There was a heartbreaking moment in Ghosts when Mary (Katy Wix), who was burned as a witch in the 17th century, listened to a bowl of Rice Krispies. The snap, crackle and pop, she told Alison (who after a near-death experience can see and hear the ghosts who haunt Button Hall) was the sound of tiny people crying out for help. Then something worse happened. “They have stopped calling out! They are dead!” Mary wailed. It was like The Silence of the Lambs with Rice Krispies instead of lambs. Which understandably put Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) right off breakfast.
One thing that makes Ghosts so endearing is how the spirits find the modern world in which they’re doomed to live so absurd. I don’t know how your 2020 is going, but that resonates with my lived experience. When, for instance, Alison told them that a man landed on the moon, the ghosts who died before 1969 were sceptical. Regency poet Thomas sneered disbelievingly: “How did he get there? Climb up a beanstalk? You’re dicked in the nob.” That line had me creased up with laughter – though, it turned out, for all the wrong reasons. I imagined that Thomas had picked up some 21st-century slang from Mike or Alison, the modern-day herberts who have inherited Button Hall. In fact, “dicked in the nob” was Regency slang, defined in Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as silly or crazed.
That’s just the sort of historical trivia that would have cropped up in Horrible Histories, which is fitting because Ghosts is written by and stars that show’s leading names – Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Mathew Baynton, Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond and Jim Howick – each of whom plays a ghost. For kids who grew up watching the latter and parents like me who now can’t recall the geopolitical ramifications of the Congress of Vienna we were taught at school but know from the Horrible Histories that Aeschylus died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, Ghosts is Horrible Histories by other means. And it is a must-see as a result.
The second series improved on the first; at least two of the six episodes were heartbreaking works of shattering genius, thanks to their narrative ingenuity. They bear comparison with two of the most brilliant comedy half hours broadcast in recent years on British TV, namely the flying lesson episode of Count Arthur Strong and the one in which he turned the tables on Phil the conman plumber.
In The Thomas Thorne Affair, there was elaborate homage to Kurosawa’s Rashomon when five ghosts each told Alison their very different versions of the party before which the eponymous poet was killed in a duel. Each of these ghosts got quizzed about what they saw. “Was it a buffet? You know, cheese and pineapple?” asked Pat (Howick) the ex-scoutmaster doomed to wear the fatal arrow through his neck forever, to dead Kitty, Lolly Adefope’s incorrigibly upbeat Georgian noblewoman. “Pineapple! Goodness no!” exclaimed Kitty. “They were wealthy but not royalty.”
In Redding Weddy there was another ingenious and poignant flashback. The Captain (Willbond) recalled his wartime heartbreak over his lieutenant’s departure for the north African frontline, a nicely judged subplot of British homoerotic desire repressed for the best part of a century. At the same time, there were at least two more intertwining subplots, one involving prudish Lady Fanny Button (Howe-Douglas) getting hot under the crinoline by reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and then imagining Kiell Smith-Bynoe’s goofy Mike as a sexy bit of rough like a latter-day Mellors. Add to this a storyline about Robin the caveman getting corrupted by YouTube conspiracy theories about faked moon landings, royals being replaced by lizards and, most absurdly of all, the existence of gravity, and you’ll get sense of how Ghosts is better than it needs to be – dense in gags, historical allusions and sharp plotting.
More miraculous yet is how Ghosts sets up a situation that takes Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and turns the screw. Button Hall’s inmates are trapped for eternity with people they don’t even like. It’s like Christmas, but longer. And yet from that set-up emerges a feelgood ensemble comedy that, alongside King Gary and This Country, has cheered me up during the pandemic.
If, unlike those dead Rice Krispies, we survive a little longer, our reward will be a Ghosts Christmas special. And if, unlike the eponymous ghosts who died stupid deaths (I don’t really want to know how MP Julian lost his trousers), we are alive this time next year, there may well be a third series to enjoy. Life will be worth living once more, though, ironically enough, only thanks to the dead of Button Hall.