Ghosts star Ben Willbond on kindred spirits and comedy camaraderie in BBC series

The actor/writer from Ghosts talks to Radio Times about the supernatural, the origins of his character and "messing about" for a living.

Ghosts (BBC)

The supernatural sitcom Ghosts was an instant hit when it first aired in April 2019, and has been averaging five million viewers ever since. With the latest outing having just finished on BBC One and all three series now available as a DVD box set and on BBC iPlayer, it seemed an opportune moment for Radio Times to discuss the story so far with Ben Willbond, who plays the buttoned-down but well-meaning Captain.

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The “Horrible Histories team” who write and star in Ghosts must be pleased with how the show has been embraced by the public? “Yeah, we really are. It’s always nerve-racking when you start a new show. Well actually, the first thing is you feel incredibly lucky to be able to get the show commissioned in the first place. I spoke to the others when we launched series one and Jim [Howick] was like, “I didn’t sleep at all!” You always live in fear of people absolutely hating it.”

Despite any anxieties, Ghosts proved a hit with viewers, its mixture of funny and moving a potent one. “Yeah I think so, that just comes from us as a team. That really helps with the voice, or tone, of the show. Audiences obviously respond to the characters and the more real and emotional you can make them the better the connection with the audience. You expect that from an out-and-out drama but I think it should be in comedy, too… It’s quite a hard balance to strike because of course you’re labelled as a sitcom so people come to it going, ‘Right, make me laugh then!'”

For those who have somehow missed the show, Ghosts follows the misfortunes of Alison and Mike, a likeable young couple who inherit Button House, a huge but dilapidated mansion that they plan to turn into a luxury hotel. But a near-death experience then enables Alison to see the spooks from across the centuries who occupy the house.

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Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe), below, are haunted by, from left, Robin (Laurence Rickard), Mary (Katy Wix), Thomas (Mathew Baynton), Kitty (Lolly Adefope ), the Captain (Ben Willbond), Pat (Jim Howick), Fanny (Martha Howe-Douglas) and Julian (Simon Farnaby)

For the more mature viewer, Ghosts recalls 70s children’s TV favourites such as Rentaghost and The Ghosts of Motley Hall – going farther back, even the wonderful late-60s private-eye drama Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). I’m also reminded of the Dick Lester Musketeer films, where it was often advisable to watch and listen to what was going on in the background, and superb throwaway gags abounded.

It’s a loyal audience that has enjoyed the show, but how does Ghosts have such cross-generational appeal? “We’re all more or less the generation that grew up watching shows before things became labelled – when the BBC started to have more channels and more options, then Channel 4 launched its comedy. We were all coming into the industry at that time but before then, comedy was just comedy.

“I would watch pretty much anything but Blackadder was on at nine o’clock at night and we would all watch it… That’s the place it comes from. If you can appeal to everyone just by making it a comedy, making it accessible, that’s the tone we’ve tried to strike from the get-go.”

S2 group shot intent
Alison and Mike are both helped and hampered in their weekly exploits by Button House’s ethereal denizens

Nevertheless, before its 8:30pm home, Ghosts did start out in a post-watershed slot. Was that an uncomfortable fit? “I think so, I can’t remember the decision-making around it, it was just sort of, let’s test the water and also the content. There are a few sort of “Eeugh!” bits in it, Pat’s death being one of them!

“We weren’t sure and the channel wasn’t quite sure – we had a chat about it and we agreed to come earlier. That wasn’t an issue, everyone just felt very comfortable with that because we knew that families were watching it anyway. Of course, it’s fine. When stuff goes out for the first time you have to sort of dip your toe in and no one’s quite sure unless you’ve got something that’s completely sweary and adult-themed. But we didn’t want it to be any earlier [than it now is].”

Willbond’s own two sons are “just starting to have a bit of interest in it”, having grown up with school friends asking them if his dad is in Horrible Histories. “It’s brilliant when the entire school gets over that and it just becomes a really pedestrian thing!”

And so to the character of the Captain himself – a disciplinarian Army officer who served at Button House when it was used as a military HQ during the Second World War. Did Willbond base him on anyone in particular?

“I had a very odd childhood in that I was at boarding school and it was a very military establishment, not by name but it was very military. It was what I grew up with and I was surrounded by people like him. My way of dealing with that, I guess, was to create a character who was lovable and misunderstood but also utterly absurd in his belief that everything has to be regimented and ‘just so’.

“When we were coming up with the show we decided relatively early on that we should pick a character… we all started to pitch to each each other… ‘What if he was a World War Two captain, talks a good game but actually is completely emotionally confused?'”

