In high spirits
As BBC comedy Ghosts returns for a third season, stars, writers and executive producers Mathew Baynton, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond talk upcoming storylines, filming in Covid bubbles and the show’s family-friendly heart.
As the winners of the Bafta Television Craft Awards were announced during an online ceremony earlier this year, there was only one series up for discussion in the accompanying group chat: BBC comedy Ghosts.
Across two seasons and a Christmas special, the series has followed young couple Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), who unexpectedly inherit the keys to a dilapidated country estate, only to discover it is overrun with ghosts.
But despite Ghosts garnering fans from around the world, its writing team ultimately missed out on the Bafta Craft award for Writer: Comedy to Alma’s Not Normal creator Sophie Willan. Then a couple of weeks later, the Ghosts team watched on as anthology series Inside No. 9 beat them to the Scripted Comedy prize at the Bafta Television Awards.
That disappointment quickly made way for anticipation, however, ahead of Ghosts’ upcoming third season, in which Alison and Mike forge ahead with their plan to turn Button House into a guest house until an unexpected visitor arrives with a life-changing revelation – one that leaves the resident ghosts with varying degrees of fear, mistrust and, in some cases, delight.
From the writing and acting ensemble behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland – Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond – the show’s unique family-friendly blend of humour and horror proved to be an instant hit. The first season became the highest-rated comedy on UK television in 2019 with a consolidated audience of 3.7 million viewers.
Among the ghosts that have made Button House their home in the afterlife are trouserless politician Julian (Farnaby), The Captain (Willbond), optimistic yet naïve Georgian noblewoman Kitty (Lolly Adefope), Robin the Caveman (Rickard), Alison’s Edwardian relative Lady Button (Howe-Douglas), headless Tudor nobleman Humphrey (Rickard again), witch trial victim Mary (Katy Wix), scout leader Pat (Howick) and Romantic poet Thomas Thorne (Baynton), who is infatuated with Alison.
Through the series, which is produced by Monumental Television and distributed by BBC Studios, viewers discover how each character met their deaths, with more revelations still to come in season three.
“As always with Ghosts, there are unanswered back stories and we get as excited as the fans do about whose past we might delve into,” says Baynton, who also executive produces the series alongside the rest of the creative team. “There are a couple of those for sure in this season that are really fun and exciting. There is also a new person in Alison’s life who puts a cat among the pigeons. There’s a surprise appearance that begins to explore Alison’s own family background.”
That mysterious new arrival – details are being kept firmly under wraps for now – promises to challenge the ghosts’ allegiances to Alison, Mike and each other, while each character also has their own storylines throughout the six-part season.
“Humphrey is more focal this time around and there’s a bit of exploration for him as a character and also a little bit of what was happening in his life,” explains Rickard. “There’s been some really fun stuff to do this season, some of which was very technically tricky. I’ve pulled a few muscles this year but it was tremendously good fun and a real departure from what we’ve done with that character before.”
Meanwhile, in Rickard’s other on-screen role, Robin ends up in some situations where he’s quite wise and in control and others where he’s a bit of a “wild-card idiot.” The actor continues: “There are some fun interactions this year, some combinations of characters we haven’t seen before. There was certainly a week where me, Simon and Kiell shot some stuff that was tremendously good fun.”
“For Pat, we see a few moments where we explore the flaws in his character,” says Howick, whose polite and friendly character continues to display the cause of his death: an arrow through his neck. “That’s something we quite like to do – take the character and gradually subvert them and turn them into humans, and we see a bit of that.”
“I’m just delighted to be out of the house, to be honest,” jokes Willbond. “I had a lot of fun this season as The Captain. I love having scenes where he’s more front and centre because you can really play around with him. Equally, I just love being in the back of the shot, just reacting. For me, it’s the exercise of ‘Who is The Captain?’ all the time.”
As for Thomas, “this season he is really in love with Alison,” Baynton says. “But he becomes deeply conflicted. The challenge with Thomas is always finding enough variation on a theme, which is just that he’s completely and utterly in love with her.”
Viewers can also look forward to a new story with Julian, while Rickard teases: “To say you see another side to Lady Button is an understatement.” There will also be scenes with Kitty that he promises will break hearts. “There are a couple of episodes this year where my reaction to watching what Lolly was doing made you feel like giving up, it’s so good. There are some really funny moments but also some that properly tug on the heart strings. She’s really exceptional.”
Having worked together since children’s historical comedy show Horrible Histories launched in 2009, the team behind Ghosts brought their natural chemistry to the show and have honed their writing process over its three seasons.
“Because we have worked together so much for so long, we found quite a good pattern early on where we always start around the table with the six of us just knocking ideas around,” Rickard explains. “Sometimes that comes from someone throwing out an idea for a whole story, and sometimes it comes off the back of a particular gag or an idea for a character that could be fun. Then we work up all those beats to the point where we’ve got quite a cohesive story together, and then someone or a duo will go off and write that up.
