Warning: This contains mild spoilers for the setup of Ghosts.
“We could always try… haunting?” That’s the sound of BBC One’s comedy, Ghosts, bringing a new perspective to, well, ghosts. Pitched somewhere between The Others and What We Do in the Shadows, it’s a hysterical, witty, endlessly silly piece of television that gets a laugh out of the darkest of material.
The idea of living people being haunted has been exploited for giggles all the way back to Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (adapted for the screen in 1945 by David Lean) or even offbeat detective series Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased. Ghosts blends that with the idea that dead people are haunted too – not only by the intrusion of the living upon their territory (in this case, the ancient estate of Button Hall) or even their own unfinished business, but also by other ghosts. It’s that last one that really makes Ghosts a delight, as it hits upon a purgatorial home truth that’s relatable for all organisms, whether living and dead; while being trapped in a single house for all eternity would probably suck, the only thing worse is being trapped in a single house with other people you don’t like.
The result is, despite its paranormal premise, essentially a domestic comedy, and Ghosts finds the perfect balance between sitcom conventions and undead tropes, both of which it constantly subverts. It should come as no surprise, then, that the show hails from the team behind Horrible Histories and Sky One’s Yonderland, not to mention the feature film Bill. Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond are all present and correct, playing the gaggle of ghouls with the kind of precise coming timing and comfortable familiarity that comes with penning the characters themselves. (While not foul-mouthed, Ghosts airs post-watershed and the gang take advantage of that to makes something cheekier than their specifically family-oriented shows, with the occasional mild scare.)
There’s The Captain (a brilliantly deadpan Ben Willbond), a fastidious, stern figure who wants order and peace and doesn’t believe in talking about past horrors; Humphreys (Laurence Rickard), a headless corpse (complete with head); Thomas (a hilariously earnest Mathew Baynton), a love-lorn poet who still thinks he’s ahead of his time; Mary (perpetual scene-stealer Katy Wix), who knows a lot about wicker baskets; Kitty (the wonderfully omnipresent Lolly Adefope), a naive lady with a clueless optimism; Pat (an amusingly sweet Jim Howick), a scout master who fell foul of an unexplained archery accident; and Julian (a gleefully sleazy Simon Farnaby), a politician who walks around with no trousers on.
While the project initially began as very large ensemble of oddballs and eccentrics, the sextet have smartly scaled things down to a core group of spirits, which makes things less sketch-driven and more character-based. In Episode 1, we learn more about Lady Button (Martha Howe-Douglas), who keeps finding herself jumping out of the bedroom window in the middle of the night. The resulting mix of emotional back-story and frustration from The Captain at how her screams disrupt his sleep sets the tone for what’s to follow – sharp, intimate plotting that never gets in the way of relentless frivolity.
The ghosts are countered by the more tangible presence of Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), who we first meet viewing dingy flats before they discover they’ve inherited a crumbling country manor. Planning to do it up as a hotel, their relationship, and financial struggles, bring just enough stakes to the story without weighing it down, and Kiell’s gormless positivity makes for an eminently likeable foil to Ritchie’s more observant Alison. The pair are both fantastic, recording scenes multiple times with and without the rest of the cast peering over their shoulders, and reacting accordingly.
Stitching it all together is director Tom Kingsley, whose knack for low-key slapstick and self-aware trickery has already impressed in BBC Three’s Pls Like and Channel 4’s Stath Lets Flats. He seamlessly juggles physical comedy and verbal quips with the special effects required, as the ghosts work out what their abilities are and how to scare off their unwelcome guests. Kingsley’s an ideal fit for the Horrible Histories gang, and they all repeatedly find fresh angles from which to look at The Other Side. Rickard’s impeccably played Robin, for example, is a caveman who takes us far from the Victorian-era-and-later ghosts we’re used to seeing, his hairy spookster delivering a surprising wisdom that can only come with centuries of existence, but without the language skills to match.
Written in pairs by the cast and then workshopped as a group, the result is a house-share sitcom with a difference and a horror story that shoves in gags at every possible moment (Robin trying to describe a car is priceless). In the first episode alone, the variety of ways the ghosts interact with Button Hall’s usurpers is already exciting, and bodes well for a series that threatens potentially fatal doses of laughter – on the plus side, at least you know the chuckles would continue in the afterlife. Here’s hoping Ghosts haunts our screens for many seasons to come.
Ghosts is available on BBC iPlayer until July 2019, with new episodes airing weekly on Mondays.