Mathew Baynton interview: on playing Shakespeare – and playing the clown

Published in The Independent on Sunday on September 13, 2015

To be or not to be William Shakespeare? It wasn’t a hard question for actor Mathew Baynton to answer – especially as his take on the Bard is rather, well, irreverent. Bill is a new film made by and starring the Horrible Histories gang, who give the early life of Shakespeare their surreally comic signature treatment. Just don’t call it a kids’ film…

“I did start looking at the absolute mountain of possible research you could do on Shakespeare, and then I thought it was ridiculous for so many reasons,” laughs the 34-year-old. “It’s a farcical comedy! It starts with Shakespeare in a band called Mortal Coil, so I had to check my actor’s pretensions.” For a man best known for writing and starring in comedy-drama The Wrong Mans with James Corden, as well as the children’s show Horrible Histories, pretension isn’t what comes to mind when you think of Baynton – and his latest projects see him continue to walk that line between daftness and pathos: as well as Bill, he’s soon to be seen in Sky’s comic end-of-the-world drama You, Me and the Apocalypse.

Some context, for those who’ve not been a child/had a child in the past 15 years: Horrible Histories was a hugely successful book series by Terry Deary, comically serving up gruesome or bonkers facts from history. In 2009, the BBC made a TV version, and their canny employment of some properly funny grown-up actors soon meant that Horrible Histories‘ smart blend of historical facts and pop-culture parody was as avidly watched by parents as their offspring.

When the Beeb told the core cast – Baynton, plus Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond – that series five would be their last, they decided to take their fruitful collaboration in new directions. Prior to Bill, this manifested in Yonderland, the much-lauded fantasy comedy about a woman who finds a magical, puppet-filled world in a cupboard, co-written by all six actors. The second series has just finished on Sky, and many fingers are being kept crossed for an as-yet-unconfirmed third.

Like Horrible Histories, both Bill and Yonderland see each cast member play multiple roles, creating a hectic, sketch-show feel. Both also slightly fox anyone who wants to put them neatly in an age bracket. This pleases Baynton, who dislikes the labels “for children” or “for families”. “We just hope Bill is for everyone. We’ve made a comedy – businesspeople make decisions about marketing.”

A father himself, Baynton lives with his wife Kelly, a film-maker and silent-cinema historian, in north London with their four-year-old son.

A farcical romp through grubby Elizabethan London, Bill sees a naive young Shakespeare try his luck as a playwright – after being thrown out of his band for indulging in Hendrix-esque lute solos. But he soon gets caught up with a dastardly plot by the Spanish to kill Queen Elizabeth… Imagine Shakespeare in Love with Monty Python rather than Gwyneth Paltrow.

Ah, Python. Although Baynton cringes when he catches himself comparing the work of his group to the seminal British comedy troupe, he needn’t fear – plenty of others have pointed out the similarity already. And now they follow in their sketch-to-film footsteps: Bill is utterly Pythonesque, and I’d be surprised if reviews fail to mention Life of Brian.

“Python always comes up with us, and they are a really true and acknowledged influence. I hope the film stands up, at least a little, to that comparison,” he says. A master of underselling himself, Baynton uses the word “hope” 13 times within the first 10 minutes of our chat, as if to ward off any sense of arrogance.

The British comedy world is fairly small – so have they met the Pythons? “We went to the live show, and had after-party backstage passes – we all just stood near Terry Jones and Eric Idle but none of us had the guts to say anything.”

Their peculiarly British brand of surrealism is no doubt what has given Yonderland and Horrible Histories a cult following; check out the Twitter love, YouTube views or slightly disturbing tumblrs (Baynton’s boyish good looks make him a target for fandom). And it seems the fans are, well, a bit weird. Scrupulously polite, Baynton bites his lip on the subject: “When kids sing songs to you, that’s sweet; when it’s people in their thirties, it’s a little more concerning. I don’t want to say too much! You always feel in some ways they’re your employer.”

Baynton has only himself to blame: he’s always craved an audience, starting with being the class clown at school. “I did my work and got good grades, so I got away with it. My reports used to say I was a bad influence on other kids! I would consider a day a triumph if I’d made someone laugh.” Until, that is, he hit 17, when he “suddenly went really dark and brooding”. There’s a folder somewhere, Baynton promises me, full of “really awful” songs in the Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith mould.

The gloom lifted, but songwriting endured – until recently, that is, when the self-aware cringe reflex led him to hang up his acoustic guitar. “I’m guilty of being mercilessly judgemental of actors who do music; there’s something self-indulgent and cheesy about it, and I thought – well, how dare I? I miss it, but I wasn’t writing as freely as I used to, because I could see how it could look from the outside.”

The tension between shyly self-effacing and goofily exhibitionist is one Baynton has long wrestled with. He studied directing at Rose Bruford, and wound up working with physical comedian Cal McCrystal. “He pushed me on stage, really – he sensed I was directing mainly out of cowardice.” Baynton then trained in Paris with legendary clown Philippe Gaulier, and spent a couple of years doing fringe shows. “Clowning has become cool now, but back then you avoided the word – people just would not come to see your show. As it turned out, no one came to see our show anyway.”

Not quite true: just as he was about to get a “real job”, Baynton was spotted by an agent. One early project – the 2008 film Telstar – saw him mucking around at the back of the class again, alongside James Corden. The pair formed a lasting friendship, which resulted in the two of them creating The Wrong Mans. “I love seeing people having fun, the glint in the eye – and I absolutely saw it in James. Our tastes are wildly different, but we have a point where we meet.”

Corden has leapt to a different level of fame, breaking America recently by successfully becoming host of The Late Late Show. I’m pretty sure I can guess the answer, but is Baynton interested in that kind of fame? “It’s just so not for me. I hate being myself in front of camera, I’d rather have a disguise on. I’ve witnessed what it’s like to be that famous first-hand – James welcomes it; I wouldn’t.”

Fans of The Wrong Mans – and there were many in the UK (though Baynton himself was surprised at its broad appeal and is delighted when I tell him my mum was a fan; he’d worried that it was too dude-ish and bromantic) – are advised to catch his role in the forthcoming series You, Me and the Apocalypse, a big-budget, multi-stranded comedy thriller about the end of the world. Baynton’s British loser character works in a bank, and obsessively grieves for his missing wife, before getting caught up in an international computer-hacking mystery. The series also features Rob Lowe as a badly behaved Catholic priest; having seen the first episode, I can attest that it’s as odd as it sounds – and entirely gripping.

Yet Baynton nearly turned it down. “I thought it would be too like The Wrong Mans: drama, bit of action, a low-achieving young man who has to go on an adventure to discover himself – but I couldn’t put down the script. I’d have been a fool to not go for it.” And he promises I ain’t seen nothing yet: “Honestly, it is a mad premise, but it gets so much crazier. So much crazier…”

It may be another comedy-drama, but it’s a – relatively – straight part for Baynton. “It’s a multi-narrative thing, and some strands are more comic than others – mine is quite tragic. Well, it felt that way to me,” he laughs. Baynton insists he’s always been most keen on material that combines funny with sad; there’s nothing wrong, he insists, with being a bit sentimental. “I’ve always been drawn to pathos. I think you can fall in love with a character because you find them funny, and it’s then very easy to turn that into something moving. I really love laughing and crying – what could be better?”

‘Bill’ (PG) is in cinemas from Friday. ‘You, Me and the Apocalypse’ begins on Sky 1 on 30 September. The second series of ‘Yonderland’ can be watched now on Sky Go and On Demand

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