Celebrating the collective art of
Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby,
Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick,
Laurence Rickard, and Ben Willbond
By Anne Sharp
Pictured above: Martha Howe-Douglas (Cleopatra), Jim Howick (Nero), Ben Willbond (Henry VIII), and Simon Farnaby (William the Conqueror) in the "Love Rats" musical number from "Horrible Histories."
So what should we call them? The box for my DVD copy of “Ghosts” says “the lead cast of writer-performers from the award-winning ‘Horrible Histories,’ ‘Yonderland’ and the feature film ‘Bill,’” which is a good way to sum up who they are and what they’ve done together. But it’s long and awkward and after all this time and achievement it seems as though they’ve more than earned the right to their own unique ensemble name, like the Savoyards or Goons or Pythons. Something like the Horrible Historians, but that’s not right, as they’ve created a body of work with its own distinctive character, drawing on the aesthetics of those great first five series of HH that set the stage for their later work together, but not defined or branded by it. Since the three series of “Yonderland” was their first non-HH work together, that broke fully away from the HH concept of educational entertainment, and I think remains their most spectacular creation to date, I’m thinking Yonderlanders, though that’s a yawny name for such entertaining people. I’m sure if it mattered to them they’d come up with something much better.
The tricky thing about talking about the accomplishments of this remarkable group of performers is that it’s never been just them. The BBC’s live action “Horrible Histories” series evolved from a previous animated series, and both are adaptations of Terry Deary’s “Horrible Histories” children’s book franchise. Ben Willbond, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Martha Howe-Douglas, Mathew Baynton, and Simon Farnaby were part of a larger ensemble of actors playing multiple roles in the show’s variety-sketch show format, and they weren’t by any means the only standouts in the cast (Dominique Moore being my favorite addition, starting in the second series.) But these six from the first series emerged as the show’s principal players, and this was solidified by their appearance together in the 2011 HH Prom concert. When they took off from the regular HH series after its fifth season to work on their own collective solo projects, HH just wasn’t the same, and after a sixth series made mostly without original cast members, the BBC switched to producing occasional HH specials, again working in bits with the originals when practical. Because by then Willbond, Rickard, Howick, Howe-Douglas, Farnaby, and Baynton were very busy with other projects, some on their own, but some very notably together.
Martha Howe-Douglas and Mathew Baynton as Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare in "Bill."
In trying to describe what they do, the Yonderlanders (as I’m going to go ahead and call them so you don’t have to keep reading through a line of their names) have been compared to Monty Python, I guess because they’re British, smart, and funny, and there are six of them (if you count Terry Gilliam.) The problem with this is that the Yonderlanders are really nothing like the Pythons at all. The Pythons (if you don’t count Gilliam) came from the Oxford-Cambridge student theater tradition of sketch comedy, where the group writes all the material and plays all the principal parts essentially under its own direction. Whereas, starting as participants in the ongoing HH universe of literary and theatrical products, the Yonderlanders have worked in collaboration with many other performers and production creatives. As a result, “Yonderland,” "Bill," and “Ghosts” are all distinctly different shows, rather than uniform products reflecting (and limited by) the talents, imaginations and egos of one small team of creators.
Another key difference is that "Monty Python's Flying Circus," the TV series that made the Pythons what they are, was strictly for grownups, whereas the Yonderlanders came together when working on an educational children’s show. That meant that the sort of trippy weirdness and deliberately offensive material that characterize the Pythons were out of bounds. The Yonderlanders have mastered the craft of providing state of the art entertainment with a bite to it while remaining appropriate for a family audience. That includes steering clear of the “Carry On”-style male gaze that dates the Pythons' work so badly.
