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Ghosts Christmas special: ‘It’s a warm show, and it’s an open-minded show’

This festive season, Ghosts delves into the topic of homelessness during a time of the year when the issue is particularly poignant.

Like Scrooge, the UK will get the spirits we need this Christmas. Appearing via the BBC festive schedule, rather than late-night visits to our bedchambers, the Ghosts Christmas special nonetheless has the potential to reform the nation just as Dickens’ spooks did for Ebenezer.

In an era when it sometimes feels like we only communicate via missiles from opposing bunkers – hopelessly divided on inter-generational, political and social lines – the spooky sitcom, created by the team behind Horrible Histories, is a testament to the power of looking beyond surface differences to uncover our shared humanity.

For if the diverse, deceased residents of Button House – from caveman to Scout leader, and Georgian noblewoman to trouserless Tory – can rub along for all eternity, surely there’s hope for all of us to tolerate our anti-vaxxer uncles for the duration of Christmas dinner.

“We’re all human. We disagree, but we’re all human,” says Ghosts writer and actor Martha Howe-Douglas, who in real life is almost unrecognisable from her role as Lady Fanny Button. “To find that heart in everybody, I think, is a really nice thing to see.”

“The only way you get things to move is if you have to listen to people that you really don’t like,” agrees costar Charlotte Ritchie. “Otherwise you don’t know what you need to sort out.”

On air since 2019, Ghosts follows young couple Alison (Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) as they unexpectedly inherit a decaying stately home, only to discover it’s packed to the pigeon-infested roof with unquiet souls. A spiritual successor to smart family-friendly shows like Blackadder, it’s that rarest of things – a scripted comedy that’s inclusive enough to tickle almost anyone. Perfect for building bridges at Christmas time.

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“Christmas, although it’s often sold as such a kind of communal time is actually a really fractious time for a lot of people,” says Ritchie. “I do really love my family, I genuinely do. But I know that for some people, being around your family is not necessarily a relaxing place to be. In Ghosts, they’ve had to live together for hundreds of years. So it’s the perfect show for getting together with people who have very different views.”

This year, Ghosts takes on an issue that is very close to our hearts here at The Big Issue. Opening as Alison and Mike discover a man camping in the grounds of Button House, the festive episode is a thoughtful take on homelessness that doesn’t shy away from tougher questions.

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While the naive Kitty is convinced that the new arrival is Santa in disguise, Mike is initially suspicious of their uninvited guest. Yet despite a series of misunderstandings on both sides, the couple eventually come to see Nicholas as a multi-dimensional human being.

In doing so, they’re moved to do their bit for people experiencing homelessness at Christmas. As we’ve come to expect from Ghosts, it warms the very cockles of your heart without being in the slightest bit saccharine.

Howe-Douglas wrote the episode alongside Laurence Rickard (the Hall’s caveman resident) and says the key for them was to avoid being patronising. It was important “to have both sides”, giving Mike (and Alison) a chance to be concerned about the implications of someone taking up residence in their garden, “but without making him a real arsehole”.

“We had to handle that quite sensitively. Because it’s not a hilarious issue, is it?” she adds. “I mean, Ghosts is a comedy. But we do touch on quite poignant issues. I think there’s a balance to find in that.”

When you get the balance right, says Ritchie, it’s an opportunity to truly connect with viewers – and to make them think.

“I don’t think the show sets out to have a particular polemical message,” she says. “It does have an open-heartedness. It’s definitely a warm show, and it’s an open-minded show. That allows it to explore these kinds of issues. But I think doing it in a way that is humorous relaxes people. It can feel easier to absorb. And that’s always good.”

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For one of the deceased residents of Button Hall, the whole episode has a personal resonance. Etiquette-obsessed and conservative, uptight Lady Fanny Button wouldn’t be the first (ex) person you’d pick to show empathy for someone who’s down on their luck. Yet in a series of affecting flashbacks, it transpires that she lived through economically precarious times – only saving herself and her family from ending up on the streets by sacrificing her dreams.

It goes a long way to giving her character some context, says Howe-Douglas. “I love playing her,” she adds. “Just because I don’t have the same views as her, doesn’t mean I don’t connect to her.

“But it’s really lovely for the audience to see why she is the way she is. And to see that softer side before she was betrayed. She’s not as bad as she makes out. She’s just had quite a sad and frustrating life.”

The new wrinkle in Lady Fanny’s story was inspired by Howe-Douglas’s own grandmother. “My nan was a really brilliant mathematician, but she had 10 brothers and sisters so they couldn’t afford for her to go to uni,” she explains. “I wanted to honour my nan because, like Lady Button, she could have done something amazing. But she was confined to the life that she had to lead because of the times. There’s that sadness of what she could have been.”

Further explanation for why Lady Fanny “is the way she is” comes from an incredible guest appearance from Jennifer Saunders. As Fanny’s mum, Saunders conveys the same brittle busybodyness we’ve come to know in her daughter, after death. “It shows that it was definitely in her blood, she was going to be that person,” says Howe-Douglas.

Having all grown up watching French and Saunders, the Ghosts crew was delighted when the comedy legend agreed to be part of their Christmas special. They already knew Saunders was a fan of their work, but it was something else to have her join the cast.

“She really was somebody that we used to watch when we were kids,” confirms Howe-Douglas. “To have her be with me on set was just amazing. But she was so lovely. Not a starry bone in her body. She was just wonderful. You know, she made her own tea.”

Grounded Jennifer may have been, but Ritchie says you can’t underestimate French and Saunders’ influence on the performers – particularly women – who came after. “They were such trailblazers,” she says. “I still reference and watch so many of their clips, like all of the film parodies they did.

”Thanks, in part, to the necessary precautions around filming during the pandemic, Ritchie didn’t actually get to meet Saunders. But that’s ok. “I’m beginning to learn that it’s alright not to meet the people that you’re really into. Because sometimes I just turn into a plank, and it’s so embarrassing,” she laughs. “It’s important for other people that I keep my mystique.”

It’s already been reported elsewhere that Ghosts will return soon for a fourth series, but Howe-Douglas apologises that they can neither deny or confirm the rumours. On a purely hypothetical basis, though, both she and Ritchie are excited about the stories they might tell next. If they were to start filming again in, say, January.

Ghost star Simon Farnaby recommends books about magic

“I think there are more ghost background stories to address,” says Howe-Douglas, adding with a twinkle, “and then we’ll kill Alison and Mike…”

“And they’ll be ghosts,” nods Ritchie, grinning, “and they’ll be in series 27. We’ll all have to do plastic surgery to stay young for the show.”

For now, since it’s that time of year, the pair want to leave us with a Christmas message. “Be good. Be kind. And support people that need you,” says Howe-Douglas. “I think it’s a really important thing to support The Big Issue, and all the people that sell it. I’m certainly more inclined to buy it at Christmas time because you feel like it is doing your bit.”

Ritchie agrees: “What Martha said. You can buy a subscription to The Big Issue too, can’t you?” You can.

“That would be quite a good Christmas present, I think. Make it last the whole year…

“Oh, and make sure you watch the Ghosts Christmas special!” 

The Ghosts Christmas Special is on BBC One, Thursday December 23, 8.30pm

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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