Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond on Yonderland, Horrible Histories & more…

Sarah chats to the cast and writers of Sky's new puppet fantasy comedy, Yonderland, from the creators of Horrible Histories...

The first thing that struck me about the Yonderland junket was the smell. Walking around the venue to find the way in, a waft of something green and fresh led me to the door: the entire foyer and stairs had been dressed as a fantasy forest, complete with a chipped bark floor. Branches masked the staircase, and there were puppets everywhere. It was a bit overwhelming – although at least I knew I was in the right place.

Upstairs, I took my place at a round table in the middle of a wood-panelled library (also stuffed with puppets) to chat to the cast of Sky1’s Yonderland. First up, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond – both familiar faces thanks to the BBC’s wonderful adaptation of Horrible Histories. Here’s what they had to say about their new show…

Tell us a bit about Yonderland.

Larry Rickard: It is a comedy – a fantasy comedy for a family audience.

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Ben Willbond: That’s very well put.

LR: That’s the most succinct way of putting it. It started once the makers of Horrible Histories started talking about whether they were going to make one or two more series. There was a sense that it was going to come to an end, and we all sat and looked at each other and didn’t fancy the idea of not working together again. It’s that rare thing – we just all got on, from day one, which was fun on set and off. It’s quite rare with groups.

BW: So we decided to keep the group together.

Like in Horrible Histories, it looks like everyone’s playing various different characters in Yonderland?

BW: Yeah, we wanted to set up a world that allowed us to do what we’d been doing up until that point. The best way, we thought, would be to create a fantasy world where we got to play loads of different characters every week. And we thought, that’s great, because Martha can be our ‘hero’, as it were, and she can come through this portal every week and solve whatever problem presents itself in that episode, and the rest of us would play a variety of different characters – sometimes multiple characters in the same episode, or sometimes lead characters in an episode.

LR: Yeah, we’d all had such fun being able to raid the dressing up box and put on beards and voices, and I think, any time now when we go and do a job, even really fun ones, where we’re the same character for two weeks, you sort of go “this is weird. Surely I should’ve had a beard change by now?”

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It must be fun being able to just come up with whatever characters you want…

LR: It’s great working with Working Title, as well, because they’ve got a background in film so there was never that sense of – you know, it can be very constraining if, very early on, people start to think about practicalities and pragmatism. You want, at that stage, particularly when dealing with a fantasy, for people to just go “right, go wild. What’s an idea? What can happen?”

What was it like working with the puppets?

LR: We were very lucky with the group of puppeteers we’d got.

BW: They were really skilled.

LR: Yeah, really skilled, and also in terms of working with us and the way we work. It does come with its own peculiar constraints, and it’s weird. You’ll write something that you think will be problematic, and you’ll talk to the puppeteer and say “I’m really sorry, I’ve given you this ridiculous thing for your puppet to do” and they’ll say “that’s no problem.” And then you say, “great, and at the end can it just run across the forest?” and they’ll say “You want it to run across a forest? That’ll take two hours.” So sometimes it makes things slower, but when you see it on screen, it’s all worth it.

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BW: It’s very lo-fi and charming in the way that when we were growing up – this is something we talked about when we were devising the show – what we missed on TV was this lo-fi charm, and then we got speaking to the puppeteers at the workshop and they’re all for the lo-fi way of doing things and they really berate the overuse of CGI, which of course we couldn’t afford in this. It’s like, you’re making a fantasy world, great – if you have tons of money you can create a Star Wars effect, but there’s something really lovely about knowing that a certain effect in a show was somebody pulling a bit of wire just off camera.

LR: Also, having practical effects and practical characters, there’s a reaction that you get. There’s a wonderful one in episode eight with Neil, one of the demons. There’s a bit where another demon has won Minion of the Month and it just cuts to a shot of Neil – and obviously it’s someone’s hand, but he just goes… [mimes drooping in disappointment]. He’s so upset and it’s brilliant. You could spend millions of pounds on a CGI character and never get that.

BW: And also that lovely blank look that, obviously, you get with puppets because they’re just puppets. But you get the punchline and then a blank look from a puppet and there’s something really funny about that. And then you find yourself talking to the puppet instead of the puppeteer. Which is weird. They take direction and they talk through the puppets and it’s really weird but you get used to it. It’s delightful.

