BBC One’s Ghosts has been lauded for its supernatural achievement of making a sitcom that appeals equally to adults and kids. The denizens of the haunted Button House have just returned to screens for a third series, before which seven of its cast took part in a virtual round table for an audience including Buzz’s Billie Ingram Sofokleous.
For anyone who hasn’t watched series 1 or 2 of Ghosts, I’ll begin with a swift run through their major events.
Series 1 introduced us to the spirits of the title: Kitty, Mary, the Captain, Julian, Pat, Thomas, Lady Button, Robin and Headless Humphrey. Then there’s a gang of medieval plague victims, and a young girl named Jemima who quietly whisper nursery rhymes by way of a vocal repertoire. In the realm of the living, meanwhile, Alison, a distant relative of the Button dynasty, inherits the family manor. She and husband Mike decide to convert it to a B&B, whereupon the ghosts club together to rid themselves of the couple.
In series 2, with renewal of the building in the offing, Alison and Mike are desperately trying to make a bit of cash and the ghosts are not playing ball. Still, the house’s occupants start to find an accepting middle ground. The ghosts’ own lives are shaped by modern amenities (Thomas becomes interested in the music of The Cure, Kitty reads saucy literature) and Lady Button is learning to compromise, though the Captain remains obsessed with the wherefores of warfare.
Shortly before series 3 debuted in August, Buzz took part in two roundtable interviews with Ghosts cast members, conducted via Zoom. The first featured Jim Howick (who plays Pat Butcher, the ghost of a scout leader), Ben Willbond (the Captain), Mathew Baynton (Thomas Thorne, 19th-century poet and Cure fan) and Larry Rickard (Robin, a caveman); the second Martha Howe-Douglas (Lady Fanny Button, onetime house owner), Charlotte Ritchie (Alison Cooper, its inheritor) and Kiell Smith-Bynoe (Alison’s husband Mike).
Congratulations on your BAFTA nominations! Can you take us through the writing process and how that changed when making the third series?
Larry: We’ve refined it. Broadly speaking, it’s remained the same. We’ve found a good pattern early on because we’ve worked together so much and for so long that we always start around the table, the six of us knocking ideas around. Sometimes that comes from someone throwing out an idea for a whole story, which can come off the back of a particular gag for a character. And then we work up all of those beats up to the point where’ve got a cohesive story, altogether and then someone or a duo will write it all up.
And then once we’ve done a couple of drafts of that, it all comes back around the table. The six of us will workshop it: specific jokes, gags, and lines. Sort of the best of both worlds for us, as we’re quite collaborative. You can get quite a lot of ideas down from a lot of people and then there is someone who can take ownership and authorship…
Mathew: Although last year that all took place on Zoom.
Jim: We’d start quite late – those of us with kids would put the children to bed, and we’d work till midnight.
Larry: We’d all seen each other on the last day of filming series 2 – we’d shut down a day early because of the pandemic, so the last two days of filming we did in one. The next time the six of us saw each other again in the flesh was the first day on set for series 3. Everything for series 3 was done online, even our rehearsals. It was weird seeing each other – we were aware of the challenges, but there was a sense of release, fun and abandonment, which I hope comes across.
Mathew: Because of COVID guidelines, you had to keep your mask on, for rehearsals even – you’d take them off for a take, then masks on. Distancing in between shots – no hanging about in a green room – and the brief moments in the day when you could be with people were when the cameras were rolling. I felt really lucky to get to do that at all: our job 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.
Larry: Working at a time when everyone else was being told to stay at home – you’d forget. The traffic report would come on in the morning, when I was driving to the set, and at the end they’d go “don’t forget not to drive unless you have to”. I’d remember! “Oh yeah.”
We shot scenes where it was being done almost as it would have been in normal times; then there were what would normally be really simple scenes. Like all of us sitting around the dinner table having a meal, or pretending to – that was really tricky because we were all sitting together, and suddenly it became a lot of green screens and four hours to shoot, just to put us physically next to each other.
Mathew: On a show that has ghosts walking through walls and all sorts, the most complicated, time-consuming special effects were just to put people next to each other in a wide shot.
Was there anything you had to change because of the pandemic?
Ben: As we were getting towards pre-production, we did have a discussion about if we would have to change the scripts because of restrictions – but we got lucky. The production team put us all in bubbles, and sorted out the shooting structure to make sure we were all safe.
Larry: We were in bubbles of two or three and were getting tested two or three times a week, so we could be in closer proximity with just those people. And then the next week that would change. So across the series, you don’t spot it. It’s an ensemble show: if you could 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.
Ben: There was lots of fun inter-bubble/cohort rivalry each week. Whose cohort is better than the rest?
Jim: It was like being at a wedding and moving around tables … we naturally orbit around our cliques.
Mathew: Your cohort’s shit! That became a catchphrase.
Jim: But I really enjoyed just spending time with everyone.
Larry: Because we each had to isolate away from other cohorts, we would be in little rooms at other ends of the building. You’d only meet on set.
Ben: Chuck tangerines at other cohorts from afar.
