Ghosts story

Ghosts story

By Michael Pickard
November 6, 2023


After five seasons of BBC comedy Ghosts, costume designer Lucy Williams, production designer Andrew Lavin and producer Pat Tookey-Dickson take DQ behind the scenes at Button House to find out how the series – and its titular occupants – were brought to life.

Since its debut in 2019, BBC comedy Ghosts has amassed a dedicated fanbase on its way to becoming one of the best shows on television. That much was clear by the hundreds of people who packed a special BFI screening ahead of the series’ fifth and final season, dressing up as characters from the show and cheering every moment from the opening two episodes.

Dedicated fans can even enjoy filming tours at West Horsley Place, the Grade I listed medieval manor house in Surrey that doubled for the grand – but very dilapidated – Button House, home to the show’s resident ghosts.

Set building on Ghosts included the creation of fake panelled walls

For those not accustomed to the Ghosts phenomenon, the series comes from writers, creators and stars Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, members of the Them There collective known for previous collaborations such as Yonderland, Bill and another BBC comedy, Horrible Histories.

They all play the show’s ghosts – romantic poet Thomas (Baynton), disgraced politician Julian (Farnaby), Edwardian Lady Button (Howe-Douglas), scout leader Pat (Jim Howick), caveman Robin (Rickard), headless Tudor nobleman Humphrey (Rickard again) and Army officer The Captain (Willbond) – together with Lolly Adefope (as excitable Georgian noblewoman Kitty) and Katy Wix (witch trial victim Mary, who left after season four), whose characters are all resigned to spending their afterlife in the house and grounds – and clothing – in which they died.

When Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) unexpectedly inherits Button House, she moves in with husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) with the idea of turning it into a luxury hotel, much to the displeasure of the deceased inhabitants. But after a near-death experience, Alison discovers she can see and hear the ghosts.

If the show were returning, it’s at this time of year that work would be starting to transform West Horsley Place ready for shooting. But with just an already completed Christmas special to air at the end of the year, it’s the end of an era for its cast and crew.

“The guys decided the time was right for them and going out on a high is an amazing thing to do. But whether they’re right or wrong, from my point of view, I’m bereft,” producer Pat Tookey-Dickson tells DQ. “I should be in the house right now. We should be planning and it’s such an incredible show to work on. It is literally like a family, it is fun, and even when you have your stressful moments, it’s always a creative stress with everyone pulling together.”

Filming on the stairs showing the efforts made to make Button House look shabby

“It had to stop at some point, but it was just a particularly special show to be a part of and it was absolute joy to go back every year,” says costume designer Lucy Williams. “The scripts were brilliant, the cast were amazing and everybody involved… It’s really sad to not go back.”

Williams has been ever present on the series, joining the show after the pilot had been filmed ready to start season one proper. As viewers will know, the ghosts don’t ever change their costumes, which meant Williams had the create a look for each character that could continue for a then-unknown number of episodes.

“I had to make sure the colour palette was varied enough, but that it also didn’t jar too much with the environment that they were all in, and then incorporate Alison and Mike into it as well,” she explains. “In the beginning they were outsiders, but as the series has progressed I tried to make their costumes accentuate more of the environment that they were living in. Charlotte had a lot of vintage knitwear, some of it had slightly Tudor features, or Kiell would wear a burgundy velour tracksuit that would feel a bit period but it obviously was modern.”

She admits her task was “quite scary” in the beginning, but she would discuss with the actors how they felt their character would dress and then complete several fittings before they were approved by the producers.

“The first day of filming season one was such a massive day because we were filming a period drama being filmed [for episode four], so on day one, the list of cast was ridiculously long, and that was the day we established all the ghosts, because as soon as you shot them, I couldn’t change anything.”

Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) with Humphrey’s disembodied head (Larry Rickard)

Williams made Robin’s costume herself out of recycled vintage fur, while she added embellishments to Kitty’s period gown. For Julian, who appears trouser-less, the challenge was finding the right length of shirt to cover his modesty.

But she says the trickiest ghost to dress was Humphrey, who appears at times with his head but more often than not without it. The original plan was to create that look using visual effects, but director Tom Kingsley suggested they approach it in the same way as the Headless Horseman had been created for 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.

“They had this amazing contraption that could fit an actor within the headless costume, so I then had to design a frame that would hide a real person inside it,” Williams explains. “It was a lot more economical than doing everything in post-production. We had to create these invisible eye holes and slits in the doublet so that Yani [Xander], the actor who was hidden inside, could actually see. Then we’d have to sew him into it.”

Williams modified Robin’s costume for season two, disguising Lycra sleeves in the arms and legs to give it more structure. The costumes would then be put away into storage at the end of filming a season and brought out again during pre-production for the next.

“We would see if anything needed cleaning or repairing, but apart from that, it was just really important that they didn’t look any different each season,” she says. “Then when we did flashbacks of any of the ghosts when they were alive, that was very exciting because it helped create the environment that they used to live in. We really enjoyed that.”

Alison’s husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) is unable to see his ghostly house guests

Tookey-Dickson joined the show in season four, following in the foosteps of previous producer Matthew Mulot. That meant her mantra on the show was “don’t mess it up,” she jokes.

