Simon Farnaby on new BBC comedy Ghosts: 'It probably is a good time for lampooning a Tory MP'

The co-creator and star of Horrible Histories and Yonderland talks to Alexandra Pollard about his haunting new comedy, writing Paddington 2, and the "s**t-show" that is Brexit

Monday 15 April 2019 09:00
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What do you worry about if you’re dead?” That’s the question that Simon Farnaby and his collaborators – the team with which he also made Sky 1 sitcom Yonderland and CBBC sketch show Horrible Histories – tried to answer with their new BBC1 series Ghosts, a curious comedy about a haunted house. “What are their concerns? Because life or death is sort of… done with.”

Eventually, Farnaby says, they figured it out. “It must be quite boring being a ghost. What do they do every day? No one really thinks about that. They can’t haunt all the time.”

Stuck together in the old country house in which they all perished over the course of many centuries, the ghosts of Ghosts counteract their boredom in myriad ways. In the first episode, a bumbling 17th-century woman (Katy Wix) gives a presentation to the group – which includes an army captain (Ben Willbond), an Edwardian matriarch (Martha Howe-Douglas) and a disgraced Nineties politician (Farnaby) – on how to make wicker. They listen politely. “Maybe next week we’d all be very keen to hear about the trial, the witch trial,” suggests Scout leader Pat (Jim Howick). “No? Too soon?”

Ghosts is a lovely, funny, silly comedy, made even more farcical by the arrival of Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), a very-much-alive couple who gate-crash the ghosts’ lives (deaths?) when Alison inherits the house from a distant relative. It is – in the words of co-creator Mat Baynton – “an extreme version of an awkward flat-share sitcom”. Starting on Monday night, in the now-coveted schedules recently vacated by Fleabag and This Time with Alan Partridge (the latter of which Farnaby appeared in), Ghosts should be a tonic for TV fans lamenting the loss of those shows.

Charlotte Ritchie, Martha Howe-Douglas and Kiell Smith-Bynoe in ‘Ghosts’ (BBC/Button Hall Productions/Mark Johnson)

Each episode, Farnaby says, was largely written by one member of the posse, which comprises Farnaby, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond. Then they would all come together to rejig it. They had to do it like that, “because if you sit down six people at a computer it turns into chaos”, chuckles the 46-year-old, who started out in soaps before joining comedy troupe The Might Boosh. “Someone’s got to marshal that. It’s like a sheep farmer with a sheep dog trying to get all the ideas in a pen, and then you go and let the sheep out again, and they run around, and then you’ve got to bring them back, and eventually you get a nice neat flock.”

The way Farnaby sees it, this technique works because the team have such trust in one another. After all, it served them well on the hugely popular Horrible Histories, which ran from 2009 to 2013 and took an irreverent but well-informed look at the more gruesome aspects of world history. The show was aimed at children, but its comic style was akin to Blackadder or Monty Pythona style that’s reflected in Ghosts, too. “It’s an amazing thing we have together,” Farnaby says. “There’s no fear of humiliation, which you get in most walks of life because you don’t know everyone well enough and you’re worried if you say a bad idea, people will just think you’re s**t and then you’ll get fired. I usually come up with the worst ideas. It’s me just sort of reaching for things, and it’s how you find things that are unusual, and you trust the group to tell you if it’s a bad idea.”

Horrible Histories: Frightful First World War Special, CBBC (BBC/Lion TV/Rory Lindsay )

Most of the ideas in Ghosts are weird and wonderful. Farnaby’s character, Julian, died in the midst of a sex scandal, and thus his spectral form wears no trousers. He also pushes Alison out of a window, and has the typical politician’s response when questioned about it. “But, but, but, let me be absolutely clear…” “Did you push her?” “Well now, the thing you have to understand is this…” “I’m sorry, but its rather a yes or no question, Julian.” “I took a decision to, to, to…”

Farnaby loved playing the role. “We’re all artists and live in London and are quite liberal, so we have, not surprisingly, our views on the current political climate,” he says, “but at the time, we didn’t know it was gonna be the s**t show that it’s become. When we started writing, Brexit was only mentioned every two hours, and now it’s every two seconds. I tried to keep it fair – he is a Conservative, and it probably is a good time for lampooning a Tory MP, but it’s a mixture of David Cameron and Tony Blair in actual fact. It makes me laugh, the way they talk and won’t answer questions and try and get around everything. So it was fun to do, I have to say.”

The ensemble cast of BBC1 sitcom ‘Ghosts’

Last month, Farnaby was one of hundreds of thousands of protestors who flooded central London demanding another European Union referendum. “It was actually me and my wife’s anniversary,” he says, “and we’ve got a five-year-old daughter. I wanted to be able to say to my daughter, ‘I did what I could. I went marching. I did those things.’ And it felt great to be a part of something. It was in hope more than expectation, but I think hope’s a good thing. I didn’t want my daughter to go, ‘Where were you? What did you do?’”

Farnaby also helped director Paul King with the script for 2014’s Paddington. And after co-writing the 2016 film Mindhorn with Julian Barrett, he officially came on board for Paddington’s brilliant sequel. Somehow, in among the two films’ fuzzy, light-hearted escapades were gentle warnings about xenophobia and insularity. Peter Capaldi’s Mr Curry, who viewed Paddington with deep suspicion, was viewed by many as a parody of a Ukip voter. Or indeed a Brexiteer. “It’s strange,” Farnaby says. “It seems like the Mr Currys are winning. I never thought that would happen. The voice of the hard-Brexiteers is Mr Curry really: ‘Let’s keep our island our island, have cups of tea and march around whacking the hedgerows’. The Mr Currys aren’t supposed to win. Or they don’t in our narrative. The Paddingtons and the Browns win. But they’ll be defeated one day. It always buoys me – young people are much more globally minded, and want to be part of the world and Europe. So whatever happens, I think the youth will out.”

It’s important to Farnaby that the work he produces adds at least a tiny bit of good to the world. “As a writer, it’s nice to think hard about what you’re trying to say, or what message is at its heart, because ultimately these things are explorations on how to live your life. If you can give people positive messages, then I think that’s a good thing. But you don’t think about that too much. You think about the central message, but the rest of the time you’re just trying to make people laugh and cry. Mainly laugh. If you’re going to write to try and change the world, then you’re in trouble.” He pauses. “But you might just help a bit.”

Ghosts begins on Monday on BBC1 at 9.30pm.

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