Ghosts: Celebrating a British Comedy Breakout Success

The BBC's Ghosts soared during the assorted lockdowns - and it's emerged as that rarest of things: a genuine family comedy.


The BBC’s Ghosts soared during the assorted lockdowns – and it’s emerged as that rarest of things: a genuine family comedy.


During the darkest times of the pandemic, amongst neverending lockdowns, there wasn’t really much else to do but watch TV. Although we all loved delving into true crime, and dark gritty dramas, what we needed was something light-hearted that the whole family could enjoy. That’s where Ghosts came in.

The BBC sitcom about Alison and Mike (Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe) a young couple, who inherits a dilapidated stately home. However, it comes with a whole host of quirky inhabitants, (played by Lolly Adefope, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond and Katy Wix) who only Alison can see. What starts as the ghosts trying to get rid of their new unwanted living housemates, evolves into an endearing show about friends becoming family, loss and healing.

Ben Willbond is one of the writers and executive producers of Ghosts, and he also plays The Captain in the show. “We were really nervous after the first series because you get so swept up in it, and you’re really enjoying it” he told me. “And then when it goes out, you’re like, ‘oh no, maybe this is awful’ because you’re with it for so long. And it went down okay. But then the second season came back and suddenly everyone was like, ‘yeah, actually I think this is pretty good”’ he laughs.

When the show first went out, it received good reviews, but it was really over lockdown that Ghosts became popular, which coincidentally was when series two aired. “I think we were really lucky, because if it’s a popular show, and then suddenly there are loads more people watching… it just feels like the whole thing was quite lucky”, Ben admits.

Written by the team behind the TV series Yonderland the much-loved movie Bill and the principal cast of Horrible Histories (Baynton, Farnaby, Howe-Douglas, Howick, Rickard and Willbond) it’s witty, but at its core Ghosts is accessible family fun that doesn’t take itself too seriously. As a result, we feel comforted when watching.

“What I absolutely love and will never get tired of is people saying that the whole family can watch it”, admits Willbond. He reflects that the idea of ‘family comedy’ is often met with scorn – “you always feel like people are like, ‘oh, but you’re not doing niche comedy’” – but it’s a hard show to put together. “It’s hard to be able to keep an audience’s attention at the best of times, so the fact that people get in touch and say everyone watches is such a lovely thing”.

Yet how did Ghosts hit on such a sweet spot of family comedy? Well, according to Willbond, a great part of it came down to the time slot they were given in the schedule. “We didn’t set out with any intention, but we knew what we wanted to do.” he recounts.

“We knew we didn’t want to be on a slot that was too late. And when the BBC said they wanted to do it in that slot [8.30pm], it was perfect because that’s what we were writing. It’s not going to be crude or too grown up. It just needed to be a comedy”


Just on a point of order, I do remind him that Lady Button’s (Howe-Douglas) first name is Fanny and Julian (Farnaby) is permanently trouserless, so there are definitely some naughty jokes in there. “And obviously, they’re all intentional” he laughs. “And that’s because I used to love watching stuff like that when I was a kid and you remember those moments where you’d look around at your parents going, ‘what are they laughing at? I don’t understand’. So it’s a nice thing to be able to drop in!”

What fans of Ghosts really love about the show though is that as well as it being ridiculously funny, the writers aren’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects. From struggling to come to terms with their sexuality to homelessness, the series has succeeded in taking storylines that typically shouldn’t be funny and giving them humour. It makes for heartwarming tales without ridiculing the characters or situations.

“I think you have to be able to tackle topics that we all identify with because otherwise what are you doing? You might as well be doing a cartoon” Willbond explains, “so it’s about making the stakes in the episode as real as possible, because although it’s a sitcom, really at its heart, it’s about a kind of family having to live together”.


Quite the challenge, then? “If we always tackle things that are close to us, then people will want to watch it, because it’s about us [as characters]. And then the jokes come just because all of us are completely opposite characters”, he argues. “At the heart of it, it’s about something else, that the jokes sort of sit on the top – and I’m just going to say it – they’re the part that’s quite hard to write and get right, for me anyway. But the beauty of having all those people in the room is that we can all chip in and come at it with different solutions.”.

Willbond’s character The Captain isn’t typically someone you’d expect to become a comfort character to LGBTQ+ viewers. At first glance, he’s a man of a certain generation and standing, who’s so firmly in denial of his own sexuality that the portrayal could be dangerously close to offensive. However, in a testament to the storytelling and character development of the show and writers, we’ve watched The Captain struggle with his own feelings and come to terms with his own sexuality, to the point of almost telling those he’s closest to.

“It sort of took me by surprise because he’s trying to be a version of what he thinks he should be, and he’s not being true to himself”, says Willbond.  “But you don’t want it to feel like a 2D sort of cartoon character, so I thought, no, there’s more here and we’ve actually got time to play with it and the tone of the show will allow that”.

Did how much the queer community welcomed The Captain come as a shock? “I thought initially because he is so old-fashioned and from that time, that it wouldn’t identify really, with how people feel now because things have changed so much. But then, people have written to me saying, ‘no, it does totally”, because when you’re just discovering your, sexuality, and you feel like you need to tell someone, it’s difficult. So  if that helps comfort or helps people to identify or to feel strong, then it’s just the best feeling in the world’

Filming of series four of Ghosts is currently underway, and so what can we expect from the next series? Well, Ben’s not telling. ‘‘I’m really not allowed to talk about it”, he laughs. “But you know, there’s going to be plenty of surprises. We’re having a lot of fun shooting it…”

It should be on our screens later this year…

Ghosts is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

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