“Birthdays or chicken?” Jim Howick asks Simon Farnaby on stage at the BFI Southbank. The first two episodes of Ghosts’ new series have just screened to a packed auditorium, where they were met by a reception that was – what’s a bigger word than rapturous? Euphoric? The place is happy, anyway, very happy. From the ticket queue to the ladies’ loos, there’s jolliness around. In the press seats, old hacks agree that they rarely bother coming out for events anymore, but this is Ghosts. You come out for Ghosts.
The fans have come out for Ghosts in style. There are multiple Pats, dressed in Youth Adventure Club uniforms complete with neck arrows, seated for the post-screening Q&A. A huge group is wearing party hats because it’s Martha Howe-Douglas’ birthday, and the entire room will later sing Happy Birthday to the Lady Button actor. And then they’ll immediately sing it again, to Lolly Adefope who plays Kitty, and whose birthday is days away. They will very nearly sing a third time, when Laurence Rickard – the actor behind caveman Robin and headless Humphrey – mentions that his birthday was back in June, but mercifully stop before the joke wears thin.
It is a happy atmosphere, but also a sad one because this will be the final series of Ghosts. The six creators – Howick, Farnaby, Howe-Douglas, Rickard, Mat Baynton and Ben Willbond – have decided to bow out before their jokes wear thin. Not, judging by the episodes this evening, that there’s any risk of that.
“What was the question?” Farnaby asks Howick, to one of the night’s many bursts of laughter. “You could have chicken at a birthday…” starts Farnaby, to delighted groans from his co-stars. He’s missing the point, deliberately. “Simon could never get the hang of it,” says Howe-Douglas, “You’ve got to pick one!”
Crisps or cheese, lie-ins or cars, birthdays or chicken… these are the Either/Or posers that the Ghosts team used to while away time between filming. There was also a Spotify-based birth-year music quiz too (presided over by quizmaster Jim Howick), and other parlour game inventions of various stripes. The Ghosts green room sounds like fun, and for many of the cast, it’s the thing they say they’ll miss most about making the show.
“Hopping into the green room, arguing about crisps or cheese…” says Adefope, picking her stand-out memories. Returning to the same location (West Horsley Place in Surrey, the stately home that stands in for Ghosts’ Button House) every January for the last five years felt like going back to a new term of school, says Adefope, “putting on your bag, high-fiving everyone,” and with a little mime that gets a big laugh “…smoking”.
Kiell Smith-Bynoe, who plays non-ghost-seeing Mike, husband to Charlotte Ritchie’s Alison, feels the same about the green room. “You don’t even know who’s going to be in there, but you know it’s going to be sick.” Smith-Bynoe has two favourites. His second is “being in the car with Charlotte”, he says to an agonised wail from Ritchie, tilting her head to blink back tears. The two of them have a car-based in-joke. “It’s not really funny but we laugh.”
“Blaupunkt,” Ritchie laughs and pats at her wet eyes. “We’ve been saying that to each other for five years.” It’s the name of the sound system in the car where those two film scenes away from the rest of the cast. It’s where they both feel the most free, and the most cabin feverish. Hence: Blaupunkt.
After a call-back to an early bit about the location’s award-winning toilets, Simon Farnaby, who plays disgraced, trouser-less MP Julian, says that he’s going to miss the laughter most of all. It’s a rare non-gag moment from him, the group’s most difficult-to-pin-down member. ( “It’s like being in the green room, except Simon’s here,” Larry Rickard joked when taking his seat on stage. “Where am I usually?” asked Farnaby, to which came the answer: “Playing golf!” Smith-Bynoe picked the joke up by greeting Farnaby, after five years of co-starring with him, with “It’s great to meet you.”)
Being briefly serious, Farnaby continues. “I don’t just mean the laughter on set, though that’s part of it. I’ll miss the laughter between us and in between takes and in the green room, because they’re really funny people. There’s a lot of laughter – shrieks of laughter from Martha – and I’ll miss that sound. I’ll miss that sound.”
Though the group chose to end Ghosts on their own terms, it was nonetheless a tough choice to make. “More so tonight when we hear the reactions,” says Howe-Douglas. “Gutted!” volunteers an audience member. “Me too,” Howe-Douglas agrees, “we’re gutted. It wasn’t an easy decision at all. It still isn’t easy.”
It certainly wasn’t easy to say goodbye on set. Howe-Douglas welled up so much that her Lady Button make-up had to be redone. “I did. I cried myself young!”
Charlotte Ritchie started the goodbye-countdown three weeks early, and can’t imagine seeing the location not dressed as Button House. She could become a tour guide there in future, suggests Rickard. “I’d love to,” she plays along. “I’m not doing anything in January.”
They will all miss the Ghosts characters they play. Fanny Button is, hands-down, Howe-Douglas’ favourite role of her career so far (mementos: her portrait and the Button House sign). Ben Willbond, who plays the show’s WWII Captain says he’ll miss his character’s distinctive bounce (mementos: the Captain’s medal ribbon and swagger stick as souvenirs, for which he plans to have a presentation box made). Larry Rickard will miss a particular patch of fur that his character can often be seen twizzling between his fingers on his caveman get-up (mementos: his/Humphrey’s decapitated head and Elizabethan portrait.) Jim Howick’s kept Pat’s specs for posterity, while Mat Baynton has taken his plague victim’s fake teeth and the comically half-finished portrait painted of his Romantic poet character Thomas.
Much more than the souvenirs though, this group will miss one another. Every ensemble cast will tell you that they’re a family and love each other dearly, but the Ghosts cast are one of the few you actually believe. If it wasn’t already clear from the years they spent together making Horrible Histories, Yonderland and five series of this, this lot genuinely get on, and have fun together.
Charlotte Ritchie makes a generous observation considering the breadth of her own career. (She already left behind one fun friendship group cast when university comedy Fresh Meat came to an end in 2016.) “I sometimes get this feeling like I’ve won this little ticket to be front row with each of these people, right there, doing their stuff. I’m like wow, this is such an amazing point of view, like a vista, I’m so lucky.”
Ritchie’s not the only one to well up on stage. Larry Rickard, who pulled a big laugh by at first shrugging off the ‘miss most’ question with “Oh, nothing for me,” does the same. Everybody assumed that going into make-up for Robin’s caveman prosthetics must have been a nightmare, he says but in actual fact he loved it. Being first in the make-up chair everyday meant that he got to see everybody arrive, cast and crew. “We got to hang out with our mates, and it was really lovely,” he manages before his voice cracks. He’ll miss seeing the sun come up on Button House.
Soon, it’ll be time for the sun to set on Button House. It’s been like a holiday home for the gang, says Mat Baynton. “For semi-retired idiots!” adds Ben Willbond. Baynton agrees, and says he sort of hopes that they can all retire there one day.
Sad as it’s been, says Ritchie, the whole saying-goodbye process has been useful, emotionally. “It’s good practice to think that this isn’t here forever. Nothing’s forever.” Maybe so. Sitting here tonight though, buffeted by so much devotion and laughter, it’s hard not to think that the joy this gang put out into the world might just be.
Ghosts series five arrives on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Friday October 6 at 8.30 p.m.