Ghosts review: Horrible Histories in reverse – made for grown-ups but also potentially enjoyable to kids

Jolly little comedy that’s minimally didactic, free of profanity and quite refreshing

Sean O'Grady
Monday 15 April 2019 15:01 BST
Charlotte Ritchie, Martha Howe-Douglas and Kiell Smith-Bynoe in ‘Ghosts’
Charlotte Ritchie, Martha Howe-Douglas and Kiell Smith-Bynoe in ‘Ghosts’

You can tell Ghosts (BBC1) comes from the people behind Horrible Histories. I enjoy foul language, smut and the mockumentary style as much as the next trendy comedy fan, but the fact that this jolly little comedy is almost entirely free of profanity and filth is actually quite refreshing. With its minimally didactic content, it could, in fact, have been lifted from the children’s TV schedules. A waste of a post-watershed slot maybe, but at least it does make a change.

It works, in other words – which is quite special for supernatural-based light entertainment. Outside of Ghostbusters, spook-related comedies usually fail, as if they are themselves accursed. Ghosts is sweet, but with a little edge, the special effects unobtrusively done. It is full of nice, knowing lines, too: “You’ve never done a day’s work in your life. Or Death.”

Such blatantly corny material, in true Horrible Histories tradition, couldn’t work so well without the engagement of some unusually gifted actors, whose faces, you can be sure, will flit across our screens, large and small, with increasing frequency.

The set-up is this: a nice young couple, Alison and Mike (Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe), are seemingly doomed to spend the remainder of their lives living in cramped flats above kebab shops. They then receive the unexpected news that they have inherited a huge, handsome, albeit crumbling, Jacobean mansion: Button House.

Though they don’t realise it at first, they also inherit a bunch of odd phantoms, who “live” there. The spirits have gathered over centuries, indeed, millennia, having each suffered a variety of unfortunate ends. I like the idea that the older “residents” were around, on site, to watch the violent demise of the younger ones, and derive never-ending enjoyment from them. The most bizarre death so far is that suffered by the Edwardian-era Fanny, Lady Button (Martha Howe-Douglas). She explains that she caught her husband, George, “’pon the groundskeeper, with the butler ’pon him” – a “man-dwich”, as her fellow ghosts chuckle. To conceal his secret, Lord Button pushed poor Fanny out of the window, an act she reproduces, complete with piercing scream, every evening. We are yet to hear about the other residents, including those played by Lolly Adefope (naive Restoration woman), Laurence Rickard (officer in the Great War) and Mathew Baynton (Romantic poet). They look promising, too.

Each ghost has their own special power. The stone age “Robin” (Ben Willbond), for example, can “do that thing with the lights”; the circa 1760 milkmaid Mary (Katy Wix) can make a burning smell when she walks through the living; and Julian (Simon Farnaby) boasts extremely weak powers of telekinesis. Julian seems to have been a 1990s Tory MP who perished in an accidental auto-erotic asphyxiation. He is, thus, condemned forever to exist in the afterworld without his trousers.

The ghosts, themselves terrified by the prospect of their home being converted into a luxury hotel (“overrun with people, taunting us with their life”) resolve to be rid of their new “owners”. So Julian manages to push Alison out of a window. In her subsequent brief “death”, she becomes conscious of the phantoms, can see them and even hold a conversation with them – though of course hubby can’t.

So Ghosts, then, is like Horrible Histories in reverse – made for grown-ups but also potentially enjoyable to kids. I just wonder what the ghosts of Button Hall do on Halloween, or, as we will soon learn to call it, Brexit Day.

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