Warning: contains spoilers for Ghosts series 5.
Ghosts very nearly had a musical episode. The creators of the BBC comedy talked about it for a long time, says Larry Rickard, co-writer and the man behind the show’s caveman ghost Robin and headless Humphrey. The gang knew they wanted to do a deeply earnest love song, but couldn’t quite make the idea mesh.
“At one point we had a full day on it, but it felt like whichever direction we tried taking the story in to justify the conceit, we ended up at odds with each other over how the plot would then work around it, and how you would justify the songs being there without it feeling like it was a different show. You reach an event horizon of trying so hard to make it work that you realise this isn’t natural and this isn’t us.”
Not natural and not Ghosts, the idea was ditched as too self-indulgent. A different show might have said what the hell and fudged it, but Rickard and the others clearly hold Ghosts dear and so to a high standard. You could fill a book with the ideas they’ve discarded, which is exactly what they’ve done. The Button House Archives is filled with character backstories, Easter Eggs and extras devised by the writers that never made it on screen.
The love ballad itch was eventually scratched by having Simon Farnaby’s trouserless MP Julian give a partial rendition of Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” in series two, and Mat Baynton’s Romantic poet Thomas rapping a middle eight (“Oh my heart doth pine/For that face divine”) in the show’s fan-favourite “Sorry Song” – a taste of the musical episode that could have been. “It’s finding the line between what’s right for the show and what would just be fun for you to do as a bunch of idiots hanging out together,” says Rickard.
“The Six Idiots” is what fans affectionately call the Ghosts gang – Rickard, Ben Willbond, Mat Baynton, Jim Howick, Martha Howe-Douglas and Simon Farnaby – who’ve worked together since 2009, first on Horrible Histories and then on Sky comedy Yonderland. Earlier this year, they announced that Ghosts would end after series five – a decision Rickard describes as head-over-heart and “a slight self-sabotage”.
“We love doing it and we love making it, we love writing it, we still enjoy the characters. It was more that because of that we couldn’t face the risk of just letting it slowly wind down, either in popularity or in quality or in the number of ideas that we were finding. We never wanted to be repeating ourselves.”
Knowing that the ghosts’ final two death flashbacks – those of Lolly Adefope’s 18th century debutante Kitty and Ben Willbond’s WWII Captain – would finally be told in series five, says Rickard, made ending it feel right in terms of story.
Winding things up also felt right in terms of the group’s careers. Since series two, writing, filming, and post-production on Ghosts has rolled over an entire year, leaving little time to work on other projects. “There was never a gap or a break from it, so there were other things that we wanted to explore,” says Rickard. He brings up Simon Farnaby’s writing on new prequel film Wonka, and Mat Baynton’s next TV and film roles. And though understandably vague on the details, he mentions writing with Ben Willbond, as well as a new collaboration with Martha Howe-Douglas whom he’s meeting on Zoom right after we talk. “There are two or three things that we’re looking into,” he says.
“It’s a combination of looking forward to some future stuff as a gang, and doing some solo and some partnership stuff. It’s that little gift of time that we haven’t had in a few years.”
More than anything, the decision to end Ghosts is a gift to the show itself, by ensuring that it goes out on a high and on its own terms. “It was trying to avoid the inevitable decline that is the final conclusion of all television, whether that’s a slow wind-down or an abrupt rug pull.”
Rickard is level-headed about the fan response to series five being bound up in the fact that it’s the last, saying “You don’t know whether the reception would be the same if it was just another link in the chain rather than the final one.” The reception to the episodes screened at the BFI Southbank series launch in September was unreal. The last time that screening room heard laughter and applause like it might have been back at the height of Sherlock’s fame. Rickard agrees that it was an astounding night. He wants to invite that entire audience to his house to watch the rest of the series with him.
So, is it really the end? “Who can say?” is his answer. “For now we’re happy chasing down some other things.” How about sneaking back onto the schedules every few years with a new Christmas special? “Wouldn’t that be amazing?” he agrees. “The last couple of Christmas specials we’ve done particularly, we’ve had such a laugh, they’ve been so ridiculous.”
The 2023 Christmas special that will serve as Ghosts’ final episode doubtless has more ridiculousness in store – as well as a certain big event. The last time fans saw Charlotte Ritchie’s character Alison (whose ability to see the ghosts that haunt her inherited manor house kick-started the whole show), she was heavily pregnant. Having unveiled her pregnancy in an episode set on April Fools’ Day, it doesn’t take a “maff” genius to work out that we’re getting a Ghosts nativity.
“Well, exactly. The calendar is not entirely a mistake!” says Rickard. The gang had always resisted Alison and Mike becoming parents, he explains, because of the show’s established rule that babies can see ghosts. “It would have meant changing so much of the format of the show if you had the three of them, rather than just a couple with one who can and one who can’t see ghosts. Once we knew that we were doing the final series, that was license to do it.”
