Yonderland is back! It's all calm in the magical world as we re-join the gang for Series 3. With evil Imperatrix dead, peace and prosperity has spread throughout the land and loveable Cuddly Dick (played by Stephen Fry) is out of prison and able to re-join his fellow Elders to help govern the kingdom.
The gang is back for a third series of adventures in Yonderland. What's it like coming back together after the success of last year's series?
Laurence: Our other work throughout the year is fun but there's something special about working together. It's a tricky show to write and it can be tough, but as soon as we're on set and get to start filming again, it feels like a holiday because we're hanging out with our mates.
Martha: It's so exciting. I think we have upped the ante this year. We did away with Imperatrix and that opened it up perfectly for new stories, which I think breathes new life into the show.
Why do you think the show keeps going from strength to strength?
Martha: I think it's the nostalgia, that sort of family show that people can sit down with their kids on a Saturday and watch - we kind of don't have that any more. I think people enjoy the capers and the humour; it's quite accessible and silly. It's fun.
There are a lot of you in the team. How do you manage to organise your schedules to not only write the show, but also film it?
Mathew: It's about the desire to be there. When the show is commissioned we set the filming dates quite a long way in advance and block it out, so other things then have to fit around that.
Laurence: It's slightly tricky as it's based around the six of us. Usually when you're making a show you have your dream cast and then if one can't make it you use someone else instead, but we can't do that. Finding a two-and-half-month slot to film this time around was tricky but everyone has a will to do it, so we make it work.
When it came to actually creating the new series, how did it work between you all?
Simon: We all gather in a room and story arc the whole series and then break off to work on individual episodes. We just get a feel for who would be better doing each part or writing each episode. For example, we may talk a lot about a story for Negatus and I'm in tune with him as a character so I'll offer to do that episode.
Mathew: We take a week or two to storyline. I love the process so much because when you decide which episode you're going to write, you come away with not just the storyline you've worked out in the room but also lines we've all come up with while we're together, so it feels like you have a bag of goodies.
Martha, as the only woman on the team, do you ever feel outnumbered?
Martha: I don't know whether I regress or I become more like a boy! But I find them hilarious, I absolutely love spending time with them, they make me laugh so much. They drive me mad at times, like a family - there are times when I absolutely want to kill them! But I think that's just the nature of being together all the time. I love them all dearly.
So who's the funniest out of you all?
Ben: We should all point to each other!
Simon: Each of them has a different way of making me laugh and that's what we're all here for, we bring different things to the show. Some things we can play smart and sometimes we can be outrageous because it's a colourful world.
Laurence: I think we all find each other hilarious. Sometimes the only way to get through a scene is to not look at each other. Simon does a tribute to Terry Wogan this series. It's only a small character but he has the ability to make the most out of it, turning something small into something great.
Simon: Shouting very loudly in an Irish accent with some goofy teeth! I think Terry would be proud, it's a bit of fun. I've got a microphone and everything!
One of the things fans love so much about the show is that it can be a little bit on the naughty side...
Jim: The forbidden laughter is the most delicious. That's what Yonderland is!
Martha: We can't swear, and I don't think that's a bad thing because it makes you have to work a little bit harder to be funny. There are quite a few innuendos in this series - we're watching it back now and I'm thinking, "How did we get away with that?".
Mathew: We talk about it as the equivalent of having the school teacher in the room, if the teacher leaves and you can say anything you like then, that's not half as funny as when they are there and you might get in trouble for what you're saying.
Laurence: The only problem is we get people coming up to us in the street saying, "Thank you very much, I just had to explain X, Y and Z to my son". I think there were a few people who had to explain why they were laughing about the nice little man getting a massage and there being a happy ending!
Some TV critics have branded Yonderland a 'family comedy', what do you make of that label?
Jim: We always knew we were writing something for a family slot but I just think it's the way we approach the material, and that's just to write something funny. There is a line that we have to push against which automatically puts us into that category because we don't swear. There have been a lot of tributes recently about The Two Ronnies, and a lot of comics who enjoy their work have been talking about how a lot of it is quite bawdy and made for adults. But when I watched it as a kid I didn't realise, I just enjoyed it.
Mathew: I do sometimes find it frustrating because I feel like growing up no one was making that distinction about the stuff that we watched. So no one said that because kids could watch The Two Ronnies with their parents, or Blackadder for that matter, that they were any less of a comedy. No one called it 'family comedy', it was just good comedy. If you did Blackadder now I think people would label it family comedy but I don't think that's fair either.
Martha: I think if you talk down to kids then you're going to be patronising them and that's not what we do. I think people do kids a disservice by thinking that it's too adult for them, because kids know what funny is. It's a comedy that makes us laugh, and of course you can sit around with your kids and there will be jokes that they get that you don't, and the other way around.