Family comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, but do you think that coming from Horrible Histories is helpful?

BW: I think actually, in the group, we have learned what works and what the boundaries. And I think – I speak just for myself here – but I think it’s to do with the sense of joy. If you can see that the cast are having fun and it’s not trying to be too clever or too niche, then it’s as simple as that really. You’re just saying to the family audience, “join in the fun.”

LR: Yeah, it’s something we found by accident. We’d find that families would come up to us in the street and it wouldn’t be that the kids were going “we really like it” and you’d have these puzzled looking parents going “who’s this guy?” The parents were going “Do you know our favourite character?” I think we found that quite inclusive tone.

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BW: Yeah, so going into this we knew what we wanted the tone to be. It’s about being inclusive and having fun. I think the puppets were part of that. And there was some nostalgia in it for us as well, to look back and see the things that we enjoyed when we were growing up, and knowing the stuff that my parents would watch, too.

LR: That’s part of the joy of it – when you’re doing family comedy, you have some lines that are bordering on the edge of cheeky that the adults appreciate in a different way to the kids. But in the same way, with the aesthetic, the adults are going “it’s like the shows we had when we were young” but the kids are like “this is brand new!”

Which characters do you think your audience will look back on nostalgically when they grow up?

LR: If they remember any of them, we’ll be very grateful!

Are there any that spring to mind that have that kind of classic appeal?

BW: Well, I always liked – I hope I won’t give too much away, but there’s this character called Mojo that’s a puppet and just the way it came together, the look, the way it’s voiced, we just went “that’s it, that’s the tone of the show!”

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LR: Yeah, I tend to agree. It happened – not by accident, but casting got shifted around for practical reasons, and I was going to be doing the voice of Mojo but I ended up playing the character he works with and one of our puppeteers took him on completely and he just nailed it.

Did you feel like kids again when you were filming?

BW: Yeah. Always do, on set!

LR: You do, you regress, you mess around. Obviously we spent a lot of time tailoring the script and trying to get those right, and we stuck to those, but there’s a fluidity there. A lot of filming is a making-each-other-laugh competition, seeing what you can get away with.

BW: You’re in the makeup chair and they go “we thought maybe this” and you go “yeah, can you make the beard a bit bigger?” because you know it’ll make someone laugh. And I wrote this knight character; I got to play knights in Horrible Histories but I thought, yeah, the full armour, sword, yeah, I’m gonna write it. And then it’s like “can I have the big sword, please?”

Were you mindful of not giving the puppets all the best lines?

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BW: No, the puppets get the best lines, it’s great!

LR: When I was doing punch-ups and rewrites while we were filming, you’d see more and more of the puppets, and you’d think “that one’s so great.” If you had one that was meant to be in the background, you’d be like “you’ve got to give that one a line, you’ve got to have that moment on camera.” There’s one that’s having a conversation with you, in one of the Market Squares…

BW: He’s got a little stove pipe hat and a beard, a tiny little thing, and we had an altercation which isn’t really part of the scene, so we decided to improv a bit, and I turn round and challenge it to a fight, and he’s tiny! I just go “do you want some, mate?” And he just stands there, and this little puppet goes “Bring it.” It’s just those delightful little moments.

So is there much improv, then?

BW: We didn’t really have the luxury of that, but we gave ourselves enough time – this is something we developed as a group, you give yourself a little bit of room in the moment because you never know.

LR: Improvising – sometimes you think of it as being, “there’s going to be a scene in this room and we need to get to this point, and… go!” It was never like that. We spent so long on the scripts, and it was the same on Horrible Histories – we got used to working that way because the scripts were factually based, and if you go too far off those you’re in trouble historically. But there’s a great bit with Jim as the crone and he opens the door and as the door opens it goes “creeeeeak” and as Jim appears you see that he’s making the noise! You wouldn’t write that, but those moments are rewarding for us as writers. Because you can take credit for them.

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BW: It happens a lot, and I think the more comfortable the cast are with each other, and when the director knows the score as well, there’s the freedom to do that. It’s great because some of the funniest things are just from someone trying to make you laugh. And it’s successful. I’m the worst for corpsing.

LR: You’re easily brought down! Jim [Howick] is the worst culprit, I think.

What was the writing process like, then? You wrote it as a group…

LR: Well, my primary role on Horrible Histories was as a writer and I sort of bled into the performance side on that, so when we started on this we’d all decided it’d be something we’d like to write together.

