BBC’s Ghosts Interview: ‘They’re stuck in an existence they didn’t ask for… like all of us’

Mathew Baynton and Jim Howick explain how writing Ghosts series 3 was a lockdown lifesaver for their writer-performer group and why we’re all in the same existential boat as the ghosts in their hit BBC sitcom...

Ghosts series 2 poster
Photo: BBC Pictures

The Ghosts creators have worked together for over a decade. To-date, the six-person team (Mat Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond) have written and performed in long-running children’s sketch comedy Horrible Histories, three series of fantasy sitcom Yonderland, feature film Bill, and two series of the supernatural BBC comedy Ghosts, with a third on the way. 

Channelling Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGee what first attracted her to the millionaire Paul Daniels, I ask Baynton and Howick via Zoom what inspired the group to write Ghosts, a sitcom about a group of individuals who frequently drive each other nuts, trapped together for what may well be eternity? 

Both laugh. “I’m sure we do drive each other nuts in many ways,” says Howick, “but the truth is, like the ghosts, what we always come back to in these episodes is that they love each other and don’t know what they would do without each other. I think that can be said for the group?” He looks to Baynton for confirmation and gets a happy nod. 

Considering the well-documented fallings-out and imploding egos of other comedy gangs – the Pythons not least among them – this level of harmony over such a long period feels remarkable. What’s their secret? “I think we keep each other honest,” says Baynton. “There are certainly heated debates.”

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Heated’s too strong a word, says Howick. “We only really fight for our opinion, we never fight each other.” On the rare occasion that there isn’t unanimity about a particular topic, there might be a locking of horns and a democratic vote, but real arguments don’t happen. “There’s no animosity or jealousy with each other’s independent careers,” he explains. “We are our most important project. We have no desire to work each other up. We’re all genuinely fond of each other.”

That much is clear watching them interact. The online BBC press launch for series two was punctuated by the group making each other laugh. Silly voices. Running jokes. At one point, to the absolute delight of his colleagues, Simon Farnaby’s crotch moved unavoidably front and centre as he stood up in front of his webcam to adjust a window blind. The rapport is real. 

Jim Howick Ghosts series 2

Indeed, during UK lockdown, say Baynton and Howick, the group’s regular Zoom calls drafting Ghosts series three were a godsend. Aside from the boon of having regular work when so much of their industry was in uncertainty, being able to see friends for three hours on a Wednesday evening kept them sane. 

“It’s been a tonic in an otherwise relatively difficult and quite miserable time to have been able to jump on Zoom and make each other laugh with ideas for these characters that we love,” says Baynton. Entertainingly, when the group splits off into writing pairs, each does impressions of the absent characters while drafting dialogue. “It’s funny,” remarks Howick. ‘When we come together as a six, if we’re trying to pitch a positive idea, it’s usually done in a [segues into the regional accent of his upbeat character] Pat voice. Or if it’s a melodramatic idea or if it’s over-the-top, it might be a [Baynton’s Romantic poet character] Thomas voice.” 

Via video chat, it took a little longer for the group’s writing wheels to start turning. Ordinarily a new series would start with two weeks of the gang together in the same room. Stretching that to months of three-hour Zoom calls, fitted in amongst home schooling for the parents among them, was an adjustment. “The energy that you would bring to a room at 10 o’clock in the morning in an office wasn’t there,” says Howick. “You’d have to try and generate this feeling even though everyone was exhausted.”

Howick found himself seeking out frivolity to reach the right frame of mind. He played videogames. “If I sat and thought too hard about what was going on outside my door, it would make me really sad, and so in order to keep a vital part of me going, in order to meet with Mat and the others every Wednesday and keep that bright demeanour, it was good to do that.” The writing momentum started to return with the ease of lockdown, says Baynton. “The simple mental health-saving fact of being able to meet up with family in a garden helped a lot.” 

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Trying to write comedy against a such a serious backdrop of world events also felt uncomfortable, says Baynton. “You feel like it’s almost… immoral is too strong a word, but when there are nurses and doctors and teachers and crucially important people doing the work they do… It felt like an elephant in the room to be tap tap tapping away at a story about another day at Button House and what the ghosts are up to.”

It helped to know how warmly Ghosts series one had been received by its many fans. “What’s touching is when we do get messages from fans who say how much the show means to them. I know how important comedy has been to me in my life, so if we can be that to other people, it doesn’t feel completely frivolous.”