Yonderland is famous for its puppets, and the team that brings them to life has amazing credentials...
Mathew: More than half of our puppet team work on Star Wars. It's weird though because none of them ever talk about it - they're not allowed to in case they get sued or something!
Jim: That's testament to the goodwill we have on this job, and it's the case throughout all the departments. The desire to express themselves and use their imaginations is great. The puppets we have on this series, I think, are beyond what we have done so far. In every episode there's a strange creature.
There are a number of new puppets this year including a singing spider. Why haven't you succumbed to CGI like other shows?
Martha: I think it just makes it that bit more tangible. Everybody is doing CGI, everything is computerised now, and I think it's so much nicer to be able to see the puppet right on the screen. That's so much more enchanting.
There is a major new character this year, Cuddly Dick, who is played by the brilliant Stephen Fry, how did you convince him to join the cast?
Jim: Larry wrote him a letter!
Laurence: It was as simple as that! When we were writing the character we had him in the back of our minds and normally that's the worst thing you can do because it never pans out and you always end up going in a different direction. But we thought we could only ask, so I sent him a letter with the scripts and some of our old episodes, but it turns out he already knew the show and got back to us, and thankfully it just happened to work with his schedule, which is a miracle in itself because he's such a busy man. He wrote back and said, "Yep, totally got it, totally love the idea of the character, love it, yes please". It was wonderful.
What was it like having Stephen with you on set?
Martha: Oh my goodness! I mean, what a privilege! He's a genius, just the most fascinating man. I honestly don't think we could have asked for better. He was so much fun and totally took the spirit of the show on board from day one. There was no separation between him and us, he was part of us, which was brilliant, and I'm really glad. He didn't want to just come on, do his lines and sod off - he was totally a part of us, I loved working with him.
Mathew: The spirit of what we do is like what they did on Blackadder. If you watch the footage of them in rehearsal it's very similar to how we are. I think Stephen immediately felt at home with us.
He's famous for his general knowledge. Did you try and test him in-between filming?
Laurence: He would end every sentence with something none of us know - seriously, his general knowledge is insane!
Ben: It's like being on an episode of QI for ten hours and the best thing ever is when he says, "I didn't know that!". You style it out but then go round the corner and scream because you know something he doesn't! One of his favourite films is Where Eagles Dare and I love that film too. I watched it loads with my dad growing up. Stephen was like, "Well, Hugh and I used to watch that all the time when we were writing". So I said, "Did you know Clint Eastwood was paid $800,000 for that, and he was one of the highest paid Hollywood actors?". He replied, "I didn't know that!". I know that he will now repeat that to someone as his own interesting fact. If I ever see it on QI I will be so chuffed!
Martha: I've never met anybody with such huge, huge knowledge. He brought QI to Yonderland! And he would listen to opera in his dressing room at full blast!
Were there any gags you had written for Cuddly Dick which you took out once he agreed to play him?
Ben: Not at all, he's got a great sense of humour. If anything he would build on it and find another little joke in the script. We all work together so much that it can be intimidating for new people coming in, they can be careful with material where we play around with it. Stephen found that freedom very quickly. It was a joy to work with him, even to just watch him. I liked to sit at the monitor some-times and see him in action.
Martha: He was telling us how he loved the scripts, and I was really quite taken aback. When someone comes in, you never know what they're going to be like, but he was just brilliant.
So what's happening for Debbie in Yonderland this time around?
Martha: So obviously Imperatrix is no more, so there's a new villain in town and they provide fierce opposition to Debbie's latest mission. Debbie is kind of being pushed into Yonderland more than ever. There's quite a power struggle going on, more so than before, because she didn't meet Imperatrix until right at the very end, whereas this time her villain is in the mix from the beginning. It's a new twist on the dangers that she faces in Yonderland.
There's something a little different this time in that you have filmed a music video for Negatus's band, Hot Eagle. Why did you decide to do that?
Laurence: There's a reference in one of the scripts which was a throwaway joke where he gets split up from the rest of the demons and tries to get them back so he says, "Come on, we're putting the band back together", and the demon goes, "What, Hot Eagle?" and Negatus says, "What, Hot Eagle? I think I killed the bassist". So when Sky mentioned doing a song we thought it would be good to see what Hot Eagle were like back in the day.
Mathew: It was fun imagining what kind of band he would have been in. In a way the first thought is to do something quite dark, punky and rebellious, then we thought that as he's so in love with himself it would be something posing. So it's a very sincere, soft rock love song. There are wind machines and everything!
Since Yonderland first started there have always been comparisons made with David Bowie's Labyrinth, what do you make of that?
Ben: We're massive fans of those films, and The Storyteller with John Hurt, so it's amazing to be put in that category.