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 08/09/2020 - Programme Name: Ghosts - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: The Captain (BEN WILLBOND), Pat (JIM HOWICK) - (C) Monumental Television - Photographer: Steven Peskett
Teamwork: The Captain (Ben Willbond) and scoutleader Pat (Jim Howick) aren’t natural companions, but they join forces in the series three episode in which Alison is forced to camp outside

Initially the Captain was a figure of fun but his big secret is an important one in terms of representation. “We were really tentative at first and didn’t want it to become a joke that landed incorrectly. It had to be sensitive… at the time [the 1940s], if you were gay it was still illegal, which is just extraordinary. And then once you start to tap into that it creates a really interesting base for a character that lives in a comedy. And I’m conscious now that should we move forward…”

All six of the troupe are writers as well as performers, either alone or in tandem. Is that something Willbond enjoys? “Increasingly so. And I get quite obsessed with story. I’m very lucky to work closely with Larry [Laurence Rickard], mostly, because he’s so brilliant at joke structure it’s just insane. It’s like, ‘How did you find a joke out of that?!’

“Everything is written around a table so you’ve got a really detailed road map and you’re just putting your personal touches into that. Writing the Christmas episode with Simon [Farnaby] was just delightful because not only is it Ghosts but it’s also Christmas and you feel it has to be extra special.”
Exterior day
Field trip: the Ghosts production crew filming exterior scenes at West Horsley Place, a Grade I listed building near Guildford in Surrey that dates back to the 15th century

And does he believe in ghosts? “That’s a really hard one. I like to think that it’s true. I’ve read a couple of books and it’s just so massively intriguing. A friend had a theory that old buildings have such long histories that the walls still hold all those personalities, which I thought was quite poetic. Someone’s gifted me a book about a lifelong quest of hunting for ghosts. You kind of err between going “This is absurd” to “This is quite cool, this is quite fun…”

Filming of Ghosts looks from the end-of-series blooper reels like it ought to be a riot but, Willbond says, “We’re so diligent on the scripting and logic and all the character motivation and movement that by the time you get to shooting it, the time on set is so limited, particularly during COVID.”

That said, he adds, “What’s nice, coming back for a third series, is that everyone knows what they’re doing, there’s no peripheral nervousness, everyone’s all set and that includes the crew as well, so mistakes tend to be in the moment and just making each other laugh – it depends how lively you’re feeling in the morning!

“It’s ridiculous, it’s not even a job. It’s just messing about. It’s still a lovely prospect to be able to be able to work together because I know that when I get to set with any of them in any combination, it’s going to be a really fun day. Because it just takes one look and it’ll all go to pot!”

Interior filming
Willbond, Howe-Douglas, Baynton, Ritchie and Smith-Bynoe prepare to shoot a scene on the staircase

Although the sextet behind Ghosts doesn’t have a name to present to the general public – like, say, the Pythons did – Willbond explains, “Our little company sign-off is ‘Them There’. That came out of every time we sat down and said, ‘We’ve got to call ourselves something!’”

In any case it’s clear the team’s chemistry is as strong as ever, 12 years on from the start of Horrible Histories on CBBC (they’ve since done three series of the Sky sitcom Yonderland and the Shakespeare comedy film Bill). “It’s true. I still marvel at the fact that we can do this. Being with each other, we know instinctively whether something’s working or not and it’s just lovely to be able to do it…

“It comes from an odd place forged in the Horrible Histories days when we were all working stupidly long hours dressed variously as cavemen and monks and saying, ‘What are we doing?’ but just having a real laugh. So we don’t want that to end. It’s a really precious thing when you find it, you don’t want to let it go. Even if Ghosts is the last hurrah, that would be a lovely legacy and a lovely memory.”
The importance of “family”, of being a unit, is emphasised in the show when all of the ghosts are gathered around the dinner table with Mike and Alison, pretending to be able to eat just so they can be together.
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Off duty: the team pictured in civvies in 2019

Nothing was announced at the end of series three on BBC One, so will Ghosts continue? All Willbond can say is, “Interesting conversations are happening… I’m going to leave it there!” However, Ghosts will return inasmuch as an American version is due to land next month on CBS. Asked about the remake, Willbond says, “That’s the single most bizarre thing, to see what was in your head suddenly be cast through a transatlantic lens.

“They are lovely and they came over to see us and pitched in the way that US networks pitch and it all gets frenzied. Then they did a pilot that was picked over by executives, and seeing it, you’re going, ‘Oh you’ve done that. Well…’ and your voice recedes into the background as the American machine takes over! Which is fine. I can’t tell you what’s funny for the American Midwest. I don’t know…”

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Away from the team, Willbond clearly picks his projects carefully, with recurring appearances in many acclaimed series, from There She Goes to The Thick of It, plus that other filmed sitcom with a superb cast and a cult following, Rev. “I loved that, I loved it because I got to watch Tom [Hollander] up close and I got to hang out with that fabulous cast.

“You get to watch amazing actors up close and you’re going, ‘Oh yeah!’ then you chat to them and you realise that they’re just as nervous and anxious as you are… ‘I thought you were super confident?’, ‘No no no.’ Everyone’s the same. It was such a great script and it was lovely just to be be around.”

As for the future, Willbond is bursting to discuss a “super-secret project” that he’s “incredibly excited about”, but he adds, “I cannot even begin to tell you about it… I’d be in so much trouble!”

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Ghosts series 1 to 3 are available on DVD and on BBC iPlayer. If you’re looking for more to watch, head over to our handy TV Guide or our Comedy hub.