A Trip To Yonderland

The third series of Yonderland, the surreal puppet-flavoured comedy from the Bill/Horrible Histories team, will be hitting our TV screens in exactly one week. As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, a couple of weekends ago the BFI hosted a preview screening and cast Q&A. We were there to see what was going on, in the form of Mog and her kids:

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© Sky

I was first made aware of Yonderland through my involvement with The Velvet Onion; there was talk of a few of the artists that we write about working on a kids’ TV show for Sky. With puppets. At the time I wasn’t convinced it would be my cup of tea, although obviously I wished them well. Then I discovered that Imogen Cooper, the producer of series 2 of Luxury Comedy, would be producing the show, and descriptions like “Monty Python for under 12s” started being bandied around by the kind of people whose comedy compass is as finely tuned as they come. So I figured I’d give it a go.

Now, two series in and with a new one in the pipeline, Yonderland is a firm favourite in our family viewing repertoire, and is arguably one of the most unusual, charming and fun/funny shows on TV full stop, not just on kids’ TV. Judging by the size and diversity of the crowd that attended BFI’s Yonderland event, we’re not alone in this opinion.

The BFI was heaving with a disparate collection of excited kids, their equally as excited parents, moody teenagers, and even a few child-free fully-functioning adults. Yonderland is clearly a show which boasts a broad fanbase. The production team had been there since daybreak, setting up themed activities, photo opportunities featuring real props and wardrobe from the show, and displays of technical drawings and storyboards from the series. Some of the puppeteers were also on hand to answer questions and demonstrate the puppets in action. You got the impression that they were as delighted to be involved in Yonderland as we were to be watching it. Even if there had been no screening or Q&A to follow, we would have left happy.

The screening itself consisted of episodes 1 and 2 of the new series. As you may have read in the press, Stephen Fry plays a new key character, Cuddly Dick, and the Yonderland team don’t disappoint in how thoroughly they’ve milked this for puerile humour. “We were only allowed one dick joke per episode though.” Martha Howe-Douglas noted afterwards.

Indeed, the new series is definitely cheekier than previous ones (and I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I found it even funnier because of it). Parents with younger kids can relax though, safe in the knowledge that it’s that particular version of cheeky whereby younger kids have absolutely no idea it’s going on, while their parents are combusting with giggles. A particular highlight was Simon Farnaby’s special ‘snake charming’ moves in episode 2.  Brilliant stuff.

© Sky

© Sky

Although series 3 adheres to the familiar Yonderland recipe, the two episodes that were shown at the screening definitely feel sharper, funnier and more visually and conceptually ambitious than their predecessors. From a production perspective there’s simply more going on, in terms of filmic techniques, pace and scale. And you get the sense that the team are really having fun, flexing and pushing the characters and script, reaching for higher, bigger notes. In fact, during the Q&A after the screening they explained that the desire to make each series better than the last is what drives them continue – and they’ll keep going until they can no longer achieve continuous improvement.  Good news for fans!

I’ve been to a few Q&As over the years, and one of the things that distinguished this one was the palpable sense of unity between the members of the Yonderland team. They only got together as a group on the set of Horrible Histories, but it’s clear that genuine friendship has evolved since then, with collaboration at the heart of their work.

Here are just a few of the insights we gleaned during the Q&A: Different episodes of Yonderland are written by different smaller clusters within the team, but everyone gets to input into everything; they keep thinking that they can’t keep doing nudity jokes forever, but it seems like you can; they all want to play all of the characters in the show, but often mundane production logistics dictate who’s able to play what; Martha is great at learning her lines, while the rest of the team exhibit “varying degrees of awfulness”, with Jim being the worst (indeed, Jim’s capacity forgetting his lines, corpsing on set, and improvising off script was one of the major topics of conversation – we felt quite sorry for him!); writing for Negatus is a particular joy and they really wish that they hadn’t killed off Kendall; and Elf’s appearance changes each series due to constant improvements in film prosthetics.

It was a fascinating hour in the company of a team of talented individuals who are clearly having a lot of fun doing what they’re doing. Yonderland has hit its stride and is now throwing in some serious dance moves!

The show returns to our screens on Sky 1 on Sunday, October 16th; For the impatient amongst you, here’s a preview of what’s to come below:

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