In the UK’s sitcom world, The Young Ones was every bit as much of a dinosaur destroyer as punk was to music. The anarchic, ultraviolent student antics of Rick, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil didn’t merely instigate a new age of alternative sitcoms freed from the tame restrictions required of ‘family’ entertainment, starting with Blackadder, Filthy Rich & Catflap and Bottom and progressing through the surrealism of Father Ted and Spaced to the shock tactics of Peep Show, The League Of Gentlemen, After Life or Fleabag. They also stole the 1970’s ensemble misfit tradition of placing clashing characters in a confined space – the bedrock of Dad’s Army, Porridge and their ilk and used to emphasise cultural differences to often cringeworthy effect in series like Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum – and repurposed it for a nobler cause.
From The Young Ones onwards, and particularly following the 1982 arrival of Channel 4 as the home of the ‘dangerous’ alternative sitcom, mainstream UK family comedies have largely been confined to the Butterflies, Bread and Only Fools And Horses strains – family or community pieces relying on comforting, familiar laughs. Besides the odd xenophobic throwback like ‘Allo ‘Allo!, they’re Hugh Dennis tutting about iPhones, Robert Lindsay pulling a pillow over his face at 10.30pm in frustration at teenagers making noise or Dawn French getting mildly horny in a cassock.
Until Ghosts. Emerging as a post-watershed project from the team behind kids sketch comedy Horrible Histories, it naturally has family accessibility and a historical leaning at heart, but what has made it a real revelation is just how much the team themselves have learned from the past. They’ve revived the ensemble sitcom not as a recreation of the tired ‘70s formula of lobbing a bunch of dysfunctional one-dimensional caricatures (and one token idiot) into any chosen situation and leaving them to churn out catchphrases and tropes for three series, but as a smart evolution. For the nine ghosts haunting Button Hall, visible only to Charlotte Ritchie’s spectre-harassed Alison, aren’t just from history, they have histories too.
It’s where the recent second series has seen the show come into its own, arguably the best series of a ‘mainstream’ sitcom this century. Where series one leant heavily on Ritchie’s journey from terrified, reluctant medium to accepting her unwanted housemates, this time round she and bewildered husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) largely provide the situational framework around which the writers could delve into the far more interesting ghosts’ stories, fleshing out the fleshless.
The ‘Redding Weddy’ episode, for instance, prised open the emotional turbulence in the same-sex, wartime romance of the Captain (Ben Willbond), a stiff-upper-lipped WWII officer who’s so far in the closet he’s through the back of it and haunting the next room. Scout leader Pat (Jim Howick) became the subject of further pathos as the child who shot him in the neck with an arrow, now a grown man, returned to Button Hall and paid his respects. And ‘The Thomas Thorne Affair’ episode, where we witness the farcical events resulting in the fateful duel which killed lovelorn Romantic poet Thomas (Mathew Baynton) from the perspective of several of the mansion’s spectral onlookers, was as well-crafted, touching and twist-laden as any big budget costume drama, and with significantly more horse-dung gags.
The episode revolved around the fact that the ghosts’ stories aren’t told in isolation; there would have been older spectres watching the events too. Which gives Ghosts the unique opportunity to interweave its narratives and characters in rich and colourful, time-jumping ways; neanderthal Robin watching a 19th Century poetry recital play out in caveman-speak, or the head of a Tudor nobleman rolling around between Regency footwear. Two series in, there still seems an endless amount to explore: we’ve still yet to revisit the origin stories of Robin, Lolly Adefope’s adorable Kitty and Simon Farnaby’s trouserless MP in any significant detail, and we’ve only just started to meet the individual plague victims in the basement. And will Katy Wix’s medieval Mary ever get enough closure to be able to speak openly about being burned as a witch?
Ghosts works so brilliantly by giving the traditional ensemble sitcom format a deeply sophisticated set-up, and then a next-gen spin: that there’s a prim and proper Edwardian mistress called Lady Fanny (Martha Howe-Douglas) isn’t just a vehicle for the odd cheap innuendo but simultaneously bows to the legendary glory of Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. With so much history and humour still to unearth, we’re utterly possessed.
‘Ghosts’ is streaming now on BBC iPlayer