people are seeing you all the time…
MB: It’s strange because they’re seeing you but you’re not seeing them, obviously! And then when it’s going out you’re very disconnected so it’s strange. We were lucky with that show and with this that, this evening we’re gonna watch it with an audience. And we did the same with The Wrong Mans, and it was about halfway through the first episode I suddenly realised that that’s a rare treat when you make television, to experience how the audience are receiving it. Obviously it’s different for people sitting on their couch, but you know, some sense that, “oh, that joke works.” That’s why most actors, especially in comedy, you feel you need to go back to the theatre every now and again, you feel you need to go back to an audience every now and again to see if you’re still getting your craft right, making people laugh at the moments you think they should and that sort of thing.
JH: We’ve been really lucky with crews, too, on Horrible Histories and Yonderland, and there were a few members of the crew from Horrible Histories who worked on Yonderland, and it was nice for us because they know your performance they look forward to seeing you and they don’t just wanna finish and go home.
MB: We had the most wonderful director, we should say. Steve Connelly worked on Horrible Histories, and we basically begged him to come and do Yonderland because we felt there was no-one else who could possibly deliver such a huge show in such a short space of time. But one of the wonderful attributes he has is that he takes delight in comedy and very often ruins takes by laughing. But you’d rather have takes ruined and then get the next one done than be in an atmosphere every day where you don’t know if what you’re doing is perceived as funny to anyone. Very often, sadly, that is the atmosphere on the set of a comedy, it’s very professional and dry and you can start to feel a bit adrift.
JH: Even at five to seven when we’ve got five minutes left before we finish for the day and we’ve still got a page of dialogue to get through, Steve will be as enthusiastic as he is at seven in the morning when we’ve got the whole day to film.
MB: He’s the seventh member of this group really.
JH: he tells us when we’re having too much fun as well.
Can you have too much fun?
MB: It’s like what we were saying earlier about trying to make each other laugh and whether that seems self-indulgent, Steve knows where that line is and will gently pull you back to the right side of it.
JH: [imitates Steve Connelly] “You’re having too much fun, guys! It’s gone a bit weird.”
MB: [imitates Steve Connelly] “I think that’s only funny to you.”
It seems that there is that fun and ability to improv a bit, and that comes through…
JH: On Horrible Histories, we played so many parts – around 70 parts each…
MB: Per series!
JH: So we had to improvise a lot of the time, because we just couldn’t, it was humanly impossible to remember it all and we were getting scripts quite late and we didn’t have a huge amount of time, but I think with that and with Yonderland it’s about giving options with each take, just a different option each take.
MB: And at any given moment you have five opinions at hand that you utterly respect. So if you’re doing something in a scene and think “I feel there could be something funnier there” you’ve immediately got this group of people who you inherently trust who will throw suggestions…
JH: Or dare each other!
MB: Or dare each other.
JH: We do that a lot.
MB: Yeah, WE do that a lot.
JH: We’re the naughty table.
MB: So for example there’s a scene where Bombero is dancing around and Jim and I are both a bit obsessed with a particular clip on the internet – what’s it called, National Aerobics…
MB: Someone’s taped it off a Canadian cable channel. Robin Thicke’s dad, Alan Thicke, is the host, and it’s this endless parade of people doing like… [dances wildly] While a voiceover introduces the teams. And it goes on for ten minutes and the show hasn’t even begun. And so on that particular day, Jim dared me to do it like that.
JH: And you hit Martha in the face with a maraca.
MB: I did hit Martha in the face with a maraca. And I will never live that down.
Yonderland starts on Sky1 on Sunday 10 November.
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