On the advice of a British expat friend of mine, I decided to take a break from heavy sci-fi offerings of late, and take a look at the 2019 BBC series, “Ghosts,” which is currently on HBOMax, and which has (of course) already spawned a US remake. At 30 minutes each, with short seasons running only half a dozen episodes or more, I easily binged the entire three season run of the BBC series (to date) over a few days, and it’s been simply delightful. Vaguely reminiscent of the supernatural BBC comedy-drama series, “Being Human,” but minus that series’ angst, “Ghosts” is alternately sweet and sly, with the ghosts’ tragic pasts offering just enough sympathy to hook a viewer’s emotions.
We meet fiscally-struggling young couple, Alison and Mike Cooper. Alison unwittingly inherits the dilapidated and thoroughly haunted Button house from a recently deceased, 99 year-old distant relative. Alison and Mike soon get the idea to make additional income from renting the historic house for parties, weddings and other special occasions, which unwittingly incurs the wrath of the ghosts within. Acting rashly, ghost Julian, a disgraced former politician, pushes Alison from a window, which briefly kills her until her revival shortly after.
Following her near-death experience, Alison now has the ability to see and hear Button house’s permanent ghostly guests–making her both their ghost whisperer and den mother, as the ghosts often act like rambunctious, underfoot children.
Meet the Living.
Alison Cooper, played to straight-faced perfection by Charlotte Ritchie (Doctor Who: “Resolution”), is the young woman who inherits Button house following the death of a 99 year-old distant relative whom she never knew. Along with her husband Mike, Alison shares the dream of renovating the historic Button house into a hotel, or perhaps as a rental for special occasions (weddings, parties, etc). Unfortunately, Alison’s dreams for the Button estate incur the wrath of the house’s ghosts (most of whom are played by the show’s writers as well), leading ghost PM Julian to push her out of a window–briefly killing her (S1.1: “Who Do You Think You Are?”)
Note: Maybe it’s just me, but Charlotte Ritchie seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to a young Margot Kidder–who also played a young wife inheriting a (more malevolently) haunted house in 1979’s horror classic, “The Amityville Horror.”
The (fortunately) revived Alison returns home to learn her near-death experience allows her to see and hear the house’s many ghosts. Overcoming her initial fright, the deeply pragmatic Alison eventually brokers a modus vivendi with the spirits. Soon, Alison has them placated with television, books, and other creature comforts, as they begin to look upon her as their de facto den mother–save for the ridiculously amorous poet Thomas, who desperately desires Alison–all but ignoring her married status. Over time, the ghosts’ rapport with Alison becomes genuine, and they even do their clumsy, non-corporeal best to help her and Mike whenever they can–even coming to her aid when a greedy con woman named Lucy (Jessica Knappett) tries to swindle the presumed-wealthy Alison out of her estate by posing as her long-lost half-sister (S3.2: “A Lot to Take In,” 3.4, “I Love Lucy”).
Alison is an earthy, pragmatic answer to American TV’s “Ghost Whisperer” (Jennifer Love-Hewitt), but with a lighthearted approach that reminds me of Elizabeth Montgomery’s comfortably suburban 1960s witch in “Bewitched”–minus the overt sexism of that era, of course. Unlike Samantha and Darren, Alison and Mike are thoroughly equal partners, with Alison getting her hands just as dirty in the house’s renovations as her husband. Acting as liaison (and den mother) between the spirits and Mike, Charlotte Ritchie’s Alison is the glue that holds it all together.
Alison’s husband Mike Cooper, played by gifted comic actor Kiell Smith-Byone, is the series’ underdog. Unable to see the ghosts with which his wife has bonded, Mike sometimes feels like an odd man out, which is further hindered by the fact that his wife is often seen as more clever and generally better at most things–in addition to communing with the house’s spirits. I wish the writers (Smith-Beyone’s fellow cast members) would throw a few more bones his way; perhaps they could give him some other unique skill or ability, besides internet prowess, which would make him more central to the goings-on in his own home. The befuddled Mike often reminds me of Rose’s boyfriend Mickey “the Idiot” Smith from Doctor Who (the 9th and 10th Doctor-eras).
