Exclusive: Ghosts' Mat Baynton on tragedy of Thomas and Horrible Histories

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Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Mathew Baynton has played a defining role somewhere on your telly schedule over the past two decades.

For some, he's simply Smithy's hapless right-hand man Deano in Gavin and Stacey. For others he was half of The Wrong Mans. Most recently, Mathew is living the life of lovelorn poet Thomas Thorne in BBC comedy Ghosts, but to an entire generation, he and his co-writers were the faces of their history lessons thanks to CBBC’s Horrible Histories.

Alongside Jim Howick, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond – with whom he went on to create Sky's Yonderland and Ghosts – Mathew created a weird and wonderful educational world that, when the pandemic kicked off in 2020, proved a lifeline for parents suddenly teaching their kids from home (and a comfort blanket those who grew up watching it).

But it turns out, Mathew finds it just as weird and wonderful that he could be "childhood defining". At the time of writing, 11 million TikTokers have created their own videos inspired by him and his creations – most prominently a 'Wackus Bonkus' soundbite from a recreation of Caligula.

So in honour of the Ghosts Christmas Special, Digital Spy had a catch-up with Mathew to discuss his life on TV – past, present and future…

Photo credit: Mark Johnson - BBC
Photo credit: Mark Johnson - BBC

Through the past couple of years, Horrible Histories has seen a bit of a resurgence. How aware are you of that, and are you surprised that it's been given such a new lease of life?

I'm faintly aware of it. I'm not on TikTok, but I am on Twitter, and people sometimes post TikTok things and tag me. I remember when I was student/university age, that it was a real thing and nostalgia for kids TV was a big thing amongst student communities.

I don't know if it's because you're an adult and you're independent and you're kind of negotiating the murky waters of making your own way in life. I guess it's the first point in your life at which you can be nostalgic, because you're old enough now. You've got enough of a past that you can talk about it as if it is the past.

I guess what I'm driving at, and not articulating terribly well, is that's probably what's going on with Horrible Histories. The phrase that gets uttered to me and has been now for an alarmingly long time is, someone will recognise me and then after saying, "Oh my god, it's you," the next sentence that comes out of their mouth is, "You're my childhood," or, "I grew up watching you" and it will be like someone in their 20s and it freaks me out!

To me it's like, "You can't... no, that's not possible!" But then I sort of do the maths, and I go oh, yeah, we started, I don't know, 12/13 years ago? Even saying that now feels crazily long. It doesn't feel like that long ago to me, and yet it is.

So when someone says that, my first thought is, "Well, that's not possible,' then I kind of do the maths in my head and go, "Yeah, I guess you'd have been 10. You'd have watched it from the age of 10 to 14 or something, and now you're in your early 20s, and you've just graduated. So yes, I guess I was your childhood!"

Sounds pretty existential!

It is existential! Because it's like, "I'm middle aged!" That's the truth. I've just turned 41, and the funny thing is, within the group, I was always the young one, and you just kind of hold that identity for quite a while and then you realise…

It's that weird thing, you kind of go from playing young, naive kind of characters, to being sent scripts to play a dad, and you're like, "Well, I look too young to be a dad. I'm too young to be a dad, why are you sending me that?" Then you hear your own children playing in the next room and you're like, "Oh... yeah, I probably am in that bracket. Fair enough!" This is turning into therapy! [laughs].

Horrible Histories, I think the reason [it's lasted], is it's educational, and I think that's allowed it to endure and continue to exist on a level which some things might not because, yes, they were really funny, but they don't necessarily remain relevant or have a reason for people to keep revisiting them.

So while I'd love to think it's because we were so fantastic, I think the truth is it's an educational show, and so new audiences are going to keep discovering it because it teaches kids and so parents are always going to be happy for kids to get into it.

I think the key to its success was that it was designed to educate kids but it was funny enough for parents to have it on, and as a parent myself, I really understand the value of kids TV that isn't mind-meltingly irritating.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Would you ever return to Horrible Histories?

It's still on, so we can't. There was a kind of a crossroads moment, we did five series, and as far as we knew it was ending with that fifth one. Then after a year break we were asked to come back because they wanted to do it again, and we were busy making Yonderland and we kind of wanted to move on and do our own thing. But we said "look, we could do a special every now and again. That would be cool". But they made a new series with a new cast, and it felt like it had sort of started a new chapter of that show.

