Review by Daniel Tessier
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Ghosts might have a premise as straightforward as its title, but it has proven to be one of the most enjoyable sitcoms in recent years. A simple tale of a young couple who inherit a haunted house, the strength of the writing and the hugely likeable performances from its wide ensemble cast make it a hugely entertaining series.
Although a post-watershed programme (inasmuch as this means anything today) Ghostshas its origins on CBBC. In 2009, the BBC created ‘Horrible Histories,’ a children's educational comedy based on the bestselling books by Terry Deary. Adapting material from the books and more, the series presented the gruesome and bizarre facts of history in sketches and songs, for four series (with a brief resurgence in 2015). To perform the production, the showrunners recruited a troupe of actors from a varied comedy background. The rapid pace of production, improvisational style of the sketches and frequent live events during the series' height led to this troupe becoming a solid team of performers.
This group of performers includes Simon Farnaby (‘The Mighty Boosh,’ ‘Mindhorn’), Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Ben Willbond and Laurence Rickard. The six of them, having honed their writing and performing skills on ‘Horrible Histories,’ began to look towards projects of their own. In 2013, they created the family fantasy comedy ‘Yonderland’ for Sky 1, and followed this with the Shakespearean comedy film ‘Bill’ in 2015. This then led to the creation of Ghosts for BBC1.
While Ghosts is technically for adults, it is still a family-friendly comedy, with a few rude or sexual jokes that are fairly mild and wouldn't be too risqué for canny twelve-year-olds. The troupe work in differing combinations to write the scripts, in a writer's room ensemble that provides a consistent style throughout. The series sees Allison Cooper (Charlotte) unexpectedly inherit Button House, a huge mansion in the country, after a distant relative dies and leaves it to her. She and her husband Mike (Kiell Smyth-Bynoe) move in to the dilapidated mansion, and begin to make plans to turn it into a hotel.
The house, though, has a long and storied history, and is haunted by a multitude of ghosts from throughout the ages. The spirits are not happy with some new living people moving in with big plans, and Allison is pushed out of a window as they try to scare them away. Following two weeks in a coma, Allison awakes to find she can see the ghosts. After the initial shock wears off, she convinces the ghosts that they can co-exist peacefully, especially as she can do things for them that they are unable to do – like put a bet on the horses or switch the telly on.
Ritchie and Bynoe make Allison and Mike hugely likeable characters, two very ordinary people dropped into an extraordinary situation. Mike is the more wide-eyed, gormless of the two, but thankfully his disbelief in Allison's ability doesn't last long, which would have become tiresome. Instead, he resigns himself to living with a bunch of ghosts he can't see but his wife talks to. Allison gradually becomes closer to the various phantoms until they become a sort of strange, extended family.
It's the ghosts who make the show, of course. Howe-Douglas plays Lady Fanny Button, an Edwardian ghost who is constantly disapproving of the modern world and her young relative who has inherited the house. Lady Button was murdered by her husband when she discovered him in bed with the butler and the groundskeeper. He pushed her out the window, an event she is compelled to re-enact every morning at three o'clock (something that annoyed the other ghosts so much they put the clocks back). Baynton plays Thomas Thorne, a Romantic era poet who is also very distantly related to Allison, but who falls immediately in love with her as soon as he sees her.
Farnaby is brilliant as Julian Fawcett, the youngest of the ghosts. An MP who died in a sex scandal, he is forever without trousers. ("It's funny... you don't miss them till they're gone.") He's a creep to the highest degree, but endlessly funny, and also has the minor power to move things when he concentrates really, really hard. Willbond is the Captain, a stern, closeted army captain who died while stationed at the house in WWII.
Howick is Pat Butcher (no relation to the Eastenders character), an amiable scoutmaster who died in a bow-and-arrow accident when leading a scout event at the grounds of the house. Perhaps the best, though, is Rickard, who plays both Humphrey, a beheaded Tudor ghost, and the adorable Robin, the ghost of a caveman who lived on the grounds on which the house was built. Far more intelligent than he appears, Robin has spent the millennia honing his abilities and can affect lights and electricity, and also talk to animals. He's also surprisingly good at crosswords.
The ‘Horrible Histories’ company aren't the only ones playing spooks. Katy Wix plays Mary, the simple-minded and gently smouldering ghost of a woman burned as a witch, while Lolly Adefope is Kitty, the spirit of a Georgian aristocrat who is dangerously attention-starved and latches onto Allison as her new best friend. The various ‘ghosts’ actors, in sketch show tradition, play various other spirits as well for short appearances, most commonly those who exist in the basement, the house having been built on their plague pit.
The series is filmed at West Horsley Place, a fifteenth century house in Surrey. In a bizarre case of art imitating life, the house belongs to Bamber Gascoigne, having been left to him by his grand-aunt the Duchess of Roxburgh completely out of the blue. Of course, not everything takes place in the house and its grounds, with Allison managing to escape the increasingly clingy ghosts every once in a while, only to learn that she can see ghosts wherever they may haunt. At one point, unable to take much more, Allison and Mike decide to move, only to learn that pretty much every property in the area has at least one ghost.
While it's hardly the most groundbreaking concept – sharing similarities with series from The Ghosts of Motley Hall to ‘Rentaghost’ – what it lacks in originality it makes up for with humour and heart. Ghosts is a gentle, inoffensive and delightfully daft sitcom, but one that has moments of real emotion and pathos. The ghosts gradually get the chance to come to terms with their deaths, while Allison and Mike adjust to their peculiar new lifestyle. Among the many bleak, dark comedies that populate contemporary television, Ghosts is a smart yet simple pleasure.
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on October 8th, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.