A baby will be the newest addition to the Button House family, which already includes starchy matriarch Lady Button, kind patriarch The Captain, quarrelling brothers Julian, Pat, Thomas and Humphrey, and sweet little sister Kitty. Where does Rickard see his caveman character Robin fitting in to that dynamic? The flea-ridden family dog or, considering his vast age, experience and increasingly apparent wisdom – a kind of deity?
“He’s a mixed-status character,” Rickard nods. “They all have their role in the family and like you said, in some ways Robin’s the dog but also – and this is something Jim [Howick] has always said – he’s like a joker in that you never know which way you’re going to play him. He feels completely consistent as a character if he’s the stupidest person in the room or the smartest.
“If it’s something Robin’s picked up, or he’s interested in, he’s had 10,000 years to think about it, but equally, he’s massively out of touch because he can’t quite remember what a car’s called, so you get to play him high status or low status depending on the story. You don’t get to do that a lot with characters, they start to feel inconsistent, and he’s a rare example of one where you’ve got that laxity within it. It’s the most fun to play.”
Robin’s millennia-based insights were baked into him from the gang’s very first character breakdown, back when Ghosts didn’t yet have a production company and went by its original title “Dead”. “The speech centre of his brain is tiny, but what he’s had is a lot of time to see a lot of stuff, so, he sounds dim but he’s actually smart.”
Some of Robin’s speech problems are more real than you might think. Wearing the character’s teeth and nose-plug prosthetics, Rickard struggles to make certain word shapes intelligible. Lines are either tweaked, or the mispronunciation is written into the script as a gag. “They can become one of his weird little idioms, like ‘getting your knickers in a Twix’. That was an on-the-day thing because I kept stumbling over the word with my teeth in the original and then we thought, actually, he should get it wrong.”
Teeth and fleas notwithstanding, Robin is also now a bit of a sex symbol. Rickard laughs that he doesn’t quite know how to deal with the strangeness of that. Perhaps the character explains it himself in series five when competing with Pat for the imagined affections of a TV weather presenter: he’s a bit of rough?
“Maybe he’s the ultimate bit of rough!” Rickard laughs. “On the one hand he’s like the rawest roughest, down-town guy, but equally – and there’s a bit of a nod to it this series – if he needs to pull out the stops, he knows where you go for the best cocktails.” Robin’s unknowably vast (after)life plays a part in making him so many people’s favourite character.
“We love the idea that he’s been around for so long that there are little elements of his life that you just never get to hear about, but it’s so rich and varied. When [Katy Wix’s character] Mary goes, he talks about how he can’t grieve like other people grieve every time, because it’s just too much. He’s seen so many people go, long before any of those ghosts came along, that’s something that’s happened to him hundreds of times down the years.”
The character’s centuries-hewn perspective makes him wise, something that can also be said about Ghosts as a show. Rickard explains how the varied sensibilities of this particular writing group combine to ensure that the tone achieves the fine balance of funny and light with occasional poignancy, and never slips too far into either drama or broad humour. A piece by TV critic Julia Raeside suggests that Ghosts feels as though it was made by people who’d done a lot of work in therapy. Rickard isn’t sure that’s the case, but suggests that writing the show might be the group’s therapy, a route to them finding their way towards deeper answers.
“The things that you believe in, you try to imbue it with,” he reflects. “There are issues that we care about, even if they’re lightly touched. Obviously the LGBTQ+ angle of The Captain and Lady Button’s journey… stuff that we believe in and we wanted to do justice to.”
In a broader sense, Rickard is a strong believer in the value of comedy, not as drama’s less important cousin but as a comfort and an escape for people going through lower points in their lives.
“Comedy is sometimes viewed as being flippant and unnecessary in a way that drama isn’t and I’m always quick to defend that. It does serve an important purpose, and that release can be necessary for people, particularly over the time that we’ve been making Ghosts where so much of society has been thrown up in the air.”
As he has several times in our conversation, Rickard attributes Ghosts’ special status to luck. He calls the show’s ability to strike the right comedic balance to suit children and adults “as much luck as judgement”. They were “lucky” to find a tone that allows them to touch on issues like grief without making it trite or overwrought. With Robin, the character’s popularity is down to him having “lucked into a situation” where he was given a lot of tight punchlines…
Rickard has the good manners to shrug off compliments, and is keen to emphasise the collaboration behind Ghosts (for the hour we speak, he uses “we” and never “I” when talking about his work on the show, despite having a writer’s credit on almost half of its 33 episodes). When asked for his series five highlights, he picks performances by Mat Baynton and Jim Howick in “Fools”, and chose their series three episode “Something to Share” as his overall favourite.
Perhaps luck did play a part. That, after all (alongside producer Caroline Norris) was what brought Ghosts’ six idiots together on Horrible Histories back in 2009. But what that group did with that luck, how they protected it, how, with directors Tom Kingsley and Simon Hynd, they cultivated it, and are honouring it now by saying goodbye to Ghosts before it shows any signs of fading? Luck doesn’t come into it.
Ghosts: The Button House Archives is published by Bloomsbury on 26th October, and is available to order now.