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 and Carol Cleveland as Pythons.) The problem with this is that the Yonderlanders are really nothing like the Pythons at all. The Pythons (if you don’t count Gilliam and Cleveland) 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.
Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Mathew Baynton as disco dancing Aztec priests in "Horrible Histories."
King George I, II, III, and IV (Ben Willbond, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, and Jim Howick) perform as a boyband in "Horrible Histories."
Another key difference is that Python rose to fame as a taboo-busting act directed at strictly adult audiences, whereas the Yonderlanders came together when working on an educational children’s show, which meant that the sort of trippy weirdness and deliberately offensive material that characterizes the Pythons were completely out of bounds. The Yonderlanders have mastered the tricky craft of providing state of the art entertainment with a bit of a bite to it while remaining appropriate for a family audience. That includes abandoning the “Carry On”-style male gaze that dates the Pythons' work so badly.
Celtic warrior queen Boudicca (Martha Howe-Douglas) with two of her tribesmen (Jim Howick and Mathew Baynton) in "Horrible Histories."
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. Not to mention that she is arguably the most conventionally good-looking of the Yonderlanders.
So now that I've applauded Howe-Douglas, I can reveal my passion for
The men of Yonderland
I am so much in love with all five of them that I can’t choose among them and I can’t write about them with the critical objectivity that I ought to, so while trying to remain respectful of their talents and persons, here are my thoughts about
Simon Farnaby - 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, and then imagine evolving that character from a bored civil servant checking newly deceased people into the afterlife into a narcissistic Simon Cowell-type TV presenter. Then imagine carrying that same refined concept of the horror clown into the realm of fantasy as a self-indulgent Goth buffoon in black surrounded by demon familiars that is Negatus in “Yonderland” (pictured above with a friend.) 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 on-the-spot combat reporter Mike Peabody, or just power past it with sheer force of character, as with his Henry VIII--shown above with his father Henry VII (Mathew Baynton) in HH--conveying bloatedness and nastiness just with his voice and presence. He also has a fabulous way of turning a character terrifying by simply showing his teeth, used to striking effect in his Alexander the Great. But it was his blandly smiling Henry Ford 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.” That's him as the "SO weird" Kendall the Jeweler in "Yonderland," whom I suspect is one of those culture-specific references in the Yonderlanders' work that clueless Americans like me tend to interpret as just zany absurdist British humor. But I must say Laurence does look dishy in that Sally Struthers wig and lip gloss.
Jim Howick - Here's Jim as King Bernard, with Martha Howe-Douglas as Debbie, in "Yonderland." 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.)
Mathew Baynton as Charles II in "Horrible Histories."
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.) 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.
Bill (feature film, 2015)
The Yonderlanders returned to the HH concept of educational entertainment with their contribution to the UK theatrical world’s celebration of William Shakespeare’s quadricentennial. While audiences who were lured to “Bill” by advertising promising them a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” style entertainment were destined to be disappointed, from the perspective of a Yonderlanders fan there’s a lot about it to squee over. As in HH there’s the ongoing pleasure of seeing our guys and gal playing multiple roles, watching history used for comic effect, and in-jokes only people who’ve watched all of HH over and over will get (e.g. Farnaby’s Earl of Croydon’s “You’re no better than MEEEE” echoing his Caligula in HH, or Rickard’s castle guard listening for the bit of court music he likes, just as Bob Hale listens for his favorite bit of John Cage at the HH Prom.)
It’s really hard to transfer the chemistry of a successful TV comedy series to the big screen, as you need to both go bigger and slow down the pace. Python had an easier time bringing their act to the screen in “Holy Grail” than the Yonderlanders did creating "Bill" because, first of all, it wasn’t their first feature film (that would be “And Now For Something Completely Different,” basically a motion picture restaging of some of their greatest hits from their TV sketch show) and secondly, they had one of the most compelling stories in world culture as the foundation for their screenplay. All they had to do was play it for laughs. Whereas in choosing to dramatize William Shakespeare’s journey from country gentleman to up and coming London playwright, the Yonderlanders had to create an original story, based in historical reality but flavored with all the fun of the HH series—and all the obligations to remain appropriate for family viewing (unlike some movies about Shakespeare we can think of that made much more at the box office.) So it didn’t generate a cult following and hit Broadway musical. It’s still got Jim Howick as Christopher Marlowe stress-eating meat pies and Simon Farnaby as Croydon reading Tudor lads' mags. Good times.
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 each of them shared at least one episode writing credit. 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 mom combining the sensible virtues of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, J.M. Barrie’s Wendy, P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, 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.
Debbie (Martha Howe-Douglas) serenaded by the Parvuli in "Yonderland."
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) carrying the indomitable spirit of the Blitz into eternity; 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.
In addition to various roles in the "Horrible Histories" TV series and live prom concert, "Yonderland," "Bill," and "Ghosts":
Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond have writer credits for HH, "Yonderland," "Bill," and "Ghosts."
Mathew Baynton has writer credits for HH, "Yonderland," and "Ghosts."
Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas, and Simon Farnaby have writer credits for "Yonderland" and "Ghosts."
Laurence Rickard has a producer credit for “Yonderland” and all the Yonderlanders have producer credits for “Ghosts.”
*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) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.
The composer Lully (Laurence Rickard) being visited by Death (Simon Farnaby) at the HH Prom Concert.
(TV series, 2019)