When you review it nonstop for five series, one thing becomes very, very obvious: Besides all the professional accolades, the adoration from children and adults alike, the chances to not only meet but share a stage with comedy legends and the occasional prancing around the Royal Albert Hall dressed in Viking armour… being the starring cast behind Horrible Histories was above all just a whole lot of fun.
…well, barring the possibility of accidentally stumbling on certain fanfics. OK, also the filming in scanty costumes in the late English autumn, that seems to come up a lot in interviews. (Mostly from B. Willbond, in whose memoirs the chapter dealing with this show–hopefully titled Pushing Benjamin’s Buttons–is clearly going to be a corker.)
Still it was all mitigated by the fact that “Mat, Simon, Martha, Jim, Larry and Ben” had in the process rather miraculously become, not only as tight and balanced a bonafide comedy troupe as one could hope from people routinely playing cavemen, but the best of friends behind the scenes–or the playground, as they put it. Real, non-scripted friends, the kind who work on each other’s random vanity projects and chatter together on Twitter and then happily go out and get drunk together despite the heightened potential for career-destroying Twitter pics.
Granted, a certain amount of mutual goodwill might’ve been expected to emanate from people guileless and generous-hearted enough to devote five prime years of their lives to making intelligent children’s comedy. On the other hand, the bit where, when their playground was pulled out from under, their first concern was not to desert the ship but to find another one they could all steer together… not quite so common, that. Especially not in comedy, wherein success is predicated on who can garner the most attention to themselves. Founding uber-inspirations Monty Python barely made it through three initial series intact, if Michael Palin’s diaries are to be believed. How much more so the stars of a kiddy series, who might safely be assumed to be chomping at the bit to resume their ‘real’ grownup careers?
Which, in fact, they hadn’t been neglecting in the interim. Simon ended up in both the Boosh movie and as a pet-turtle-owning neighbor in the sitcom version of The Midnight Beast, whilst somehow simoultaneously developing into a plausible documentary presenter. Ben maintained a less eccentric albeit equally full guest-starring schedule, including a recurring role on The Thick of It, while nurturing his short film Tooty’s Wedding around the festival circuit. Jim supplemented his quasi-regular status on Peep Show with a kind-to-his-pocket(-if-not-his-dignity…) stint as an O2-shilling faun. Larry kept up his freelance writing with partner George Sawyer. Martha joined friends for various Edinburgh Festival shows. And Mat, alongside the co-starring role in Darren Boyd’s Spy, had juggled being James Corden’s personal friend during the latter’s public nadir deftly enough to become the co-creator and -star of Corden’s wildly successful 2013 TV comeback, sitcom/action-film spoof The Wrong Mans.
…Thing is, somewhere in there, they’d all also really gotten into using the restrictions of tots’ TV as a spur to pure creativity. In particular, Mat and Ben had been kicking around a film idea based on their mutual love for, of all things, ’80s fantasy movies. Yes, that unique period in children’s cinema history during which Hollywood’s conviction that ‘fuzzy puppet’ must automatically = ‘family-friendly’ reached its most memorably mistaken zenith. This, CGI-jaded readers, would be why your parents still will not shut up about The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, Return to Oz and all the other “lo-fi” variants on the tale of an ordinary kid forced into a quest through some bizarre magical otherworld, during which s/he learns Valuable Life Lessons up to and including avoidance of David Bowie’s crotch at all costs. (Hey, I said the characters learned lessons, not the audiences.)
Leaving the crotch thing out of it for now–although [spoiler alert] trust me, we’ll be getting back to it soon–those so impressed clearly included our newly formed troupe, who pounced on the idea of a Hensonian odyssey as on manna to their purpose-starved souls. You can practically hear the pieces clicking into place, like creative dominoes: The fantasy setting meant they could maintain the familiar, child-friendly costume-and-character-driven comedy style (or as Willbond put it, “continue to raid the dress-up box and speak in silly voices”) and the cross-demographic nostalgia for same meant they could still mess about with adult parody in the process. The newcomer-on-a-quest format naturally lent itself to self-contained vignettes within a larger plot. Said lone newcomer would of course be played by the lone female of the troupe, while the five very different males could equally obviously tackle the many different–and decidedly loopy–characters she would be expected to meet along the way.
It would be called Yonderland, and it would be all theirs, unfettered by anyone else’s thematic or stylistic quirks. They would create the world, write the stories, and–most importantly, it must be assumed, after a half-decade of never knowing when you’d be playing the guy covered in poop–design the characters. They could play anybody. Almost. Anybody they couldn’t play, but could still imagine, could be those (quite possibly literally) damned puppets. Because Henson’s associates Baker Coogan were still out there, and still dedicated to embodying the daffily weird in felt. The only thing truly missing was Bowie’s magnificent package… then again, they were British, there were workarounds for that.
It was, in sum, the single most elaborate plan to avoid breaking up The Group ever envisioned. Now, all they had to do was get somebody to pay for it.
Which is where fantasy series make a hard right at reality: they are, especially ones predicated on the extensive use of lovingly-crafted, man-hour-intensive niche artistry, about the furthest thing TV knows from cheap. This is presumably why seemingly natural allies the BBC weren’t even mentioned as potential sponsors for this one. Nor were any of the other mainstream UK channels (all, like, four of them). Clearly, this was a job for cable… yes, ‘cable’ means something slightly different in the UK than the US. Slightly. Keep those workarounds in mind, is all I’m saying.
Enter SkyOne, an offshoot of the Murdoch empire best-known for endlessly running American imports and (understandably, esp. if you’ve seen the last couple Simpsons seasons) lately very eager to get on with making their original mark. So eager, in fact, that for the first last and I’m guessing only time in TV history, when six Twitter buddies showed up in a boardroom and pitched the perfect Sunday evening family viewing as “The new 80’s-influenced comedy project from the adult cast of an historical kiddie edutainment, except totally not historical, unless maybe you count the puppets”, many perfectly sober executives immediately began laying plans for the moss-and-Mojo-themed premiere venue.
And–as you may be suspecting by now–they weren’t disappointed. As it turned out, this crew still had a lot of joyously guileless lunacy to give. Which they did, eight nonstop episodes’ woth, with all the verve required of a troupe that an adoring cadre of TV critics (who clearly also weren’t disappointed) had already dubbed a latter-day Python for the pint-sized set… even as the same troupe continued to insist that they saw no particular distinction between adult and children’s programming. As ever, they were making Yonderland for no particular demographic but themselves.
And it was… well, it was at least worth individual episode recaps. So I’ve done some, beginning in the new year. More standard formatting this time, as more standard episode structure involved, but pretty much the same… um, whatever it is I’ve applied to the HH episodes. Sort of funny, sort of serious, and always in search of fresh synonyms for ‘sophisticated’.*
*No, really, I’m getting a bit desperate over here. Please send thesaurus.