On the plus side, Kiell Smith-Beyone is a gifted physical comic actor, and his delivery is spot-on. Love the actor’s endless flailing gestures as he blindly navigates the positions of the unseen ghosts. We also gain insight into Mike’s sometimes contentious relationship with his sometimes overbearing siblings and parents, who don’t seem to take their son seriously as host (as seen in the 2nd season Christmas special), which only adds to the character’s general feeling of inadequacy. This feeling is made worse by his wife’s crush on a visiting actor, who’s shooting a movie at the estate (S1.4, “Free Pass”), and of the ceaseless amorous advances of dead poet Thomas Thorne. Mike’s relationship to his invisible housemates makes him a natural and sympathetic audience avatar.
Note: We meet Mike’s family in S2.7; “The Ghost of Christmas.”
Meet the Living-Challenged.
The first ghost Alison sees upon returning home after her hospitalization in the pilot episode is Robin, played by series’ cowriter Laurence Rickard. Robin is an ancient caveman who lived on the grounds of the estate, tens of thousands of years ago. Naturally, he is the oldest ghost at Button house, and over time, he’s acquired a rough power of speech and a lot of wisdom, which he often dispenses to his troubled housemates, showcasing a sensitivity one wouldn’t typically expect from a moon-watching caveman (S1.5: “Moonah Ston”). Each of the house’s ghosts have a unique spectral gift, and Robin’s talent is the ability to dim electrical lights at will. For recreation, Robin’s also learned to play chess with fellow ghost Julian, who has a limited ability to move objects–thus allowing him to move the chess pieces for both.
Note: Writer/actor Rickard, who also doubles as the disembodied head of fellow ghost Sir Humphrey Bone, can switch from Tudor to troglodyte at the drop of a head–er, hat. In full caveman makeup, with his wild hair, enlarged brow, wide-eyes and rounded mouth, Rickard’s Robin looks like a live-action Aardman Animation character come to life. One of Robin’s best episodes is S1.5, “Moonah Ston”, which chronicles Robin’s ancient ritual of worshipping lunar eclipses.
The character of Tudor ghost Sir Humphrey Bone is brought to life by two actors; with the aforementioned Laurence Rickard playing the character’s accidentally severed head, and with mime actor Yani Xander playing the head’s blind, deaf, forever groping body. Sir Humphrey is one of the least seen of the ghosts, mainly because his severed head is usually left in one part of Button house … casually forgotten for long stretches of time. In addition to occasionally rejoining his head, Bone’s body has adventures of its own–including a passionate affair with the repressed fellow ghost Lady Stephanie “Fanny” Button (“don’t ask, don’t tell,” indeed). Sir Humphrey Bone’s backstory sees him married to a duplicitous French revolutionary who plotted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, Humphrey was unwittingly caught up in the plot, accidentally decapitating himself when two decorative swords fell from his own mantle–slicing his head clean off. As a result, Sir Humphrey Bone is historically remembered as a would-be royal assassin instead of a hapless husband married to a treacherous foreign agent for a wife. Such is life…and death.
Note: We learn of Sir Humphrey’s fate in S3.1; “The Bone Plot.”
In addition to the group of plague victim ghosts confined to the basement of Button house, the character of Mary, played by Katy Wix, is another tragic figure who suffered a slow, painful death on the estate. The widowed Mary was burned for being a witch in the early 17th century witch-hunting madness that swept across both Europe and North America. Aside from the basement plague victims, the slow-witted, uneducated, inarticulate Mary is perhaps the most underdeveloped ghost character in the house. Despite her relative lack of character growth to date, gifted performer Katy Wix plays Mary with a fixed, wide-eyed, vacant-minded stare that speaks to the grisly horror of her immolation. Mary’s special ghostly gift is that living persons in her presence can detect a nasty burning smell, of course…
Note: Mary becomes atypically incensed by the presence of fumigators in S3.3, “The Woodworm Men.”
