Kiell Smith-Bynoe: 'Ghosts has made me a trusty name in comedy'
But the actor is going back to his dramatic roots for Sky's Dreamland.
Stop asking Kiell Smith-Bynoe if he believes in ghosts. After four years as the co-star of a paranormal sitcom, the actor estimates he's had that particular question pitched to him more times than he's been offered a drink. "I'm sick of it," he says in an interview with RadioTimes.com, and I sense he's only half-joking, if at all.
Fortunately, it might not be a problem for much longer. BBC One's Ghosts is ending after season 5, due later this year (more on that later), with Smith-Bynoe now looking to what the future holds. His latest project, Sky comedy-drama Dreamland, is a more adult offering or as he puts it, the "acting equivalent of Hannah Montana becoming Miley Cyrus".
A feature the two shows have in common is dilapidated property, although Surrey's Button House (also known as West Horsley Place) is a far cry from a fixer-upper in Margate scarred with graffiti declaring "bad s**t happened here". Nevertheless, Spence (Smith-Bynoe) and wife Trish (Freema Agyeman) are considering a purchase to get their foot on the ladder.
This act of vandalism is an omen of sorts, given the trajectory of the six-episode series. "People will be shocked by how what started off as a really nice, bubbly, colourful show turns into a dark, scandalous tragedy," he continues, adding that a project with some edge was exactly what he was looking for after spending so long in the family-friendly world of Ghosts.
"I think it's important to show variety and remember why you started doing the thing you were doing in the first place," he explained. "From a child, before I even had a career, I knew that I wanted to act. And I think it was a conscious decision to make sure that is what I'm doing. I may sort of dabble in other things, but I don't want to be a comedian.
"It's been a while since I've done [drama] and had the opportunity to show that I can do it. So it's a blessing of a part and the opportunity to go through so many emotions with this character is what I trained for, it's what I went to drama school for, it's what I wanted to be an actor for – so to have a part like this is massive to me, actually."
Named after Margate's historic amusement park, Dreamland sees Mel O'Sullivan (Lily Allen) return to her seaside hometown after losing a glamorous job in Paris. It's quite an adjustment, made harder by a strained relationship with her older sister Trish, who is pregnant once more after suffering several traumatic miscarriages – one of which almost killed her.
Husband Spence is one of few male members of this close-knit family and finds himself caught in the middle of their feud. As a result, he is gifted memorable scenes with both Allen and Agyeman, but spent significant time with the latter co-star as they worked out the details of their on-screen marriage.
"I think it's just amazing what she can do; to still be able to have a laugh and joke in-between takes, and then go back to one of the most nuanced, sad performances that you'll see," he recalled, whilst also crediting how she brought so much of her lived experience as a mixed race woman to the character of Trish. "I think it's important for people to know truly how good she is."
When it comes to Allen, he acknowledges that there is always some "British cynicism about anyone who's been famous for something else doing something different". To be fair, transitioning from music to acting has proven tricky for some performers – even the much-lauded Harry Styles has recently struggled – but this is one example of a rousing success.
Smith-Bynoe explains: "It's not an easy job being the lead in something like this, where you've got to be dramatic, you've got to have emotional beats, you've also got to be funny [and] have good timing... and she managed to do all of those things effortlessly. I think she'll really change people's perspectives and challenge their preconceptions as well."
We're used to seeing Smith-Bynoe in a screen partnership that sparks, following his four-year tenure in a charming double act with Ghosts co-star Charlotte Ritchie – but chemistry isn't an easy thing to get right, as plenty of other actors have learned the hard way. He says building a genuine bond off-set is a useful step in the process.
"I'm not saying that that's the only way that you can portray a husband and wife on camera," he clarifies. "There's definitely the possibility of just turning up on set and meeting the person on the first day. But I think it really makes a difference if you're going to spend all day, every day for the next six weeks [together]. I'd really recommend it.