Mathew: When we started out on this show a lot of us weren't fans of CGI and couldn't understand why it was only The Muppets who do puppetry. I guess early on we thought there would be a budget conversation where they would tell us we couldn't have puppets, but that never happened and we got them. Then the puppeteers turn up and we start talking about Labyrinth and they're like, "Yeah, that was me!".
Are there any tributes to David Bowie in this series, as it's the first since his death?
Mathew: Yeah there is one. We found a little way to send him a message via the art department. I don't want to spoil it but hopefully people will spot it.
Laurence: There are a couple of little nods, like we're all wearing tights!
Mathew: Although none of us can compete with Bowie in that department!
Labyrinth isn't the only comparison made. As a team you've also been likened to Monty Python. How does that feel?
Martha: It's ridiculously flattering, of course it is, but when we started we didn't set out to be a troupe in any way - we didn't even have a name! There were just the six of us - we call ourselves The Idiots! If people liken us to Monty Python then that's hugely flattering. But we've got a long way to go, I think, until we get to those dizzy heights, definitely! We're not about to do a reunion tour at the O2, put it that way!
Mathew: It's understandable because if you're looking at an ensemble who play multiple roles and the style of comedy is quite surreal and silly, then Monty Python is the first reference you go to. I find it unbelievably flattering. We try to remind ourselves it doesn't mean we are Monty Python.
Ben: I find it incredible to be namechecked in the same sentence as them.
Laurence: We always say that we are fine with the comparison but I'm not sure I would be if I was a Python! I think their response might be, "Who?".
Would you love to have one of the Pythons play a character in Yonderland?
Mathew: The dream would be to get Michael Palin.
Ben: That would be the ultimate dream but I think I would be terrified!
You've had some wonderful actors on the show, and this Christmas Alison Steadman joins the Yonderland gang for your double-length festive episode...
Mathew: I worked with her for a bit on Gavin & Stacey and I was so in awe of her I couldn't bring myself to speak. So when I met her again some years later she must have thought I was some weird guy who doesn't speak. She's so brilliant.
Martha: She's one of my comedy heroes, I think she's brilliant, so that was a real coup. I couldn't believe it when she said yes.
Laurence: It's a great episode that's split between Christmas here and in Yonderland, which is a very different affair from what we expect the holiday to be like. Where we have Santa, they have a seven-foot monster which Negatus decides he could replace!
Mathew: We thought it would be hilarious to have Debbie explain Christmas to the Elders and realise that ours does sound a bit weird: a fat man comes down your chimney in the middle of the night and leaves you presents.
Are there any other actors you would love to have on the show?
Martha: I love Olivia Colman, I love Julie Walters, loads of others. It's just such a lovely thing when people want to be a part of something that you've written or created, so anybody can come and be in it, definitely.
Jim: Having someone like Stephen join the cast opens up so many doors in that respect, to encourage people we want to join us to not be afraid to come and play with us!
You are such a successful team, so what happens if one of you wants to leave to pursue another project?
Mathew: I honestly can't imagine that happening. If Ben was offered Bond then maybe we would have a problem but only then!
Ben: The only way I am going to be in a Bond movie is if it's this: "OK Ben, if you can just stand there, Daniel's going to come through the door and fire two shots, squibs will go off", then I'd say, "Do I get to meet Daniel?", and they'd say, "No, he won't actually be here". That's the only way I'll be in a Bond film!
Mathew: We have discussed in the past who our 'free pass' would be, you know the way couples agree people they're allowed to go on a date with outside of the relationship? What job would be the pass which would allow us to leave the group?
Jim: Star Wars! Imagine if we all joined Star Wars! It would turn into some weird comedy.
How long do you think the show can keep going for?
Laurence: The scripts often take a long time to get right and sometimes it can weigh slightly heavily and you think it's too difficult. But as soon as we start shooting we don't want it to stop and immediately want to do it again. I think while we are physically able to do it and there's a demand from the audience, then I think we will do it.
Jim: We always get quite sad towards the end of filming and end up having a little cuddle because it always goes so fast. I did a job in Bulgaria last year and was holed up in a hotel on my own, quite lonely, and I couldn't wait to start filming on this.
Could there be a movie version of the show?
Martha: We wouldn't say no to it, of course! Goodness knows what we'd do, but we'd find some-thing if Working Title said we could make one! Let's never let Yonderland go - we can always come up with stuff. So yes, we would definitely pull some stories out of the bag if they wanted more.
Laurence: There are ideas that we have talked about but we'll have to see.
Ben: I think the concept of this show would mean the budget would have to be quite big to service it. It was like when I first saw The Simpsons Movie, I couldn't help feel a bit disappointed that it was suddenly on a huge scale, the shots were different, it lost the fun of the format. So if we did a movie we would have to make sure it was as good as the TV show.
Series 3 of Yonderland is on Sky 1 on Sundays at 6:30pm