Yonderland: saluting a brilliant fantasy comedy

With Yonderland series 3 on its way, we salute an underappreciated family comedy gem from the cast and creators of Horrible Histories...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

I make no bones about the fact that Horrible Histories is one of one my favourite TV shows. It never fails to make me laugh and I cannot tell you at how many pub quizzes I’ve deployed nuggets of information learned from that show. So, two years ago when it was announced the team behind Horrible Histories were moving on to something new, needless to say, I was rather intrigued. When I discovered fantasy and puppets were being thrown into that mix, I was well and truly sold.

For the uninitiated, Yonderland is a family-friendly, fantasy comedy. It’s the story of full time Mum, Debbie of Maddox (Martha Howe-Douglas) who discovers a portal to another world in her larder. An elf called Elf (voiced by Mathew Baynton) and Nick the Stick (voiced by Ben Willbond) step into Debbie’s world, inform her she’s the chosen one and that she needs to come and save Yonderland from the forces of evil and the slightly rubbish Negatus (Simon Farnaby). Debbie, Elf and Nick travel through the portal to uncover the secrets of the prophecy and meet a whole host of characters in need of Debbie’s help.

There are so many things to love about that set up; the comparative mundanity of Debbie’s home life, the blissful ignorance of Debbie’s husband, Pete (Dan Renton-Skinner being totally brilliant), and the idea that in Yonderland, Debbie’s brand of common sense is not all that common.

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The comedy is a fun mix of great one-liners, recurring gags, visual jokes and some good old fashioned slapstick. The reason it works so well across the perceived minefield of family comedy is because Yonderland never feels like it’s been designed with a singular demographic in mind. Boundaries are there to keep it PG but with the focus on simply making the show funny, it avoids the pandering that all too often occurs when writers want their show to appeal to younger viewers. Everything hits on different comedic levels and nothing is there just because it’s something a certain group of viewers would like.

Whilst Debbie is our hero it’s very much an ensemble show with everyone taking on multiple roles across the series. The writing team and performers are one and this same (all the previously mentioned plus Jim Howick and Laurence Rickard. Toby Davies is the only writer who doesn’t appear on screen) which goes some way to explaining why everyone is so natural with the material and has an obvious affection for what they’re doing. This is a group of people who have worked together for years so their camaraderie is evident and completely infectious; they seem to say to the audience ‘we’re having a fun time, come and have a fun time with us’ in a way that is always inclusive and never self-indulgent.

Aside from the troupe’s natural charisma they obviously revel in the opportunity to play so many wonderful characters, some of whom only appear for a few seconds. There’s a lovely joke involving a ‘News Dragon’ in series one for which Jim Howick is covered in green paint and scales, a make-up job which much have taken hours yet he’s only on screen for a minute. This level of commitment to fleshing out their world is undeniably impressive and adds massively to the show’s appeal.

As wonderful as the cast are they’re only really half the story. There are a slew of wonderful puppet characters care of Baker Coogan Productions. It quickly becomes apparent that Baker Coogan are frequent collaborators of the Jim Henson company because their Yonderland creations have more than a little of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth about them. They’re all fantastic (Mojo is my favourite) and fit seamlessly into the world the writers have created.

The show’s first series does a lovely job of building all these elements in, setting the scene beautifully without feeling overcrowded. The series follows a ‘quest of the week’ format until the final episode which plays out like a delightful greatest hits, with many of our favourite characters making a welcome return. Stand out episodes are Reformation, The Ultimate Prize and The Heart Of The Sun but truth be told there isn’t a duff episode in the bunch.

Series two very much homes in on Debbie’s lineage and her history in Yonderland. Elf gets a bit of a facelift but other than that everything wonderful about series one is present and correct. Series two feels like a more confident run that isn’t afraid to include nods to pop culture as diverse as Jaws, Nosferatu, Mrs Doubtfire and German synthpop pioneers, Kraftwerk. What’s so refreshing about these little references is that they aren’t just there to ‘keep the parents happy’; they’re all proper jokes that have an effect on the episode in which they appear. As with series one you can point to any episode of series two and find something to love.  Episode four, Up The Workers, brings the Ninnies back and provides a surprising dose of social commentary hidden behind jokes about piles. Episode 6, Game Of Crones, is a hilarious send up of the World War II French resistance which proves that Jim Howick’s Crone will never not be funny.

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Series two ends on a bit of a bittersweet note but with the door left wide open for us to revisit; will Debbie have to move house? Will Pete ever learn about her second life? Will anything ever go right for Negatus? With series three starting soon, we won’t have to wait long to find out.

As with all of this creative team’s work (if you haven’t already you should totally go and see Bill, it’s marvellous), Yonderland isn’t afraid of being a bit daft, naughty or downright silly because when those things are done well, they work for everyone. With a good foothold in the fantasy genre Yonderland is full of warmth, enthusiasm and enough energy to power a small country. If you’re seven, seventy or anywhere in between, this show is well worth your time.

Yonderland series 3 starts on Sky One on Sunday the 16th of October.

A version of this article originally appeared in September 2015.