For Krod's sake...

How BBC2's sword-and-sorcery comedy came to the screen

‘I don't recall many sitcoms featuring a bisexual Cyclops.’ That, says producer Mario Stylianides, is what makes Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire different from other comedies. ‘The ongoing narrative sets it apart,’ he adds. ‘It's an epic quest told over five episodes rather than a traditional sitcom where it ends in the same place it started’

The sword-and-sorcery spoof is also rare in being a transatlantic co-production. Made by Hat Trick for America’s Comedy Central, which has already aired it, and BBC, the cast comes from both countries, with former EastEnder Sean Maguire in the title role and Matt Lucas as the villainous Dongalor.

Peter Knight, the American who devised and co-wrote the show, said: ‘Originally we were told that the lead had to be American; luckily Sean does a very nice American accent, so that passed for Comedy Central.

‘Initially we also had a fruitless search for Dongalor. One of the really important things was that he is an out-and-out villain, but with a loveable side.’

‘Then Jimmy Mulville [managing director Hat Trick] called and said, “Hello, Peter, are you sitting down? Matt Lucas has put himself on tape for the role of Dongalor”. I said, “Oh my God, that's incredible – who is Matt Lucas?” As soon as he mentioned Little Britain it all began to make sense.

‘Then [co-writer] Brad Johnson and I started to look at everything we could find on YouTube and in no time at all we became the unofficial heads of the American Matt Lucas Fan Club!’

Lucas said enjoyed playing Dongalor – even though his scenes were shot in an intense two-week period between playing Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in Tim Burton's film version of Alice In Wonderland and writing a new series of Little Britain USA.

He says the show ‘is not like anything else on TV’, adding: ‘If pushed I'd say it's Lord Of The Rings meets Blackadder meets Monty Python.

‘My character, Dongalor, is a bit of a despot: an evil man with too much power. He's a cross between the Bond villain Blofeld and Pol Pot... Blow Pot, perhaps. He's psychotic really. Can you be a sociopath and a psychotic at the same time? If so, then he is!

‘Krod Mandoon should appeal to fans of Red Dwarf and Superbad. The production values of the series are very high with big, ambitious sets, and in many ways it looks more like a film than a comedy series.’

Indeed, the series was shot on location in Hungary – where BBC One’s Robin Hood was also filmed – to try to make the mythical Meconian Empire seem authentic.

Producer Stylianides adds: ‘What can I tell you about Hungary? That Hungarian is the most ridiculously difficult language to try and learn and the fact that we even tried meant a lot to the crew. If you called out the names Zoltan, Gabor and Tamas half the crew would turn round.

‘Real fur is cheaper than fake fur’ they have the best stuntmen in the world; vegetables are a delicacy; there were two big Neo-Nazi rallies while we were there; and carp soup really is dreadful.

‘If you've got a Hungarian crew laughing on set you know you might be on to something. Unlike the Brits, humour isn't their default setting in times of woe. I have very fond memories of filming there.’

Jimmy Mulville adds: ‘It's very different and ambitious for an hour-long opening special and four half-hour episodes: there are huge, ambitious, filmic sets; dozens of extras; thorough-bred horses; special effects; stunts; and CGI – there is nothing else like it out there.

‘In fact Krod is one of the most ambitious things we at Hat Trick have ever done. There was a very large budget for a half-hour comedy series and it's all up there on the screen – and we finished on budget.’

The series came about Knight and Johnson, became frustrated with the US writing process, trying to second-guess what executives further up the command chain wanted.

Kinight said: ‘Fresh on the heels of our last project not getting picked up I decided to give up on trying to figure out what the VP of Comedy at such-and-such a network might want to see, and to try to figure out what I would actually want to watch. So I had this idea: I loved the Conan The Barbarian comic books as a kid, set in a fun fantasy realm.