Everything was discussed around the table and we worked out what the series’ story was going to be and what the individual episodes were going to be, to the point of being a page of storyline and notes, and then once we got to that point each script was handed out to the writers. And then, across all of the scripts, once we’d done a draft I’d sit down with a script editor and do notes and refinements and make sure they all felt like they had the same voice. So we could benefit what everyone brings to the table differently, in terms of quirks and senses of humour, but still there was a consistent tone.

BW: It was a nice process because it’s round the table and there’s lots of voices but it helps create a world. Everyone is fighting for the same… I don’t want to call it a product.

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LR: Common goal.

BW: Common goal!

LR: Common product.

BW: Yeah. So that was interesting, I think that was the first time I’d done something like that. Normally you go off and author something and write from dot, but with this it was group-authored and then you’d write individually.

LR: It was great for me because I wrote some episodes with Ben and I wrote some with Jim and some on my own, and for me it was tremendous to work with different people. You’d develop slightly different ways of working with different people, and also the jokes you write are slightly different as the dynamic changes.

So which of your characters causes the most problems for your hero, Debbie?

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BW: Every character causes problems, that’s the whole issue!

LR: The idea is it’s someone from our world who’s got skills that seem very commonplace to them. You know, she’s got a decent moral compass, and a degree of practicality, and kind of thinks she’s unremarkable. But because she goes through to a world inhabited entirely by idiots, having common sense and a moral compass is like being a superhero.

Every episode has a different ridiculous challenge and normally, she can see how it’s solved very early on. The problem is getting everyone else to realise and accept it. In our world, her brain is becoming dulled by mundane everyday existence now that her kids have gone to school, but suddenly she goes through to this other world which is tremendously frustrating but there’s so much to do. It’s so exciting and fun, so she takes the upside and downside together.

Did you get to steal any props?

LR: No. There’s a puppet I’d love to have – I’d love to have Mojo, but there’s a lot of competition there. I very nearly got given one – on our final day, we were filming in Debbie’s house and there was our director with one camera in one room and me with the producer and another camera in another room, and we could hear our assistant director counting down the seconds of the very final shot.

We were already an hour over, and the Elf comes through on a vacuum cleaner and I was standing there holding a prop that he’s supposed to hit, and it gets to that moment and suddenly all the lights go on. And I’m still holding a child’s hobby horse just looking around at everyone, adrenaline at ten, and one of our producers came over and said “You can keep that.” I was there literally holding a prop at the end of the show. But that’s the only one we got.

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It sounds like you had a great time.

LR: It was an awful lot of hard work but it was so much fun to do. We’d written something the point of which was to be something else where we could open the toy box and have silly voices and wigs and costumes and we got to do that – and even more, because there were puppets and a fantasy world and a studio full of forest.

BW: That was quite extraordinary, going into a studio and seeing a forest.

Do you think this might create a new audience out of people that aren’t really into fantasy stuff?

LR: Absolutely. Hopefully people will give it a go. I like sci-fi and fantasy, but when it starts to take itself terribly seriously, it can become dire and mundane, just a list of weird names, and you’ve got to remember who everybody is… We’ve thrown all of that away. Very early on we went “right, there’s some idiots, and there’s a bad guy”, and it punctures all of that.

BW: I hope that people like it enough to be able to map that world for us. Because at the start, we said we can’t draw a map like at the beginning of Game of Thrones, but actually as the series went on we were like “where do you think that is?” A lot of people are into that and I hope that someone will someday present us with it.

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LR: Yeah, that’s great if it grows up naturally but we didn’t want to be like, “here’s your cheat sheet and a list of things you have to remember in order to enjoy this.”

BW: We didn’t want any rules on the universe, I guess. You just go through to Yonderland and then anything can happen. It’s a fantasy world, so anything can happen.

LR: Within our very tight schedule.

Would you like to do another series?

LR: Yeah, we’ve already started talking about it. As soon as we had a lunch break, we’re like “you know what would be fun? Negatus should have a bookkeeper.” But you know, one step at a time. We just want people to laugh. Anything else would be a bonus.

Yonderland starts on Sky1 on Sunday 10 November.

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Come back later this week for interviews with Mat Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Jim Howick, Dan Skinner, and Martha Howe-Douglas.

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