The Yonderlander project has brought with it the HH ethic of being cool with women and Martha Howe-Douglas is a full partner in the ensemble. The fact that her characters Debbie Maddox in “Yonderland” and Anne Hathaway in “Bill” happen to be the most reasonable people in their respective stories may or may not be a way of addressing the fact that they’re basically the straight women in pieces full of funny men, and giving these characters more dramatic weight corrects for any imbalance. But then unlike the Yonderlander men—and other funny women featured in Yonderlander productions like Sarah Hadland and Alice Lowe in HH and Clare Thomson in “Yonderland”—Howe-Douglas strikes me as an actor who plays comedy well rather than a full-on comedian. She can project a warmth and sincerity that’s difficult to convey if you’re carrying the sort of aggression necessary to make people laugh at all costs, and I think her participation adds a certain dramatic balance to the Yonderlander ensemble.
Martha Howe-Douglas as Madame Tussaud in "Horrible Histories."
The men of Yonderland
Simon Farnaby - Arguably the most conventionally comedianlike of the Yonderlanders, he’s an especially appropriate asset to HH because he approaches the material with a particular emotionally intelligent lack of inhibition that’s just right for educational children’s theater. Imagine playing Death as a clown, evolving from a bored civil servant checking newly deceased people into the afterlife into a narcissistic Simon Cowell-type TV presenter, and then transmuting that refined concept of the horror clown into the sadistic Goth buffoon surrounded by demon familiars that is Negatus in “Yonderland” (pictured above.) How do you not fall madly in love with that?
Ben Willbond - Arguably the most conventionally handsome of the male Yonderlanders. But you can weaponize a good-looking face by using it as cover for an unexpected ambush of wit and weirdness, as with his nervous on-the-spot combat reporter Mike Peabody and terrifying Alexander the Great, or just power past it with sheer force of character, as with his Henry VIII, conveying bloatedness and nastiness just with his voice and presence. But it was his Henry Ford (seen above, backed by Simon Farnaby's George Stephenson, Laurence Rickard's Wilbur Wright, and Jim Howick's Isambard Kingdom Brunel ) doing the hand jive in HH's “Pioneers of Transportation” musical number, that forever won my Michiganian heart.
Laurence Rickard - Arguably the most conventionally actorly of the male Yonderlanders, bringing subtle wit and soulful depth to characters like the Anglo-Saxon husband in HH rebelling against his wife pretentiously trying to imitate their Norman conquerors, or the fake energy-driven TV presenter Bob Hale, or the sardonic abused servants of King Bernard in “Yonderland” and the Earl of Croydon in “Bill.” Though even if the Yonderlanders had never happened I would have pleasure-bonded with him anyway through his work in “Tracey Breaks the News.” Here he is at the HH Prom concert as the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Jim Howick - Inarguably the possessor of the handsomest singing voice, which made him invaluable for HH musical numbers (making Richard III* and William IV much more endearing than they had any right to be and Prince Albert the most adorable ever) and meant that he just had to be given a couple of musical numbers in “Yonderland.” His performance as Pat, the chipper scoutmaster with a fatal arrow through his neck in “Ghosts,” gives that series its sweetest and most heartbreaking moment (you’ll know when it comes.) That's him as Richard at the HH Prom.
Mathew Baynton - If you were to select an actor to bring back the Boyfriend Doctor concept to “Doctor Who,” Baynton would bring the right amount of intelligence, humor, and offbeat charisma. A brilliant comic actor, and, man, can he sell a musical number, e.g. his gospel Egyptian hieroglyphics teacher, Eminem-style rapping Charles II, and glam rock Henry VII (seen above.) His portrayal of Shakespeare in HH and “Bill” as a driven toxic narcissist may not be romantic or endearing but it feels just right to me, as does his wistfully erotomaniacal portrayal of the Romantic poet Thomas in “Ghosts.”
So what have the Yonderlanders accomplished so far (as of fall 2019)? Quite a substantial body of work I think.
Jim Howick and Mathew Baynton as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare in "Bill."
