Warning: major (or should that be captain?) series 5 spoilers. Avoid unless you’ve already streamed “PINEAPPLE DAY” AND “CARPE DIEM”.
Bespoke portraits, fake teeth, Mike’s monocle and the Button House sign… all treasures taken home from set by the creators of Ghosts after finishing the final series. Of the souvenirs chosen to commemorate five happy years spent making one of the UK’s best-loved comedies, one in particular has taken on extra poignancy.
Ben Willbond plays Ghosts’ WWII officer, a character (until now) known only as The Captain. Speaking at the BFI Southbank launch of the final series in September, Willbond told the crowd that his chosen filming souvenirs were taken from The Captain’s costume: a medal ribbon band and military stick, items for which Willbond plans to have a presentation box made.
In series five, The Captain’s military baton was given a backstory that merits the special treatment. Because when is a stick not a stick? When it’s a symbol of undying love.
Kitty and The Captain’s Death Stories
The Captain’s and Regency ghost Kitty’s death stories were kept back until Ghosts’ final series, by which time there was a loud fan clamour to learn how each character had met their end.
In episode three “Pineapple Day” Kitty’s death tale turned out to be sweeter than many expected. Previous flashbacks to Kitty’s life had introduced jealous adoptive sister Eleanor (played by Starstruck’s Emma Sidi), who seemed a sure bet to have poisoned Kitty for her share of the family inheritance. Not so. Kitty’s death was a simple accident and Eleanor was really not so bad after all. As Kitty lay dying of a venomous spider bite, her sister apologised for the cruel behaviour. It was a fitting story surprise that suited Kitty’s cheerful and optimistic outlook but also worked to balance out the extreme sadness of The Captain’s tale.
In series five, episode five “Carpe Diem”, caveman Robin has a lightbulb moment and uses “MAFF” to predict that one of the Button House ghosts will get sucked off (read: ascend to the next stage of the afterlife) on the stroke of midnight.
This motivates the gang to squeeze everything they can from their last day. Thomas contemplates his literary legacy, Fanny seeks out thrills, Julian seeks out a more Julian-ish variety of thrills, Pat gets scared and American, Kitty helps Humphrey, and Robin says goodbye to his family of mice (especially to dear little Graeme Souness).
The Captain though, revisits painful memories. He’s never told the ghosts about the circumstances of his death, keeping it a long-buried secret. Now, with a final goodbye looming, he chooses to share.
The Captain’s Last Day
Through flashback to a VE celebration held at Button House following Berlin’s surrender in May 1945, we’re shown The Captain being refused entry on account of his lack of field service. “Decorated officers only,” says the guard. Undeterred, The Cap sneaks in through a window explaining, “Not my most dignified moment, but I had to be there.”
The Captain had to be there to reunite with Havers, his Second-in-Command during his Button House posting. In series two episode Redding Weddy, we saw Havers join up for frontline service in North Africa in 1940 and leave the Captain behind. His loss was dearly felt and The Captain was haunted by a memory of Havers saluting him goodbye at the gates to the house.
Though nothing explicitly romantic was shown happening between the two, it was obvious reading between the lines that the men were in love but unable to exist as their true, gay selves because of the bigotry of their time. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in England in 1967, in Scotland in 1980, and in Northern Ireland in 1982. Shamefully, homosexual acts are still criminalised and can be punishable by death in multiple countries around the world today.
The Captain’s need to find Havers, or perhaps even to see if he’d survived the war, meant that he was willing to take drastic measures. He overrode his usually strict code of etiquette, sneaked in through a window, and borrowed the ribbon band from another officer’s coat to gain entry. In the rush, The Captain pinned the band on his chest upside down – answering a long-asked fan question in the process.
It’s been theorised by Ghosts fans that The Captain wore his ribbon band the wrong way up as a mark of respect to real military heroes, as is apparently done on some US TV shows and films. That wasn’t the case here, as series one and two director Tom Kingsley teased on Twitter. An explanation for the Captain’s topsy turvy medal band was always coming, promised Kingsley, but fans would have to wait to see it.
Now that they have seen it, fans might well be so bereft that they wish they’d been kept in suspense. Because The Captain did reunite with Havers, but all too briefly and under very regrettable circumstances.
Trying to reach the now war-scarred love of his life across the room, The Captain was waylaid by Cartwright, another officer who called him out to the others for fraudulently wearing the medal band: “Never left Blighty, trying to pass himself off as the bally hero.” And that’s when the cruellest line comes. A senior officer exclaims to The Captain “How dare you! Have you no shame?”
Shame, foist upon him by the cruel ignorance of his age, is exactly what The Captain had. It was shame that had separated him from Havers and from the life they should have had. It was shame that stopped him from telling his story until now. Absorbed from all around him and incubated for decades, shame is what The Captain had when he should have had love.
The stress of the confrontation brings on a heart attack, and The Captain collapses in the middle of the event, surrounded by his fellow officers. Havers rushes to kneel beside him and clasp his hand. “I’m sorry,” says The Captain, “I had to find you.” Havers tells him that he’s here, and when The Captain is unable to say the words he’s come here to say, Havers assures him “I know.” And then the Captain delivers his last words, or in fact, word: “Anthony.” Havers responds in kind and answers another of the Captain’s mysteries by calling him by his first name: James.
Addressing one another by their first names in front of so many other officers was a bold move that revealed the pair’s intimacy at a time when criminal arrests and prosecutions for male homosexuality were rising significantly.
While The Captain was taking his last breaths, Anthony’s military baton changed hands. It was grasped by The Captain, who held onto it – and who, even in the afterlife, would never let it go. It was a beautiful but heartbreaking twist to reveal that a prop the character is never seen without means much more to him than fans ever knew. The Captain’s stick wasn’t just a war memento, it was a poignant reminder of the man he loved but from whom he was kept.
Back in the present, the Ghosts listen to The Captain conclude his story as he apologises for not being a hero. “Perhaps not,” insists Lady Button, “but you are a brave man.” The others nod and strongly agree. The Captain may not have faced action in the field, but he battled intolerance throughout his life, and on the day he died, he risked his freedom for love – a greater cause than many over which wars are fought.
A bleak ending to a sad story, you might say, but no, not quite. Ghosts‘ daft premise gets a lot of comedy mileage from the collision of the characters’ various historical moralities with modern life. But every so often, the creators use that collision to develop something of real meaning.
It was funny, for instance, to see 16th century peasant Mary shocked by the freedom of “the Loose Women” hosting their daytime talk show, but Mary’s exposure to modern women, including Alison, rebuilt her from the inside. Through them, she learned that her voice also mattered, and so did her ideas and feelings. It was a kind of self-actualisation that seemed to lead to her ascension.
The Captain’s exposure to the 21st century, to increased LGBT+ representation on the Button House TV, and to legalised same-sex marriage in series two finale “Perfect Day”, took him on a similar journey. Little by little, the character rearranged his sense of himself and of his sexuality. A new acceptance swelled and pushed out the shame he’d been unfairly forced to carry for so long, making him finally ready to share his story.
By the same token, the other ghosts had also learned those lessons, and had reached the point at which they could recognise and celebrate The Captain’s true bravery. Yes, James’ story was tragic, but his finally telling it to the people he loved was a victory.
Ghosts series five airs on Fridays at 8.30pm on BBC One. All episodes are available now on BBC iPlayer.