Kiell Smith-Bynoe has reached the stacked-at-checkout level of fame. “I went to Tesco and I saw me!” he says, leaping across his front room to display the cover of a TV magazine featuring himself sat unwittingly at the centre of a crowd of history-spanning spectres, as if tickets out of limbo were being sold by séance. “That’s never happened before, so I bought that. The cab driver asked me for a picture of me holding the thing.” With no little pride, he considers how far he’s come. “I used to steal chewing gum from that Tesco, and now my face is all over there – and it’s not because of theft!”
Despite being largely sequestered from the public since ‘Freedom Day’ on shoots for Horrible Histories and the third series of Stath Lets Flats, inklings of Kiell’s vastly increased profile have seeped through. Before the pandemic he was a rising star emerging from supporting roles in cult comedy shows like Stath, Man Like Mobeen and Enterprice to become, alongside Charlotte Ritchie, one of the two friendly – if long-suffering – non-spectral faces of BBC One’s 2019 family comedy hit Ghosts. A second series and Christmas special later, he’s coming out of lockdown a fully paid-up member of Club ‘Sleb.
“What’s changed the most for me is that people that I know from TV also know me,” he tells NME during a Zoom call from his new flat in an enclave of “influencers”. “Mid-lockdown I did this Comedy Central show. Denise van Outen was on my team and Tamzin Outhwaite was on the other team. Alexandre Burke was there, [Mobeen’s] Guz Khan, Sue Perkins, and all these people knew who I was and what show I did.”
Unsurprising though, since among the weird, wild, demanding and over-passionate supernatural inhabitants of Button Hall, Kiell’s Mike – as the guy generally found wandering unknowingly through the madness while Ritchie’s Alison deals with all manner of inter-dimensional havoc – is the show’s relatable cornerstone. Affable, understanding to the point of why-isn’t-he-out-of-there-already and determined to carry on with everyday life (renovating the couple’s inherited mansion; doing Zoom meetings dressed for work from the waist up) despite living in a demented Most Haunted, he represents the anchor of normality and dedication that helps make Ghosts a much-loved family experience.
“I’m really proud to be a part of a show that brings families together,” he says. “One lady in particular mentioned that it’s the only show that her family will all sit together for – she tries to have dinner time at a certain time but she’s got a few kids and they’re all in and out, and it’s the only show that they all stick around for together. Sometimes I flip between feeling like my job is important and not. There’s times where I’m in the middle of Boreham Wood in a silly wig just going ‘this isn’t that important’, but there’s also times when I hear stories like that, where I’m really glad I’m part of something that can bring that to people’s families.”
Kiell is well-versed in the art of bringing people together through comedy. Growing up in East Ham in London, his earliest acting experiences in a range of nativity plays from the age of five (“I was aiming for Joseph every time but no chance”) gave him an ingrained thirst for crowd response. “I decided that an immediate response by a lot of people in a big room was what I wanted to have all the time. I guess I’ve been chasing that five-year-old high ever since.” He chased it into summer drama workshops and improvisation training at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as a teenager, joining the Junior Blaggers show at the Hackney Empire. Then, after honing his improv skills at East 15 Acting School, he underwent trial by fire at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 as part of the Battleacts! troupe.
“My first Battleacts! show was in Edinburgh to maybe 120 people in a packed venue that was a nightclub,” he recalls. “It was drunk Scottish people shouting ‘wanker’, ‘spatula’ and ‘prostitute’ at you for every suggestion that you asked for. ‘Spatula’ is a very popular one. At one of the shows in Edinburgh, a guy dressed in a full Spider-Man morph suit wouldn’t leave the stage. He was very smashed, he was actually drinking his beer through his morph suit.”
Comedy wasn’t Kiell’s raison d’etre at the time. He envisaged a future in gritty dramas or The Bill: his first TV role after drama school was in Whitechapel. But, while he was busy building a showreel in YouTube films on the Don’t Jealous Me and Humza Productions channels, meeting Fonejacker’s Kayvan Novak on a pilot in 2013 and then having online series #HoodDocumentary – in which he had a supporting role – picked up by BBC Three put him on the radar of the rising generation of TV comedy movers and shakers. He met Jamie Demetriou at a party shortly before casting began for Stath Lets Flats. “I’d seen the Stath Blap [a comedy short prior to the series] and he’d seen the documentary… I was probably a fanboy for about 20 minutes before he actually mentioned that he’d seen anything that I’d done.” Thus Michael & Eagle’s deadpan Dean was born, a character Kiell promises will expand in series 3. “We get to see a few different sides of Dean, we see a lighter side, a warmer side. He’s still his same grumpy self but we get to see different versions of him.”
Meanwhile, via another pilot, Kiell met Guz Khan and found himself in the third series of his cutting-edge comedy Man Like Mobeen, playing a drug dealer character who strayed rather too close to reality for comfort. “I got to play a bit of a bad boy, and it was something that I really wanted to do at that stage,” Kiell explains. “I wanted to play a serious character in a very funny show, just to show that I have another string to my bow. I played a character who originally had a different name. On the day of shooting we had to change the name because someone with that exact name was doing 26 years in prison for similar crimes that were depicted in the show.”