“It’s not an easy job, but the whole reason we do it is to be creative and make fantastic telly,” she continues. “Something like Ghosts has such an incredible following and for me coming on, it was a case of not reinventing the wheel.

“There were new challenges, but most of them were in creating the same show with increasing costs. The budgets don’t normally match that increase, so it was about finding creative ways to make it look and feel like that same brilliant show, which is easier to do when you’ve got a collaborative crew.”

The biggest part of her job wasn’t dealing with any particular actor or crew member, but with the house itself, which didn’t have any electricity or toilets when season one was being filmed.

“It was a shell,” she says. “It needed a lot of love. Now it has award-winning toilets. It has electricity. We’ve gone on this journey with them and that is actually more hard hitting than you think, because when you’re in one place for the whole time, essentially six years, you’re growing with the house.

Ghosts Julian (Simon Farnaby), Robin (Larry Rickard), Lady Button (Martha Howe-Douglas) and Kitty (Lolly Adefope)

“Over the years they’ve started doing events and weddings. You can get married in Button House now, it’s crazy. They have people queuing up to come and do the Ghosts tours. They were just brilliant. It’s a shame we’re not seeing them this year.”

The 10-week shoot for every season would begin in January, but work would start each autumn to transform the property into Button House. The crew would plan which rooms they would use and for which scenes, as many rooms would double up as different locations. For example, the basement in the show – home to a mass of plague victims – was filmed in a room near the kitchen.

“When you walk into Button house, none of it looks like Button house,” Tookey-Dickson says. “It’s beautiful. It’s light, it’s airy, and then we come in and completely destroy the whole thing and make it look like it’s falling apart. All of the holes in the walls are completely fake.”

The person chiefly responsible for that transformation was production designer Andrew Lavin, who also joined the series ahead of season four. He had previously worked on Yonderland with the Ghosts creators and Alison Carpenter from producer Monumental, and also knew Amy Maguire – production designer on the first three seasons – from previous projects.

His preparation would involve early meetings with prop houses to ensure any returning features, such as the house’s large stone fountain, were booked well in advance to avoid continuity issues. He then read the scripts and broke down the episodes, gathering research – photographs, paintings, archive film and even visiting museums – as he went.

The landing before the set decorators got to work…
…and after

“Inevitably there are several, ‘How the heck are we going to do that?’ moments and head scratching as to where we can achieve and stage some of the scenes,” he says. “The unusual thing about Ghosts is that it’s filmed entirely within the house and grounds, even when it’s supposed to be a completely different location in the script.

“This may involve building a set, within a room in West Horsley Place, treating it like a studio. Almost all the rooms in the house are already assigned to continuity sets, or production offices, so it can be tricky to squeeze everything in and involves careful planning and scheduling, as we turn around different rooms for different sets and time periods. We’ve been known to ask departments to move rooms so we can redress their room as a set.”

But before work could begin, the conservation team at West Horsley and the props department photographed and cleared furniture and paintings from the house. That then allowed a team of seven scenic painters and three carpenters to spend nine days repainting the house and setting up continuity scenery, including a false Tudor paneled wall in the common room and the gates outside the house.

Materials such as peel-off latex paint were used on cornices, doors and mouldings to avoid adding permanent layers of paint, while some areas were covered with Mask It paper and vacuum-formed elements to give the impression the plaster was damaged. A chalk wash was applied to the windows to make them look dirty and create a diffused light effect that could be reduced or increased depending on the requirements of each scene.

“A multitude of paint effects create the disheveled look everyone knows and loves,” Lavin continues. “We were not permitted to fix to the structure of the house, so all the scenery is wedged and braced in a way that will not damage the building. We also had to design sets in a way where the sprinkler system of the house is not blocked in case of emergency.”

A beautifully dressed banquet scene with Lolly Adefope as Kitty

But bringing to life such an ambitious series within the limits of its budget required painstaking planning.

“As shooting crew and dressing crew are often working in close proximity, and any noisy work can’t take place when the camera is turning over, we have to anticipate sets taking longer to dress than you would ordinarily expect,” he says. “Even access to the building is challenging during filming, so everything has to be thought about, including when props are delivered to cause least disruption.”

Despite the challenges, working on Ghosts has been “a dream job,” he adds. “The scripts are incredibly well written and getting to delve into the different periods keeps everything interesting. The cast and crew are fantastic and put so much love into the episodes. It’s nice to have such a loyal fanbase who reacted so positively to the episodes at the BFI screening.”

Williams believes the show – which has been remade in the US – is so popular because of its ability to make viewers laugh and cry in a matter of moments, while the answer to the question ‘Who is your favourite Ghost?’ can change between episodes.

“I think that’s what I like most about it, and even though it’s really interesting when you’ve worked on it, it’s always still a surprise when you watch it because there’s different elements that you haven’t picked up on,” she says. “Once it’s all edited together and everybody’s magic has been put into it, you see it all come together and it’s just adorable.”

“It’s a sitcom, but they’ve written the characters in such a way that you care so much about every single one of them and their backstories that they just become this extraordinary family,” Tookey-Dickson adds. “I just genuinely love it. It’s the best thing on the telly.”

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