Kiell Smith-Bynoe isn’t much of a Christmas person. “I don’t like the whole build-up and I despise the idea of people putting up their Christmas trees on the 1st of November. I’m horribly against it!” he tells Den of Geek over the phone. “If that makes some people happy then fine, but no, I’m not really a Christmas guy at all.”
That didn’t stop him from feeling a touch of the Christmas spirit when filming the Ghosts special in February this year. “That actually felt very festive. It really had that Christmas feel. As well as the decorations, they added in some scents that made the set smell really Christmassy.” Even the most tinsel-averse can be turned by a cinnamon and gingerbread candle.
It won’t have just been about the fragrance. The Ghosts special, which follows the goings-on in a haunted manor house populated by a gang of comedy spectres from across the centuries, is evocative of Christmas in so many ways. The frenzied dinner preparations, the family bickering, everybody wanting to follow their own personal tradition… and the warmth of celebrating together. In a year where many of us won’t be able to bundle under the same roof, it’s a soothing reminder of what usually makes this time of year special.
Smith-Bynoe plays Mike, one of two living leads who, along with his wife Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) inherited the ghosts along with Button House. Only Alison is able to see and hear their dead housemates, while Mike has to rely on her explanations of who they are and what they’re doing. He also uses his imagination, which is what’s led him to wrongly believe the ghosts are all floating around in the air and not – as they are – walking on the ground. “That was something I added in when we started, I don’t know if Tom [Kingsley, director] actually found it funny or was more just resigned to it. Like, ‘Oh, he’s doing that thing, we’ll just let him’. They eventually started writing it in.”
Just how funny Smith-Bynoe was simply reacting to thin air was a pleasant surprise for the show’s creators, who moulded the role around him, particularly in a couple of Mike-centric stories in series two. Stand-out episode ‘Bump in the Night’ found Mike alone with the ghosts, trying to fend off a couple of burglars. It’s Smith-Bynoe’s favourite episode so far. “I’d had a lot of practice at ignoring the ghosts, but usually Alison was around to navigate that conversation to make it a bit easier for Mike. This time, she wasn’t there at all. I watched that episode just beaming all the way through because I was enjoying it so much, I really loved filming that.”
One aspect he didn’t much love was the moment that Mike, in his attempt to scare away the burglars, dons a suit of armour. Of all the costumes Smith-Bynoe has worn in his career, that was the worst. “I’ve worn bulletproof vest, a fat suit. I’ve been a camel! Nothing was as heavy as that. It was really quite uncomfortable and cold, especially when Mike falls down on the floor and I just had to lay there in this metal thing wriggling around.”
Another Mike highlight from series two came in series two’s ‘Redding Weddy’, when, after reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Martha Howe-Douglas’s uptight Edwardian snob Lady Button found herself flustered by Mike’s masculine energy. Smith-Bynoe laughs remembering. “Me and Martha get on really well and that was so much fun to do. My Diet Coke ad that was changed into a generic cola ad for copyright purposes! The water in the fountain at the end was freezing cold – apparently for some reason it had to be – I still don’t get that.”
If Mike could see and hear the ghosts, Smith-Bynoe thinks he’d get on well with Pat, Jim Howick’s upbeat 1980s scoutmaster killed accidentally by a stray arrow on an archery away day. “They’re both chilled, laidback, pretty happy-go-lucky guys. Mary too (Katy Wix’s 17th century witch, burned at the stake), I think Mary’s quite low maintenance in a similar way to Mike.” One ghost he almost certainly wouldn’t get along with is Thomas (Mat Baynton), a 19th century Romantic poet who’s forever trying to steal his wife. “Big time tension! I don’t even know if Mike knows that Thomas is in love with Alison…”
It’s bound to come up in a future series. The series three scripts were pretty much finished in mid-November, Smith-Bynoe’s been told by co-creator Ben Willbond. “I think we’re starting in March or April next year, and I think most of the scripts are done.” In terms of his hopes for the new episodes, “I’m sure there are a few more backstories for the ghosts that we haven’t seen yet…”
The Christmas Special delves into the personal life of Simon Farnaby’s 1990s Tory MP with a Scrooge-tinged storyline. Julian Fawcett is forced to re-evaluate what Christmas is really all about when Mike’s family comes to stay at Button House.
“It’s a great new dynamic for Mike. His family treat him the same way they would have when he was at home, despite the fact that he’s now a grown-up who’s responsible for a massive house, with a wife of his own and his own other family in the ghosts. But he’s still treated like the baby, and he reverts back. Mike’s quite a go-with-the-flow guy, we’ve never seen him have a tantrum or a meltdown before now.”
Mike’s meltdown is provoked by an overstuffed Christmas whiteboard agenda detailing a mammoth list of tasks. Does the actor take a similar approach? What would be on Kiell Smith-Bynoe’s Christmas whiteboard?
“There would be one thing and one thing only and it would be: eat. Usually, Christmas is me and my aunts and my mum and all my cousins – just me and all the girls – and we have a lovely time eating a massive dinner. We sit on the kids’ table, even though we’re all 31 years old. There’s probably about five meats. We get macaroni cheese in there, we’ve got parsnips going, pigs in blankets, sweet potato. It’s getting me hungry thinking about it!”
After all the eating, there might be a bit of film-watching. “Last year we ended up watching a terrible film. It was with Danny Glover, it was on Netflix and it was basically Home Alone but set in a school. [Ed – Christmas Break-In.] It was very very bad. The year before that we watched Bird Box, which was great.
“Do you know what I used to love? Robbie the Reindeer. Get that back on the TV! That was a fantastic bit of television. We’ll watch EastEnders too even though I haven’t watched it all year and I don’t have a clue who any of the people are.”
Whatever happens in this year’s EastEnders Christmas misery-special, there’s bound to be at least call to 999. Smith-Bynoe’s next roles include a paramedic in upcoming Sky comedy Bloods and a police officer in another comedy. “I’ve completed two of three of the emergency services, I just need a job on London’s Burning and I’ll be done, then I can retire!”
Before he does that, he has a self-written comedy in development, and the third series of acclaimed Channel 4 comedy Stath Lets Flats, which is pencilled in to film in summer 2021. Smith-Bynoe plays reluctant estate agent Dean, the grumpiest member of Michael and Eagle Lettings. “Where we finished series two, our boss has just died! Oops, spoiler! So I don’t know what’s next for Michael and Eagle. Looking at the chain of command, I’d say that Carol [Katy Wix] would be in charge but of course, she’s pregnant now. The nightmare for Dean would be if he had to become the manager…”
He’s keen to see the American remake of Ghosts, which is in development starring iZombie’s Rose McIver and Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar as the US equivalents of Alison and Mike. “I hope it’s good as ours,” he says, “but not better. What I’d really love though, is for our one to be a big success over there and everyone just to love” he laughs “…me!”
The Ghosts Christmas Special airs on Wednesday the 23rd of December on BBC One at 8.30pm.