(TV series, 2013-2016)
The Yonderlanders showed what they were really made of with this original comedy fantasy series for the UK channel Sky One, for which they all share official credits as creators. In "Yonderland" the world of British fantasy, from medieval chivalric romances to the Jim Henson Company, turned out to be as rich a field to mine for stories and fun as UK history itself did in HH, and with a PG rating and no obligation to be educational the team could really flex their storytelling muscles. Martha Howe-Douglas was ideally cast as the central figure of Debbie—a stay-at-home mother combining the sensible virtues of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, J.M. Barrie’s Wendy, and “Doctor Who”’s better companions--who finds herself recruited to protect and sort out the problems of an alternate universe full of weird and wonderful characters. This is my favorite non-HH Yonderlander production to date and the one I'd recommend for new Yonderlander viewers who feel too grown-up for HH.
Drawing on yet another rich vein of British cultural heritage, this time the ghost story, “Ghosts” dials down the pacing and hilarity and brings to the surface a certain humane warmth that's always been at the heart of the Yonderlanders' work. An ordinary young couple, Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), unexpectedly inherits a neglected old mansion and moves in to rehabilitate it, which freaks out the many generations of deceased tenants still lingering there due to unresolved life issues. As in “Yonderland,” it’s only the female householder who can see this alternate reality, but this time her husband is clued in and actively engaged in dealing with it. Once again we are immersed in history, this time very local: among others, a Stone Age man named Robin (Laurence Rickard); Julian (Simon Farnaby), a Member of Parliament doomed to spend eternity with his pants off because that’s how he died; a World War II Captain (Ben Willbond) with an indomitable Blitz spirit; Pat, the cheery mid-20th century scoutmaster felled by a mistake during archery practice (Jim Howick); the perpetually outraged Victorian Lady Button (Martha Howe-Douglas); and Thomas, the Romantic poet (Mathew Baynton) who naturally falls into hopeless raptures of love at first sight with Alison. As with “Bill,” if you come to this as a Yonderlandish novice expecting a Pythonian laugh a minute, you’ll probably come away sulky. I advise dipping into those first five seasons of HH or some of “Yonderland” first, and if you find yourself in love, you may be ready for this.
*There's a remarkable 2013 documentary about Richard's exhumation, "Richard III: The King in the Car Park," hosted by Simon Farnaby. I don't know why they didn't get Jim Howick but Simon's great in it.
(c) 2019 by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.
(TV series, 2019)
Jim Howick as King Bernard and Martha Howe-Douglas as Debbie Maddox in "Yonderland."
Bill (feature film, 2015)
The Yonderlanders returned to the HH concept of educational entertainment with this contribution to the UK theatrical world’s celebration of William Shakespeare’s quadricentennial. Unfortunately, it wasn't well served by advertising that promised a "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" style historical spoof. It's not a rollicking HH style entertainment either, but a warm-hearted, intelligent imagining of the young William Shakespeare's transformation from an ambitious country gentleman to a working playwright. It's easier to appreciate "Bill" if you already know and love its principal cast, and can pick up adorable little in-jokes like Simon Farnaby's Earl of Croydon saying "You're no better than MEEE!" like his Caligula does in HH and Laurence Rickard's castle guard pausing to groove on a favorite piece of court music the way Bob Hale does with John Cage's "4' 33"" at the HH Prom concert.
What "Bill" offers that delights me most is its persuasive depiction of Christopher Marlowe as a brotherly friend and mentor to Bill as he grapples with the mucky and treacherous world of Tudor theater. To me Howick and Baynton collaborating on a playscript in an alehouse are much more satisfying dramatically than Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes getting sticky in "Shakespeare in Love." Plus you can show "Bill" to the kids. Well, the older ones.
I'm so much in love with all of them that I can't approach them with the same critical objectivity as I just did with Howe-Douglas. So in the spirit of "Tiger Beat" magazine (but with every respect for their persons and professional excellence) I give you
Ben Willbond (Captain), Martha Howe-Douglas (Lady Fanny Button), Jim Howick (Pat), Mathew Baynton (Thomas Thorne), and Lolly Adefope (Kitty) in "Ghosts."
Simon Farnaby as Death in "Horrible Histories."
Martha Howe-Douglas as Celtic warrior queen Boudica with tribesmen Jim Howick and Mathew Baynton in "Horrible Histories."