Simon Farnaby and Martha Howe-Douglas on Yonderland, Horrible Histories & more…

Sarah caught up with Simon Farnaby and Martha Howe-Douglas to talk Yonderland, Horrible Histories and Last of the Summer Wine...

Read our Yonderland interview with Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, here.

Apparently you start to get used to new smells after about ten minutes, and by the time Martha Howe-Douglas and Simon Farnaby dropped by the press table, the earthy, sweet smell of bark and leaves had started to seem normal. The massive troll puppet over Farnaby’s shoulder was still a bit distracting, though…

Howe-Douglas and Farnaby are also key members of the Horrible Histories cast, though you might also recognise her from Doctors or The Armstrong and Miller Show, and him from The Mighty Boosh or Jam & Jerusalem. They’re both playing important parts in Yonderland, too, and here’s what they had to say about it…

Martha, you’re the star of the show. You’re the hero. What can you tell us about Debbie?

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Martha Howe-Douglas: Well, she’s a mother of twins who’ve just started school. And I’m not a mum myself, but I’m told that when your children go to school, you’ve got that time where you’re left in the day and you’re not working, she’s made the bed, she’s washed the dishes, she’s watched TV, she’s done everything… and she’s bored. And she opens the cupboard and there’s an elf in there. He takes her through to Yonderland, where she’s told that she’s the chosen one and she has to save the realm from evil Negatus.

Simon Farnaby: From me! Gosh, we’re the goodie and the baddie, aren’t we?

So Simon, tell us how you fit in.      

SF: I play Negatus, who is the baddie in the realm. He’s trying to turn Yonderland over to the forces of darkness, whatever that may be. I don’t think he even knows, really, what that is. He’s not a very effective baddie. He’s very evil but he struggles with some of the more mundane aspects of being an evil overlord. He worries about having his baddie’s furnace fitted. Because someone’s gotta put that in, you know? Someone’s got to put in the swooshing doors.

MHD: We’ve found those characters. We’ve got the furnace fitter.

SF: So you get to see the inner machinations of what it’s really like to be an evil overlord in a fantasy world. And I’ve got three little demons who are puppets – Rita, Neil, and Jeff – and they’re my minions who do my bidding for me. Usually they’re pretty inept.

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MHD: They’re pretty ineffective, yeah.

SF: And then I play a couple of other parts. But we’re the only ones who have main parts in the continuing story so I don’t get to play many other parts.

Did you get envious of the others with their multiple characters?

MHW: It was quite nice coming out of Horrible Histories and going in and being made to look quite normal. I think initially I was bit like, not disappointed, but like, “how am I going to be with playing one character?” because I’m so used to playing so many different parts, and that’s lovely because you get such a range. But actually I loved playing Debbie. And you still get to immerse yourself because you’re going to different worlds all the time, or sections of the world, so I never felt like it was a boring part.

Does Debbie get to appreciate herself more, because her skills are more valued in Yonderland?

MHD: Yeah, we talked a lot about why she keeps going back and I think that’s a big part of it – that she’s valued. And they don’t want her to leave. She tries, several times, to say “listen, I can’t do this anymore” but I think … you know, she loves the elf at the end, they’ve got a good relationship and she wants to help people. She’s a good person.  

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So does she come back to the real world?

MHD: Yeah, she always has to go back, because obviously she has a family and a husband and she has to pick the kids up from school, so there’s some jeopardy if she’s in Yonderland… but time moves differently in Yonderland.

SF: It moves to fit whatever storyline we’re doing.

MHD: Yeah, absolutely, we don’t know how time moves!

It seems like anything goes.

MHD: Yeah, there are no rules. But also, with the puppets and stuff, they’re just whatever came out of our brains. Like with the Oracle, it was a ridiculous idea: a massive egg with two people’s heads coming out of it, and it lights up, and they made it happen. I was on set when we were doing it, and Mat and Ben are in an egg, and they’re trying to figure out how to get them out to do this thing and I was standing there thinking this just came from somebody’s brain fart and they’ve made it work.

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SF: We did have an amazing amount of freedom, really. We kept saying “can we do this?”  Because each episode is set in a different world – it’s all in Yonderland but there’s different parts to it, different lands and races, and each week is different story involving different people who need Debbie’s help, so we’ve got eight different worlds – usually, comedies get set in an office or something so you can just come back every day to the same place and it’s not so expensive, but it was great to have that, to be freed up to let your imagination flow.