Ghosts, with its colourful selection box of characters (there’s a caveman, a headless Elizabethan, a 17th century witch, an excitable Regency woman-child, an Edwardian snob, a WWII captain, a 1980s Scout leader and a 1990s Tory politician) may look frivolous, but series one had moments of real pathos. Baynton is proud of the fact that the series doesn’t shy away from the bleaker side of its ‘dead people’ premise. “If you really interrogate the truth of it – these are people who lived, people who died, people who loved or were thwarted or killed or suffered injustices or never got to love the person that they admired…”

The original idea was for a much bigger cast of ghosts, with everybody playing multiple parts, Horrible Histories-style. It quickly became clear that the story needed to home in on a small ensemble, giving the gang what Howick calls “its own silhouette”. Had they stuck with the original plan, “It would have been like The Muppet Show,” he says. “Every week would only have scratched the surface.” Too many ghost characters would have diminished the show’s emerging premise, says Baynton, which is about “being stuck forever in a tedious and endlessly repetitive existence.”

A bit like lockdown, we joke. Exactly, says Baynton. 

“We talk about this a lot. The way I see it is that their situation is just the same as a living person’s: they’re stuck, they’re in an existence they didn’t ask for, they don’t know why they’re there or what happens next. They know that there is a next ‘thing’ but whether they go to heaven, or hell, or something else, they don’t know. They’re just the same as people on earth.”

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Howick agrees, “Their existence is very mortal in that respect.” 

Mathew Baynton Charlotte Ritchie Ghosts series 2

Writing about the afterlife, a sense of existential metaphor is unavoidable, says Baynton. “There is something deeply relatable about it, which is where sitcom will always thrive. You can’t really fail to connect with a story about a person who doesn’t know what to do with their time or who feels stuck. Regardless of class or job or circumstance, that is all of us.”

If the ghost characters are all of us, they’re also peculiar to their time period. The collision and unexpected blending of different social contexts is where much of the series’ comedy comes from. Howick compares the composition of the group to Blackadder Goes Forth, which kept “ranks of characters from different classes stuck together in a hell hole, cheating death every single week.” 

The source of much of the comedy is thwarted status, says Baynton, “It’s the stuff of Alan Partridge and Hyacinth Bucket and Basil Fawlty… people who see themselves a certain way but who aren’t that way to the audience. Every single one of the ghosts is that to some extent. Anything that gave you status in life, you’re robbed of the second you die, so that’s already pretty funny in the sense of a captain who can’t lead, a wealthy woman who has no wealth, a politician who is not recognised as an authority, a poet who can’t pick up a pen, a Scoutmaster with no kids…”

“Not Scoutmaster!” interrupts Howick. “Adventure Club leader!” Before series one aired, they were instructed not to use the “Scouts” organisation name in scripts. “That was before they knew who Pat was going to be,” says Howick. Pat, for info, is a sweetie, and the Scouts should be proud to have him. He’s also a vibrant dancer, as series two, episode two shows. 

“There’s a lot of dancing this series” says Howick. “Without giving too much away, there’s dancing in the last episode. I think Thomas’ best dance is at the end.”

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Ghosts series 2 cast

Fans can expect more playfulness with series two. Now that the characters are established and the tone has been taken to heart, the team could afford to experiment a little more. “With series two, because the audience hopefully are with us at this point, we can throw different curveballs,” says Baynton.

“In that way that The Simpsons or those long-running American things, you can suddenly do one in black and white, as if it’s a Hitchcock thing. We’ve definitely had fun. There’s an episode later in the second series which is a format of its own. We’re thinking about those things for series three, being free to be really playful with it.”

There’s a Christmas special episode to come, “the last one ever to be filmed!” joked Farnaby at the press launch. The timing on series two’s filming was especially jammy, with only one day lost to the UK TV and film industry shutdown in March. They made the decision not to use supporting artists in the last scenes filmed, set in a Medieval plague village. The irony of having to tell actors they couldn’t come and play plague victims because there was an actual plague wasn’t lost on them, says Baynton.

Thomas gets a gun in series two, they tease, and we’ll find out how he met his end. “The burning question for fans of the show is how the characters died, and you will find out some in each series,” says Baynton. “There are some we’re holding onto for as long as we possibly can, but rest assured, they’re coming!” 

Ghosts series 2 starts on BBC One at 8.30pm, with all six episodes available to stream afterwards on BBC iPlayer.