Of the many ghosts in Button house, the most lovable by far is Kitty, played by Lolly Andeforpe. Kitty was a young woman of the late 1700s, living with her adoptive Georgian family, along with a jealous adoptive sister who arranged the ‘accident’ which caused Kitty’s unfortunate demise, assuming Kitty was an obstacle to her rightful inheritance. However, unlike the other ghosts, the eternally sweet-natured Kitty is unable to face the circumstances of her death; refusing to accept that her adoptive sister was anything less than loving and self-sacrificing to her. In the present day, the naively girlish Kitty loves romance stories, sleepovers, dancing, and imagines herself sharing a special sisterly bond with Alison. During an impromptu ‘group therapy session’ with Alison and the other ghosts (S3.5; “Something To Share”), Kitty came very close to grasping the full ugly truth behind her passing, but stopped short of acknowledging it. The delightful Kitty prefers to wallow in sugary sweetness instead of facing brutal truths. Denial is Kitty’s preferred way of maintaining her sunny disposition. Lolly Andeforpe is so damn delightful that I’d prefer that her character never face any unpleasantness–much like Kitty’s ‘accidental’ exposure to “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (S3.3: “The Woodworm Men”).
Note: It was during Kitty’s viewing of 1978’s “Grease” when the mischievous Julian used his special power of kinetics to change the TV channel–resulting in Kitty being traumatized into believing that “A Nightmare On Elm Street” was (somehow) the latter half of the popular musical.
Early 19th century poet and amorous windbag Thomas Thorne, played by talented series’ cowriter Mathew Baynton, was a guest at Button house in the 1820s when he was challenged to a pistol duel over a lady’s honor (or so he thought) and lost. A contemporary of Lord Byron, Thomas imagines himself an undiscovered literary great, cut down in his prime; the sad truth is, Thomas died a forgotten mediocrity. In the present, the late poet is deeply enamored with the new lady of Button house; the very 21st century Alison (a distant cousin, in fact), who kindly but repeatedly eschews Thomas’ entirely harmless advances–he literally cannot lay a finger on her. We’ve seen evidence that Thomas’ affections are easily activated when he becomes just as infatuated with con artist Lucy, who posed as Jessica’s lost half-sister (S3.2, “A Lot to Take In”). With his flowery language and flattering self-appraisal, the pompous poet can be comically overbearing at times, but, as Alison quickly learns, the harmless Thomas is just a lot of cold air…
Note: The would-be Byron’s backstory is laid out in S2.4, “The Thomas Thorne Affair,” which also revealed (via Sir Humphrey’s head) exactly how Thomas’ own cousin conspired with his assassin in order to woo Thomas’ beloved Isabel–would-be heir to Button house at the time.
Another writer-actor of the series is Martha Howe-Douglas, who plays the early 20th century Lady Stephanie “Fanny” Button. Like all the ghosts trapped in the house, the uptight, deeply repressed Edwardian-era Fanny has a tragic past that keeps her anchored to her ancestral home; walking in a threesome between her husband, the servant and the groundskeeper, she was pushed to her death from a high window–a traumatic act she is compelled to repeat every night–or morning, when her screaming forces ghost Julian to reset her room’s clock so that her cries no longer disturb the ghosts’ slumber (S1.1 “Who Do You Think You Are?”). Fanny’s ghostly ‘gift’ is the unwitting ability to be seen on film, which complicates things for the Coopers when a photographer shooting the historical estate accidentally captures her on his camera (S2.1: “The Grey Lady”) and uploads the image to social media. We see her buttoned-up Edwardian-era prudishness ease a bit when she grudgingly comes to accept a lesbian couple getting married at the estate (S3.6, “Perfect Day”). In one of her greatest comedic moments, it’s revealed that Lady Fanny is enjoying a secret ongoing tryst with the headless body of Sir Humphrey Bone (S3.4: “I Love Lucy”).
Note: Writer-performer Martha Howe-Douglas is aged considerably with makeup to appear as the “grey lady” Fanny Button (in reality, Howe-Douglas is only in her early 40s). Aside from the Lady’s very nickname being crude British slang for–ahem–lady parts, much humor is mined from her perpetual consternation with the looser social mores of the 21st century. My inner adolescent self still giggles at the notion of the house’s ‘Fanny’ getting horizontal with a “Bone”…
Ben Willbond, also a writer/performer on the series, appears as “the Captain”; a stern, closeted gay military officer stationed at Button house during the Second World War who fancies himself as the ghosts’ unofficial organizer/leader, often overlooking the fact that Alison now fills that role far more ably than himself. Much of his own backstory is revealed when Button house is being readied for its first wedding booking, which forces the Captain to remember the live ordinance still buried in the garden area where the ceremony is due to take place (S2.3: “Wedding Ready”). It’s in that same story when we learn that the duty-first Captain is forced to gay goodbye to a young soldier for whom he’s developed intense feelings. Despite the firm grip he tries to keep on his feelings, the closeted Captain’s involuntary attraction for beautiful men still manages to slip through every so often. The exact circumstances of the to date nameless Captain’s death have yet to be revealed–perhaps something to look forward to next season.