MHD: We were almost testing them in the end, saying “can we do that?” thinking they’d say no, and they said yes. It was great.

Does Debbie’s family ever find out about Yonderland?

MHD: Well! I can’t give too much away! She certainly tries to – again, I was thinking “why doesn’t she tell Pete, her husband?” but she certainly tries to on several occasions, but it goes pear-shaped. She doesn’t want to have it as a secret and I think it’s a burden, especially when things are happening at home and she’s missing out because she’s in Yonderland. That’s a real pull for her, should she give up or not.

Because it’s a family comedy, is it hard to pitch the tone of the villain so he’s not too intimidating from younger viewers?

SF: Very difficult. We kind of were used to it from Horrible Histories, where I played Death in ‘Stupid Deaths’, which is one of the kids’ favourites. It always amazes me that kids love that character who is essentially the Grim Reaper, but they do, so I think it’s playing along those lines. You can be scary but it’s a comedy, so as long as there’s an element of stupidity there, it’ll always be child-friendly in a way. And really, because I’m not really evil myself, all I have to do is be as evil as I can be and it’ll end up being stupid.

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What makes him such a rubbish baddie?

SF: Well, he’s just… I sort of play him as if he’s a good baddie, but he’s pretty vain, and not as organised as he thinks he is.

MHD: There’s a kind of cat-and-mouse situation with him and Debbie, and he has so many goes at thwarting her mission and he fails. He’s just not very effective in his evilness.

SF: He’s always trying to think of too much of an elaborate plan that makes him look good…

Does he secretly fancy Debbie?

MHD: Yeah, that’s art imitating life!

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SF: That will be explored further. There’s a bit of that. I think he likes having an enemy. As much as he says that he hates her, he sort of needs her.

MHD: He’s confused because he should hate her but she’s a woman.

SF: He’s confused by her goodness.

What’s it like working with puppets?

MHD: It’s very different. I had a huge amount to do with the Elf, and I remember Simon saying to me “how is it?” and I said “it’s really slow.” When we did Horrible Histories, the turnaround of sketches was huge and we all knew what was expected of us. You could go on set, rehearse once, and be filming. And it wasn’t like that at all and I think that was a real shock to me. I imagined that once we found our flow, we’d be – but you never found your flow because every scene brought up a different challenge for the puppeteers. They had to contort themselves into different positions, and you have to move around them and it’s really tricky. It’s something that we hadn’t envisaged because it was so new to us all. But if we go again it’ll be something we’re aware of.

It must look fantastic, though, when it’s all put together.

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MHD: Yeah, it is. And also we’ve re-voiced the demons and the Elf, and I’ve seen it since it’s been done and all the voices are in and it just brings it to life. Because when a puppeteer’s doing it and they know they’re not doing the voice, it can feel a bit flat, but when you’re doing it properly it really brings the characters to life.

Do you hope this will have the same appeal as Horrible Histories?

SF: We hope so! It’s very different, because there was obviously the educational element of that, whereas with this you learn nothing.

MHD: There are moral issues!

SF: There are. There’s usually quite a strong moral element, the thing that Debbie has to fix has a moral element to it. It’s usually quite basic – the same way The Simpsons has, or Happy Days. Happy Days always had a bit at the end where he goes “You know Ricky?” – was his name Ricky? – “You gotta share. You gotta learn to share with people.” And then he goes “Yeah, I think I will from now on.”

MHD: [points to Farnaby’s coffee mug] Is there gin in there?

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SF: So… it’s got us in it and it’ll have the same slightly anarchic feel, and we really enjoy working together so hopefully that’ll come across to the people watching it.

Is there enough for the adults as well as kids?

MHD: Absolutely. We didn’t set out for it to be either/or, it should be for everyone and hopefully it does that. There are a few adult jokes in there, aren’t there?

SF: There are, yeah.

MHD: Hopefully we’ll take the Horrible Histories fans with us and get new ones as well.

SF: There aren’t many shows you can sit and watch as a family. You used to, on a Saturday night, you could sit and watch…

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MHD: Yeah, we’ve lost that.

SF: We’re trying to get it back. But in a Last of the Summer Wine slot.

MHD: Nothing wrong with that.

SF: Nothing wrong with that, it ran for 29 series!

Come back later in the week for our interviews with Dan Skinner, Mat Baynton and Jim Howick.

Yonderland starts on Sky1 on Sunday 10 November.

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