Mathew: Also, it is completely depending on your character, I was always in Charlotte [Ritchie]’s cohort because Thomas is always in Alison’s face. That never changed. It was maybe one week in the whole shoot when I wasn’t.
I assume you’re enthusiastic about a fourth series, but while it hasn’t been confirmed, is your mentality to cram in as many ideas as possible? Or have you got things saved up?
Larry: There are always ideas, where we’ll say, “that’s right, but not yet”. It’s too soon, or that character hasn’t earnt that sort of exploration yet, or it only makes sense once you know the character really well. There’s some things we came up with on series 2, particularly backstories, that were great, but a series 3 thing. There’s a degree to which you have to do that: cramming everything in, regardless of if it earns its place, would be a shame. So we’ve put stuff in the bank, hoping there’ll be time to explore them in the future.
Mathew: Fingers crossed.
The show is one of the few scripted comedy shows that is still accessible for families: is that quite important for you?
Mathew: Yeah, it’s something we’re really proud of. We’ve said this before, but we all grew up watching comedy with our parents. A shared sense of humour is a big part of that bond with my family. Now, you have people saying it’s the only thing their teenagers watch with them. It’s weird that there isn’t anything else. I think when we were growing up, [certain shows] would be on and you would listen and think, that’s a bit adult, or cheeky – but there wasn’t such a distinction as there is now. I’m trying to think now… the Blackadder episode where he has the fake breasts! You would be aware it was a bit saucy and make a sideways glance at your parents to see if they would let you keep watching it, or send you to bed.
Jim: We’re quite happy for things like that to go over kids’ heads – let them realise the joke when they mature a bit. That’s a natural thing to happen, as it did to us growing up: things like The Young Ones. We were into the socks coming alive, but didn’t quite understand the satire at the time.
Larry: Comedy was the thing that was on BBC 2 or Channel 4, and so anything that was on BBC 1 couldn’t be – but there was a feeling we could make that work [with Ghosts].
Mathew: We wanted to be genuinely dark and gothic, and have moments that might make you jump or bits that were a bit gruesome. A headless character [Humphrey] where you can actually see the stump of the neck! It had enough about it that felt like it could stand up to scrutiny as a family comedy. What we wanted, ideally, was to have kids feel like they were lucky to stay up and watch it.
Why else do you think it has resonated with the audience?
Jim: I think because of the group dynamic: everyone loves a gang. If you look at classic comedies like Dad’s Army and Only Fools And Horses, and the characters’ default positions within that group – someone asked earlier how the group act to the guest coming along and the beauty is that, at first, they react how you expect them to react.
Mathew: It builds on a stock, and then the audience’s trust of you becomes familiar with the characters – they can trust you to hold true to form. When a character behaves in a surprising way, they know that it’s surprising. Also, I think if the audience were ever going to relate to a bunch of people stuck in a house they can’t leave together, after the last year.
Larry: I think that’s the part of a sitcom that people relate to most, and we’ve got people from different eras who have to spend eternity together. And can never leave the house they’re in. It’s the distilled thing of what a sitcom is.
What scenes have been the most fun to work over the last three series?
Charlotte: That’s really difficult to answer.
Martha: I enjoy the scenes where we’re all together as a group. That’s been really difficult, because of COVID restrictions, but hopefully in the future we can get those back.
Charlotte: I get quite jealous of the clubs the ghosts have. When you do Impressions Club, or singing. There was one scene this series that I couldn’t get through – it was really small – just Pat making me dip my biscuit into my cup of tea again and watching me eat it. I couldn’t get through that!
Kiell: I really enjoyed the burglary stuff.
Martha: Yeah, that was fun. And Mike trying to work with the ghosts to get on.
Was there any temptation among the writing team to give Mike a near death experience, like Alison had in the very first episode, to get him into seeing the ghosts – or is it part of the fun to write the more elaborate ways of getting them together?
MDH: I think it is, yeah. It would be a bit of a copout, as much as Kiell would enjoy that – wouldn’t you, Kiell? – having more interaction. We listen to what Mike says, and we’ve given more attention to those moments where he can play with the ghosts; I think that if we went down that route, we’d regret it – we lose the fun of Mike not being in on it, completely ignoring them and being oblivious but there’s a lovely element where he kind of gets to react but he can’t see them.
KSB: My scenes definitely weren’t fun…
Are there any stunts or set pieces? Last time, Kiell, you ended up on the roof, dangling for quite a while!
KSB: Not really. I don’t think we had a stuntman in this year. Series 2 had a lot going on, with the dangling off the pipe, and the waterworks as well. They really put me through it. I was just checking how much I wanted to be a part of this…
MDH: That was a really low day for you that, Kiell.
CR: Aw, it’s cold water, that’s what it was. One thing I think was interesting about this series  was its going back to traditional horror tropes – spooky stuff, references to horror movies, more suspense-filled.
Ghosts is on BBC One at 8.30pm every Monday evening, and available to watch on iPlayer now. Info and streaming: here
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS photos GUIDO MANDOZZI