At which point, Ghosts came tapping at Kiell’s window. “I knew it was going to be really good from when I got the first [script] for the audition,” he says. “There were only maybe three or four scenes, but I knew from the small bits I had that it was going to be really funny.” Did Mike feel like the ultimate straight-man role, the foil to nine cartoonish ghouls and a seemingly delusional wife? “It reads like that as a character brief, but the actual lines and the mannerisms and the characteristics that I also added in there are really funny. You know what, I’ll say that I did some of that! It’s very rare that you have a show where you have such comedy joke characters and then also have the straight characters be really funny as well.”
How do you prepare for ignoring people all day? “Well, I only moved out my mum’s house a year ago, so that might give you some hints as to how I’ve done that,” he grins. “As an only child I’m used to getting all of the bollockings directly at me. By the time I got to about 21, I learned how to zone out but pretend that I was still listening. I’m quite well practised in that respect. When I got back to the series, especially between [series] one and two because that was the biggest gap, I forgot how to do that. A character would say something and I’d turn towards them. After the first few days I stopped being so rusty, but it is quite difficult.”
One of the many great things about the show – as a mildly meta update on the ‘70s ensemble sitcom and arguably the best mainstream comedy in decades – is that it isn’t just a ghost-riddled Good Life. Though Mike and Alison’s marriage never seems seriously strained, the marital issues that would naturally emerge if one’s spouse suddenly turned into a tour guide Derek Acorah aren’t brushed under Lady Fanny’s antique carpet. In the new series, alongside episodes delving into Julian Fawcett MP’s first days as a poltergeist and the mystery behind Tudor nobleman Humphrey’s beheading, the team explore the issue of Mike losing his wife to the Other Side.
“We get to see Mike’s jealousy come out,” says Kiell. “Jealousy of Alison being in the house with so many other people when for him it’s just him and her. The house is so big and it’s got so many rooms and alleys and gardens and fields, you could spend the whole day doing something, doing a job or trying to fix something, doing some DIY, and then not bump into your wife in the house. If you were to spend that whole day and not see the only other person that you live with, and then you do see her but she’s busy with eight other people that you can’t see, you’d be fuming. Obviously Mike has to really love his wife to put up with all of this… All of those things add to what might drive someone away, but it brings them closer. So I think it’s evidence of how much you can love someone, how much you will put up with.”
Between takes at the Ghosts mansion, Kiell would try to contact the real spooks that supposedly haunt the house: “I’ve been trying, but I haven’t found anything. I’ve been calling out for them and all sorts, but nothing yet.” Downtime during his three weeks on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe for four days of shooting on Death In Paradise mid-lockdown, though, was more thrills than chills.
“I went jet skiing, went to waterfalls. We went swimming in the hot springs, swimming with turtles. It was absolutely a dream. If I’m being honest with you, I didn’t even read the script. There was no chance I was missing out – that was the end of November last year, it was cold here, we were in tier three. They sent me the email, I replied, ‘Yes’. If I was going out there to play the innkeeper again, I’d have done it.”
Kiell played mysterious “bad boy” Tyrone Vincent in the show, and the Ghosts fanbase that were a little shocked by the swerve (“they didn’t realise I could do that, which is exactly what I wanted, really, and the best praise I could get: ‘I really didn’t like that character you played’”) might also be surprised to learn of his past as a hot wing-touting grime MC. Around the age of 13 he joined a rap crew under the moniker MC Klayze Flaymz and released the one-off track ‘Junior Spesh’, a gangster grime track celebrating the £1.50 children’s discount meal at fried chicken shops.
“My plan B was to be a grime MC,” he says, revealing that there were plenty more unreleased tracks where ‘Junior Spesh’ came from. “In my school the only way that you could be cool was if you were good at football, a good fighter or an MC. My football skills were trash and I’m a lover not fighter, so all that was left was to be an MC. I quickly became very good at that. It was a thing that I realised I was good at and stuck at – I was trying to pursue music at the same time as acting. I probably spent a lot more time writing lyrics than I did doing my coursework, which may or may not have been reflected by my grades. But who else in my year has got a million views on YouTube?”
Kiell isn’t averse to returning to music when time allows, but worries that Flaymz might have burnt out by now. “I think it was good for its time. [Rapper/actor] Michael Dapaah had his ‘Man’s Not Hot’, and then used that to start making other things like [mockumentary] Somewhere In London. He was able to fast-track himself by making such a popular, catchy song. Maybe if we’d done ‘Junior Spesh’ in the last five years we’d all be millionaires.”
No flash-bang success then, more a gradual materialisation. Expect Kiell to be haunting the supermarket racks for millennia to come…
‘Ghosts’ series three debuts on BBC One tonight at 8.30pm