‘We then spent two months coming up with storylines. Once we had the basic story written down, we started writing pretty elaborate and very detailed outlines. Then we divided them up between us and each wrote a first draft that we would then hand to the other person who would make notes.

‘We then took the best of our notes back and forth three or four times before the final polish when we would sit down together for a day or two in a room. This had the advantage that once the outlines were approved we handed all five episodes in at once."

The timing was also fortuitous: ‘We heard that Comedy Central was very interested, but then the writers' strike came along. We continued developing our ideas and by the time the strike was settled, they were ready to greenlight the series.’

Johnson added: ‘Whilst I can't relate to being a freedom fighter, I have worked in a lot of offices where there is politics, in-fighting, incompetence and competition. So we said:, “Let's make this a work-place comedy where they have a goal that is to save the empire.”

‘They have a lot of obstacles in the way, a combination of their insecurities and incompetence and the fact that Krod is loyal almost to a fault and anybody else would have fired these people a long time ago'.

‘Once we had established that, we went back to the relationship between Krod and his girfriend Aneka and the twist, which is that they break up in the very first episode which is painful and one of the reasons you shouldn't have an office relationship because there is always the danger that you will have to go back and face that person despite having broken up with them. ’

Maguire explains that his chacter is ‘a freedom fighter who is a good warrior and a good hero, but he's got a few issues. Generally he's a guy who's trying to get something done with a band of men who aren't quite up to scratch. He's struggling to get the mission accomplished in an accidental Inspector Clouseau style.’

He was delighted when he was approached to star in Krod. ‘It was just the sort of exciting part I'd been looking for,’ he said. ‘I had a meeting with Peter and Brad and Peter described Krod: “Imagine Conan The Barbarian if Larry David was Conan,” and I thought, “That's a pretty good summary – I couldn't do better than that!”

‘Five months later, there I was in Hessemeel drinking a few tankards of grog!’

Sean did have a couple of close shaves whilst working with the flaming sword: ‘Because the sword was attached to a gas canister and really does catch fire in real life. I had one particularly exciting day when I was doing a scene where I had to point it at someone as if I was going to kill them, and the director kept saying, “Lower, lower!” but the flames started travelling up towards me and they put this gooey lotion on my hand to protect it from the fire, but the flames started licking around my wrists until they yelled: “Cut! You'd better cut!”

‘But I'm not one of these hero guys, because I've broken a lot of bones making films. I've got an amazing stunt double called Gushi who does the really heroic, daredevil stuff where you nearly die. But I was dragged behind a horse, had vicious sword fights, was almost set on fire, thrown through the air and smashed into a carriage and that was just in the first couple of weeks.’

Lucas’s trials on set were simpler, mainly being confined to wardrobe. He was forced into some pretty eccentric costumes, not least a pair of goat fur underpants and not much else. He said: ‘It was great fun and a very happy series to work on. Luckily I don't take myself too seriously and I don't think that my chances of playing Romeo have been changed in any way because of the silly costumes in Krod Mandoon.’

‘Dongalor does feel like the first big villain that I've played. In Little Britain you might say Majorie Dawes was pretty villainous and Andy Pipkin can behave very badly but in terms of being a full-on despot I think that it's got to be Dongalor.’

As a co-production, the makers were aware of the danger in trying to please both masters and failing them both.

Director Alex Hardcastle says: ‘We've been massively blessed by the fact it's set in this other world. I think that helps in terms of us being able to play on both sides of the Atlantic.’

Producer Stylianides said he was also aware of the pressiues: ‘There was trepidation at the outset as to how the show would play featuring an ensemble cast that had both British and American accents,’ he admits. ‘But I think the quality of the scripts and the performances means that you very quickly concentrate on character and story rather than the differences in their voices.

‘We were conscious that the cast had to work on both sides of the Atlantic - whether we've been successful in achieving this is now in the hands of our viewer.’

The show will air on BBC Two later this summer. In the meantime, here are some clips:

Published: 1 Jun 2009

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