So it felt like for us, it wouldn't be right to go back, and just kind of let go of it and let new people own it. It just happened to be a big presence at a really formative time, and so by revisiting that stuff, people are revisiting a time that they're nostalgic for, or memories they're nostalgic for.

Photo credit: BBC
Photo credit: BBC

Currently, you're on screen in Ghosts as hopeless romantic poet Thomas Thorne – hopeless most likely the operative word. Do you think there's ever a shot at him finding love or do you think he's tragically destined to remain that way?

Yeah, I think that is probably right, it's the tragedy of him. We had this idea about, "Okay, we're doing a show about ghosts", and then one of the first ideas was, "When people talk about hauntings, it will be the jilted bride in her wedding dress and she floats down the corridor". But we know it was funny to us to go, "If you say how you die, then what would be a terrible way to die?" That's where the trouserless MP came from.

But then as a kind of rule, that expanded and much later I started to think "Oh, what if Thomas is obsessed with Allison and kind of infatuated because he died infatuated, and a kind of unrequited love is the state that he's stayed in?" He'll just fixate on whoever he can pin that on.

I quite like that idea, that he's trapped in that state of being, and it's obviously just really fun to play because everything for him is at number 10. It's total melodrama, whatever it is. The thing with him as well is actually that applies to optimistic moments too, like if he has what he thinks is a good idea for a poem. I particularly loved when he decided that he could earn money for Allison by writing essentially 50 Shades of Grey.

He starts narrating what he thinks will be erotic, but he uses the word 'car' really self-consciously because to him, a car is something incredibly modern.

Photo credit: Guido Mandozzi - BBC
Photo credit: Guido Mandozzi - BBC

As a writer of the show, how much of each character's history do you know?

We discover more and more as we go along, because every time we're brainstorming ideas, there'll be things that don't necessarily immediately bloom into an episode, but stay in our consciousness.

Very, very early on, in the conception of the first series, we talked about the rich possibility of flashbacks, and the most obvious thing being showing people how they died. But we were keen immediately as well to do flashbacks that weren't about their deaths, so it didn't become a format point.

Then you get into a situation where you just reveal their deaths one by one and then the series is kind of over. That's the fun of it, in a way, it's coming up with different ways of visiting their lives, whether it's an important moment in their life or whether it's their death.

So yeah, there are some where we have had ideas quite a long time ago, which we're still holding on to. Cards that we haven't played yet. And then sometimes those ideas that we had a while back, when we get to them we'll twist them and go, 'Oh actually, we always thought we would do this with their flashback, but I think we're going to do the opposite.'

And we'll sometimes surprise ourselves with how their backstory plays itself out. It almost feels like a process of discovery with ideas. You throw them around until you kind of land on the right one. And you kind of know it's the right one because it just feels right.

Going back to today, we've now got Christmas to look forward to. What are your plans?

I haven't really got much planned. I'm filming at the moment, and then we start Ghosts. In fact, we're kind of in prep now for that next series. So I'm jumping straight off one project and on to that, and as much as anything, just looking forward to a few days at home with the family. Hopefully my parents will come up and we'll just hang out and eat and watch the kids play with their presents. Pretty low key.

I mean, I just feel with everything that's happened over these last few years. I just feel incredibly lucky that for so many reasons, but I'm absolutely at the point where it suits me to stay in. I like it. Being given an extra excuse to say no to social engagements was not unwelcome to me! Whereas, like, 10 years prior, it would have really bothered me that I couldn't go out.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What are your plans for 2022?

I'm not actually sure what the rest of the year will bring, which is always exciting because if you've got a gap, then something new and interesting can come along and fill it. But I've been working on some writing projects.

I've been writing an animated film, which I hope will come to fruition and I've been trying to write a book for quite a long time which, if I find I have enough time to, next year I'll try to finish.

I've been dying to go back and do theatre again for a long time. It nearly, nearly happened.. then the pandemic came along and smashed it to pieces. Hopefully there'll be some opportunity to do some theatre. That would be nice. But yeah, we'll see what fate brings!

Finally, what can you tell us about the new series of Ghosts?

We know that people are excited by finding out the mysteries that we still have left, but we also know that once they're gone, that will be a shame. So we're seeping things out in a way that, I hope, is as fun for the audience as it is for us. There's a couple more backstories in the next series. I think it's fair to say you'll find out one of the deaths that is as yet unexplained, but they'll still be more unexplained for the future. That's so unjuicy! [laughs] Yeah, things and not things!

Ghosts (including the new Christmas special) is available now on BBC iPlayer.

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