Ghosts’ Creators on the Unaired Pilot: “What Were We Thinking?!”

Ghosts' unbroadcast pilot episode was... different.

The cast of BBC Ghosts in the 2018 press announcement
Photo: BBC/Monumental

“We made something unfilmable, basically,” Ghosts co-creator Larry Rickard told the RHLSTP Podcast about the show’s unaired pilot. “Then we looked at it and said ‘that doesn’t work.’”

According to the Ghosts team, several things didn’t work about the mini-pilot, which was never intended for broadcast but as a way for them to figure out the show before making series one. Speaking to Den of Geek in October this year, Rickard explained:

“It was based on the pilot script that Mat [Baynton] and Jim [Howick] did, so basically episode one. It wasn’t the case of making an episode and then going, actually that doesn’t work, let’s start again. We were doing a taster, so we shot 12 minutes of material and then edited it together with voiceovers to fill in the missing bits of story so you could sort of watch it in a sequence and understand how a pilot story would hold together, but it was more about exploring the tone and also finding how you’d shoot it. There were things that we did very differently in the series.”

“Like Cher, But With Soot”

The look of the characters, as you can see in the above image which accompanied the original BBC commission announcement in 2018, was slightly different in the taster episode. (Caveman Robin’s look was still being worked out during series one, as you’ll see in tiny differences if you compare his appearance in the first episode filmed “Free Pass” with any other.) Pat and Lady Button’s wigs, and her and Thomas’s costumes were all tweaked for the finished product, while Mary’s ‘fit’ had one radical difference.

Ad – content continues below

In the show, Mary wears a blue and yellow dress with a white bonnet that was inspired by 17th Century Dutch artist Vermeer’s painting “The Milkmaid”. Though there aren’t (yet) any publicly available pictures of it, in the pilot, she had a look that she and Jim Howick jokingly describe on the BBC’s Inside… Ghosts podcast as “Cher Comes Down the Chimney”.

Seventeenth century peasant ghost Mary had been created specifically for Wix. The victim of a witch trial who’d been burned at the stake, Mary’s costume and make-up in the show itself have touches of soot and she has the ability to emit the smell of burning when living people passed through her. In the mini-pilot though, she was constantly surrounded by a cloud of actual smoke.

Mat Baynton explained on same podcast episode, “before every single take, someone had to go in and put smoke up through Katy’s costume so that it would be billowing.” A crew-member crouched under Katy’s skirts wafting a billows. “It was such an unsustainable idea, like, what were we thinking?! How on earth did we think we could do that for a whole series?”

“I would have actually loved it, I think,” said Wix. “I would have had to have been on wheels, like on a skateboard, and he would be permanently sat on a skateboard and we’d just move as one for the whole thing!”

Humphrey’s Hi-Tech Head

How they achieved the headless effect for Elizabethan ghost Humphrey was another big change from the taster episode. “He was a more hi-tech visual effect that would have been very difficult to do long-term,” Rickard tells Den of Geek.

“With a guy in the suit, you could always shoot it and it was all in camera. When [director] Tom Kingsley came on board, he bought a lot of ways of doing either lo-fi visual effects or on-camera special effects that just made it all far more achievable on the time and budget of a sitcom.”

Ad – content continues below

In the actual show, Humphrey’s body is played by five foot three Bulgarian actor Yani Xander inside a frame designed by Ghosts costume designer Lucy Williams, who came on board after the taster was filmed. Speaking to Drama Quarterly, Williams explained:

“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, the actor who was hidden inside, could actually see. Then we’d have to sew him into it.”

For more creepy comedy, the next time you see Humphrey’s headless body bumping into things around Button House, picture a pair of eyes hiding behind the two decorative slits next to the ornamental chain he wears around his neck.

“A Hundred Ghosts”

The major problem with the taster episode, Rickard tells us, was the number of characters the team had planned. “The reveal shot at the end of the taster was that moment where Alison first sees all the ghosts, but rather than it being seven of them walking into the room it’s a hundred people and split screens and all sorts of stuff to achieve it.”

Having played multiple parts on both CBBC’s Horrible Histories and their puppet-based family fantasy Yonderland, the Ghosts team originally wanted to fill Button House with countless ghosts they’d play in different guises. The original idea of the format is that viewers would find out the story of a different ghost or a different set of ghosts each week.

Regardless of the practical challenges of each actor playing so many characters, their sheer number would gut the show’s emotional centre, says Rickard. “There would be no emotional attachment. What you really wanted was a family in all but name, and Alison to gradually become part of it, and that’s something we found by doing it.”

Ad – content continues below

The decision was made to keep each actor to a single main character plus a plague ghost, in order for that important “family in all but name” dynamic to develop.

Robin’s Promotion

A hangover from the taster episode fans should all be grateful for is the continued existence and prominence of Robin the caveman. While the main cast’s other multiples were scrapped, having Larry Rickard play both Humphrey and Robin was kept, praise Moonah.

Speaking at the 2022 Edinburgh TV Festival as reported by Radio Times, Ghosts executive producer Alison Carpenter said that headless Humphrey was originally planned as a bigger character than Robin but through the pilot, they discovered that the caveman could be very funny and a much more unusual character, so he was promoted to the main group.

“That was the incredible value of being allowed to [make the taster pilot]”, Rickard tells us, “- we found not just how we would practically shoot a series and what was achievable and desirable and what wasn’t, but things in terms of character and story.”

So, will fans ever get to see this 12-minute taster, featuring digital Humphrey, sooty-Cher Mary, and 90-odd other mystery ghosts? In a word – no. It was never made for broadcast, and the team currently has no plans to make it public. We’ll just have to make do with the five series there are, and the upcoming Christmas Special.

Ghosts series one to five are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.

Ad – content continues below