“Once we’ve done a couple of drafts, it all comes back around the table and the six of us workshop specific lines and gags. It’s the best of both worlds for us. It’s quite collaborative and you get a lot of ideas from a lot of people. But also there’s someone who can take ownership and work individually.”
That familiar process changed markedly for season three, however, with every script meeting taking place over Zoom because of the pandemic.
“For those of us who’ve got kids, we’d start quite late, so they’d put the children to bed and we’d work to midnight one day a week in the middle of a global pandemic, writing for three hours, trying to kick off a comedy series,” Howick reveals. “It’s quite a difficult thing to do.”
In fact, before the start of production on the new season, the last time any of the cast and crew had seen each other in person had been on the final day of shooting S2, which had to be brought forward by a day to ensure everyone could get home before the UK went into lockdown.
“Everything in post-production on season two, all of our ADR and then all of the writing and storylining and everything for this season was done online,” Rickard continues. “Even our rehearsals. It was weird seeing each other again. We were also aware of the challenges ahead, but it did mean there was a sense of release with it as well. We were like six buddies who hadn’t seen each other in a year meeting up again. There is a slight sense of fun and abandon that I hope comes across in the fact that we could finally get back in the room and have a laugh.”
The series is filmed on location at West Horsley Place in Surrey, which doubles for Button House. Covid safety guidelines meant masks had to be worn at all times and social distancing was in place on set until it was time for a take. The cast were also kept apart in different bubbles, which would change each week depending on which characters would be filming scenes with each other and led to some light-hearted bubble rivalries.
“There wasn’t any hanging out in a green room in the way there had been before,” says Baynton, “and it meant the brief moments in the day where you could be with people were when the cameras were rolling. You made the most of it. They were the most joyous moments of the day, and I felt really lucky just to get to do that at all, that our jobs afforded us that exception that meant we could come together and be with a group of people at a time when most people couldn’t.”
The restrictions also meant the 10-strong main cast couldn’t all be in the same room at once, which led to some creative filmmaking when, for example, the ghosts were meant to be sharing a meal together at the dining table.
“That was really tricky because you couldn’t get eight of us sitting together,” Rickard recalls. “Suddenly, those really simple scenes became a lot of green screens and four hours of shooting just to be able to put us physically next to each other.”
Baynton adds: “On a show that does have actual special effects with ghosts walking through walls and all sorts like that, the most complicated special effects or the most time-consuming special effects were for shots that ordinarily just wouldn’t happen, just to put a bunch of people next to each other in a wide shot we couldn’t physically do under these guidelines.”
As pre-production began, so did conversations about if and how the scripts would need to be changed to work around the Covid restrictions, which also required the cast to be tested two or three times a week. “But we got pretty lucky,” says Willbond. “Our production team were able to sort out the shooting structure and make sure we were all safe.”
“We were really quite clear early on that if we got something that [would make viewers say] ‘Well, it looks like that because they were shooting it under Covid,’ then it wasn’t worth doing,” Rickard says. “It was only worth doing if you would look at season three next to season two and not be aware there was any difference, because it’s an ensemble show. If you started to spot people being placed politely away from each other, it would start to feel like a different show. Hats off to our director, our first AD and our director of photography – they found ways of shooting it where there were an awful lot of measures in place but you just can’t tell on screen. They’ve done an amazing job.”
The fact that Ghosts is a comedy aimed at families, one which children can enjoy with their parents, is a matter of pride for the cast, who grew up watching comedies with their own families.
“Nothing makes me happier than when I hear that people watch with their kids, especially now when people say, ‘Oh, it’s the only thing they’ll watch with us,’” Baynton says. “When we were growing up, there’d be stuff you’d see or hear that was a little bit adult, a bit cheeky, but there wasn’t such a distinction [between adult and family shows].”
“We’re quite happy to let things go over kids’ heads and let them realise what the joke was when they mature a bit,” Howick says. “That’s the natural thing that happened to us when we were watching the likes of Blackadder and The Young Ones.”
Because the show is about ghosts, they also wanted the series to be darkly lit and gothic, with moments that make viewers jump or that might be a bit gruesome, such as seeing headless Humphrey’s bloody neck stump.
“It had enough about it that it felt like it wasn’t just going to be a brightly lit, jolly family comedy,” notes Baynton. “Ideally, what you want is something the kids feel like they’re lucky they get to stay up and watch; that it’s not really meant to be for them, but they’re being allowed to watch it.”
With season three debuting on BBC1 on Monday and with a US remake set to launch on CBS in October – the show’s creators are all executive producers on the familiar-yet-Americanised adaptation – thoughts are already turning towards a potential fourth season should the BBC want to book another stay at Button House.
“We discuss it,” admits Baynton. “We certainly know we want this show to go on and there are more stories to tell, for sure.”