Note: The real tragedy of the Captain’s story is how utterly unimportant his ‘big secret’ would be viewed today.
Writer/performer Jim Howick costars as nerdy, middle-aged scout master Patrick “Pat” Butcher, who was doing archery exercises with his scouts on the grounds in 1984, when a scout’s stray arrow plunged right into his neck (S1.3: “Happy Death Day”). Like Kitty, Pat does his best to maintain a sunny predisposition in an attempt to conceal his considerable pain; much of which arose when he learned his best friend was having an affair with his wife before his death. Pat’s ex-wife (now an elderly woman) and her second husband, visit the site of Pat’s death every year, which often leaves Pat in a rare state of melancholy. Later on, Pat has a chance to face his young killer, now a middle-aged man and wedding guest at Button house (S2.6, “Perfect Day”). An agitated Pat is prepared to despise his once-young killer, until he sees the depth of the older man’s sorrow over his youthful act, prompting Pat to forgive him instead. Pat’s arc is one of the deft ways the series mixes its wickedly gallows’ humor with just the right level of emotional investment to make viewers truly care about these characters in a way not usually afforded in sitcoms.
The most recent, and most debauched ghost to take up residence at Button house is Julian Fawcett, played by writer/comedian Simon Farnaby. A former Member of Parliament (Tory Party, naturally), Julian was cheating on his wife (and family) at the estate on Christmas of 1993 when he died trouser-less and inebriated–which explains his perpetually mischievous disposition, as we learn that ghosts are ‘frozen’ in the state they were in at the time of their deaths (S3.7: “The Ghost of Christmas”). In Julian’s case, his death occurred right in the middle of a sordid act which left his reputation in disgrace (S3.2: “A Lot to Take In”). Using extreme concentration, Julian has the power to move objects, which makes him the most impulse control-challenged of the spirits. In fact, it was Julian’s rash decision to push newcomer Alison from the high window which unwittingly turned her into Button house’s resident ‘ghost whisperer’ (S1.1: “Who Do You Think You Are?”). When he’s not too busy being a poltergeist-pest to Mike, or sharing his lusty thoughts on former model/pop-singer Samantha Fox, Julian occasionally enjoys a quiet game of chess with caveman Robin.
Julian is a character who, on paper, should be totally unappealing in nearly every way, yet writer/comedian Simon Farnaby gives him a gleefully devilish charm where none should exist. Easily a fan favorite.
The Blythe Spirit of BBC’s “Ghosts.”
If Disney were to produce a sitcom based on its “Haunted Mansion” amusement park rides, they would be hard-pressed to surpass the thoroughly charming and hilarious residents (living and dead) of Button House. The characters all get their chances to shine, though I wish poor Mike would be shored up a wee bit. Charlotte Ritchie’s Alison Cooper makes for a perfect den mother to keep her adopted ghost ‘children’ in check. BBC’s “Ghosts” is a breezy, yet thoroughly addictive comedy well worth a few evening seances in front of the telly. I adore this sweet series with all my still-beating heart, and I was very pleased to hear that it will be returning for a fourth season.
The (inevitable) American Remake
The American version sees New Yorkers Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who also inherit a familiar country estate. Following Samantha’s own near-death experience, she too, can now see the house’s ghosts. Some of these Americanized specters now include a Native American, a 1950s greaser, a Viking, a hippie, a flapper and a ghost from the Revolutionary War.
I haven’t yet seen this version, but the trailer I viewed looked like a rote retelling, save for a few necessitated cultural changes for us poor simpletons across the pond. If one prefers, the American version (which is returning for a second season) can be viewed on CBS and/or streamed on Paramount+. In fairness, I should give the American version a try, but I’m afraid my soul is trapped at the BBC’s Button House…
Where to Watch/Stay Safe
“Ghosts” is, of course, available on BBC One in the UK, HBOMax in the US, and CBC Gem in Canada. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 900,000 (and over 5.6 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere). So please continue to mask up in public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own.
Stay safe, and let’s all do our best to avoid becoming premature ‘Ghosts’ as well…