Larry Rickard doesn’t speak French. “I’m terrible with languages!” he tells Den of Geek. When a Ghosts series five storyline in episode four “En Francais” called for his caveman character to speak fluent French, Rickard had to learn his lines phonetically “from a very kind French friend of the producer who recorded everything.”
The result was impressive (or as Kiell Smith Bynoe’s Mike might say, tresbien). To the surprise of the viewers and the Button House ghosts – who’d just reached the point of thinking their afterlives held no more surprises – Robin turned out to be a talented linguist.
“The speech centre of his brain is tiny,” explains Rickard, “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.”
One of the things Robin saw during his long afterlife was Lady Sophie Bone, the discontented French wife of Sir Humphrey (the other Ghosts character played by Rickard). For a couple of decades in the 16th century, the caveman occupied himself by listening to Sophie and her nursemaid speaking French. Invisibly, Robin accompanied Lady Bone as she walked the grounds and through listening, he learned her language.
It’s part of a poignant storyline that touches on Robin’s loneliness over the centuries, and on him teaching Humphrey the vital skill of listening. It grew though, out of a comic observation about Robin’s speaking voice. The character was always intended to sound slightly non-British, says Rickard.
“We always said he should have come here when Great Britain was part of the continent, it was like he should sound a little bit like he’s from the continent. People have always picked up on that, so he’s sort of got an accent anyway.”
Robin’s fluency in French in series five developed after Rickard delivered a line in his caveman voice during a writers’ meeting and the others remarked on how much he sounded like a stereotypically gruff Frenchman.
“At some point I said something – I think it was ‘Bah, oui, je me defends’ – and because he’s got a rough voice, it just sounds like an old French guy talking! We were like ‘He should know French far better than his own language because it’s a more natural fit to the tone of his voice and his accent than English is!’, so it was one of those silly moments that ends up becoming half an episode.”
In a montage in that episode showing Robin’s loneliness after Sophie has fled Button House following her involvement in a Catholic plot, he sits alone under the tree where he once sat with Sophie while she read poetry including a sonnet by 16th century writer Joachim du Bellay that reflects on love, beauty, and the certainty of death, and begins: “Si notre vie est moins qu’une journée / If our life is less than a single day.” It’s no wonder the caveman develops his philosophical perspective, telling Humphrey in the episode that though he misses a lot of people from over the years, more always come along.
The stinger on Robin’s French-speaking gag comes at the end of the episode when Robin reveals to an audience of no-one that he’s also fluent in Russian. Not bad for a man with a small speech centre. This being the final series of Ghosts, will we ever find out how Robin came to learn Russian? Rickard doesn’t know.
“We’ll see if there’s ever an avenue for that, but I just love the idea there’s always so many stories for him. It’s fun to do that, like the reference to William when he’s naming the stars [in series four’s “Gone Gone”], and then getting to meet William [in a flashback scene in “En Francais”], it’s this idea that he’s been around for so long. So many things have happened to him you can almost endlessly suggest a bit of his backstory that no-one’s ever asked about before just because he’s had so long.”
Read more from Den of Geek’s series five interview with Larry Rickard here.
Ghosts series one to five is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer in the UK.