"Charlotte and I, after the first Ghosts read-through, we went out to eat together. I mean, that was four or five years ago now, and we still talk about it. We've still got in-jokes from that day... and there's things that we even try and get in the script sometimes. So yeah, I do really think it's important. And tequila always helps," he adds, poking fun at the drink of choice on Dreamland.
Of course, the closer you get to your co-stars, the harder it is to leave them behind. While Dreamland is left open for a potential second season, Ghosts is reaching the end of the line. The news came just last week that the sitcom would bid farewell with its fifth outing and many fans are still coming to terms with it. For Smith-Bynoe and the cast, it was less of a shock.
"We found out two years ago," he reveals. "When we got series 4 and 5 commissioned by the BBC, [the writers] decided those would be the last two... We started the fifth one and very quickly realised that it would be the last time doing things – in terms of the last time seeing the plague victims and the last time wearing a certain outfit for the character. And then it was over in a flash."
Smith-Bynoe continued: "We don’t film chronologically... so we didn't film the last scene on the last day, for example – thankfully, or we would have all had breakdowns. But it was still really emotional and it was very sad. There were a lot of tears that day and there will be even more tears when you see the episodes, because it is sad."
The show has had a profound impact on his career, transforming him into "a trusty name in the comedy world" after some time spent struggling to get substantial roles. In that period, it was peers including Man Like Mobeen's Guz Khan who were instrumental in getting his name out there – even if, back then, casting directors had to "give it a Google" later.
"The biggest thing is that I used to be someone who did guest parts on shows – and it was even quite difficult for me to do that in terms of my acting experience," he says, reflecting on the impact of Ghosts. "Quite a lot of my friends that I came up with had been making shows and wanted to get me involved, and had to really fight for me to get in."
Though he doesn't want to be limited to just one genre, Smith-Bynoe is definitely well-established in an exciting cohort of rising British comedy stars, which includes the likes of Stath Lets Flats collaborator Jamie Demetriou, Ellie White and Liam Williams. As is the case across many professions, networking was a key component of success.
"I remember watching the Stath [Comedy] Blap in 2013 and thinking it was one of the best things I've ever seen," he says. "And then, at a party... just going straight up to Jamie and telling him how great I thought it was. I don't know if I would have done that a few years before because I didn't have the courage to just say, 'I saw a thing that you did, and I thought it was great'.
"I come from a place where people don't always praise what other people do even if you like it, and I think that's something that I had to learn rather than it being a natural part of my character... I did that and I think it was well worth it, because it put me on the radar of someone who was going to go forward and create what I think is one of the funniest shows of the last 20 years."
These days, Smith-Bynoe admits there's some security in knowing that his lively group is always busy at work on projects that he could very well be involved in. But he's actively developing his own starring vehicle too, with Channel 4 commissioning wacky sketch comedy Red Flag as a Comedy Blap.
Available now on All 4 and YouTube (below), the 15-minute pilot is an unpredictable and frequently hilarious watch, which many fans would like to see continue in a full series. As of our conversation earlier this week, Smith-Bynoe was still waiting on a verdict from the broadcaster – but he's determined to keep the show going no matter what.
"I wish there was an update," he began. "I've heard nothing. We were actually going to find out today. So I mean, at this rate, you'll probably find out before me. But I really hope so. We've written two more episodes and are waiting to hear back now. I don't know what will definitely happen but there will be something, even if it's not the network that we started out on.
"I really want to get it made. I think [the new scripts] are some of the funniest stuff I've ever written, so hopefully we get an opportunity to showcase them somewhere. Even if I have to make it myself and then screen them on a projector on my neighbour's house – I'll find a way."
Currently, fans can catch Smith-Bynoe jumping through hoops – metaphorically, but also potentially literally – for Greg Davies and Alex Horne on their zany contest Taskmaster. It's one of two game shows he was eager to try out (the first being Celebrity Catchphrase, which he appeared on last year), but he's not interested in being a full-time television personality.
The top priority will always be acting, or "crying on TV" as he describes it.
Dreamland premieres on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW on Thursday 6th April 2023 – sign up for Sky TV here.
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