From Fleabag to Car Share, the biggest comedy hits of the last few years have all been tinged with a darkness verging on tragedy.
There’s a certain irony, then, that one of the silliest and lightest comedies to premiere on BBC1 in years is about dead people.
Created by the team behind hit children’s show Horrible Histories, Ghosts is the laugh-out-loud story of what you might call the houseshare from hell – where the spooks stuck together in a crumbling old stately home, who all died on the premises, have been there for centuries with no way out.
‘We came up with this idea of a haunted house and we realised the boredom of eternity and the existential aspects of being a ghost were unique and that their stories could actually be really petty,’ says Mathew Baynton, the Wrong Mans star who co-wrote the series and appears in it as love-struck 18th-century poet Thomas Thorne.
Comedy Ghosts follows Alison, played by Call The Midwife’s Charlotte Ritchie and boyfriend Mike, played by Kiell Smith-Bynoe, pictured together, when they move into her aunt’s home
The ghosts living at the house do not want Alison, pictured front, to change it so push her out of a window in a hope to make her leave. Also pictured is ghost Robin the Caveman who is played by Larry Rickard
‘Because they don’t need jobs or fear death, we’ve unlocked this story that’s really domestic, with a lot of antagonism.
‘We don’t have just one high-status character, we have two or three who clash.’
The show starts with the death at the house of the last-ever Lady Button, who has no descendants and had no idea the ghosts were there because the living can’t see or hear them.
The ghosts, eagerly watching her pass to the other side, are disappointed to learn she won’t be joining them in the house as a ghost because she’s going straight to heaven.
The house then passes to distant relative Alison, played by Call The Midwife’s Charlotte Ritchie, who’s been house-hunting with boyfriend Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe).
On seeing the huge, crumbling wreck (it was filmed at the rambling medieval manor West Horsley Place in Surrey, which coincidentally was unexpectedly left to broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne when his great-aunt died), the young couple decide to turn it into a luxury hotel.
But the ghosts, who don’t want to share their space, have other ideas.
The show’s writers wanted to have an unusual mix of ghosts from different time periods. Pictured are ghosts Thomas Thorne, played by Mat Baynton, and Pat, played by Jim Howick
‘They’re stuck in the last place where they were alive – it’s more like purgatory than an afterlife,’ says Laurence Rickard, another co-writer, who plays ghosts Robin the Caveman and Headless Humphrey. ‘The lucky get out; our ghosts just get angrier.’
Although they’re not very good at haunting, the ghosts decide they’ll have to get rid of their new inhabitants to keep the house to themselves.
Almost accidentally, Julian, the ghost of an MP who died when a sex game went wrong, manages to push Alison out of the window.
You never see a caveman ghost, so we thought we’d have one’
She’s in a coma for two weeks, and her near-death experience means that when she returns to the house she’s able to see and hear all the ghosts.
What follows is plenty of farce and fun as her boyfriend starts to wonder whether the brain injury has left her going mad.
‘One of the best things was discovering something really unique to this show that we could play with,’ says Mathew.
‘That involves cutting between the perspectives of seeing and hearing the ghosts in the room and the other, physical plane, in which they don’t exist and you can’t hear them.
When Alison and Mike, pictured front, first visit the house they cannot see the ghosts also living there and decided to turn the old home into a luxury hotel
After recovering from a coma following her window fall, Alison can see the ghosts, including Mary and Pat pictured, haunting the house
‘So we have scenes where Alison’s dealing with having a couple of ghosts behind her and she physically responds to that – and then you see it from the perspective of a living person who can’t see who she’s talking to.
‘They think she’s just shouted at empty space. She then has to find a way to appear sane.
‘Charlotte’s been incredible. She’s held in her head everything she’s done when the ghosts are around.
‘Then we all clear off and she has to retain everything and play the scene again.
‘She pauses in the middle of sentences and looks at things that aren’t there. She’s brilliant.’
The six writers of the show, who all star in it, had huge fun playing with the ghost genre.
Characters in the comedy, which writers hope will be a hit with families, range from a cave man, left playing chess, to an MP called Julian, right, who died when a sex game went wrong
While there’s a headless ghost, a poet ghost and a bitter old grand dame spectre, there’s also a 1980s youth leader killed with a bow and arrow, a soldier who likes everything to be a battle, a grunting caveman and the aforementioned MP.
‘We did think it’s funny that ghosts always seem to be from the 1500s up to the Second World War,’ says Laurence Rickard.
‘Why do you never see a caveman ghost? So we thought we’d have one.’
‘We’ve got some classic ghost figures but we also enjoyed writing more surprising, modern ones,’ adds Mathew.
‘There’s a bit of all of us in our ghosts. The failed songwriter in me is there as Thomas the failed poet.’
Because all the ghosts come from very different periods of time, they have different sets of values.
‘Your moral compass is set in the time you’re growing up,’ says Laurence.
‘It’s been such fun to write because you’ve got people with totally different ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable.
Writer Laurence said it was fun to write the ghosts from different ages, pictured are two of the characters, as they have different sets of values based on their time periods
Alison, played by Charlotte Richie and pictured with Jiel Smith-Bynoe, inherits the house from her aunt Lady Button
‘The caveman’s first suggestion to most problems is to kill.’
The acting troupe has been working on and off with each other for a decade and has gone from the CBBC children’s show Horrible Histories, which made history funny and is adored by parents, to acclaimed comedy Yonderland on Sky and a feature film, Bill, about the life of William Shakespeare.
This, however, is their first series for BBC1. Influenced by the likes of Monty Python and Blackadder, they’re hoping Ghosts will be one of the rare shows the whole family will sit down and watch together.
‘When we were growing up, things like Blackadder were around before the whole division between kids and adult content existed,’ says Laurence.
‘I watched Blackadder and so did my parents.
‘Some time in the 90s comedy became something that adults watched at 10pm and there were children’s shows that children watched. It was a split and it never really came back together again.
‘I’d love to think Ghosts is a show people will let their kids stay up a bit later for. I’d like it to feel like a treat.’
Ghosts, Monday, 9.30pm, BBC1.