Warning: major spoilers for the Ghosts finale “A Christmas Gift” “I could read that all day!” says Ghosts co-creator Jim Howick with a smile. It’s mid-December, two weeks before the BBC comedy’s finale is due to air on Christmas Day, and Howick has just pulled up his and Mat Baynton’s episode script to check a […]
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Warning: contains spoilers for the GHOSTS 2023 Festive Special “A Christmas Gift”
Once upon a time, BBC sitcom Ghosts wanted to scare you. The original thinking for the show according to co-creator Jim Howick, was to make a horror-comedy. Early episodes paid homage to moments in spooky film classics such as the medicine cabinet jump scare in An American Werewolf in London. At the start, the writers indulged themselves with horror tropes, says Howick, the actor behind 1980s Adventure Group leader Pat. “But we realised that as soon as you got to know the ghosts, there was nothing really frightening about them at all. Once you get familiar with the characters, the horror sort of drains away.”
In Ghosts’ fourth festive special “A Christmas Gift”, the horror is back. Mike’s mother Betty (Lorna Gayle) catches sight of an apparition on a baby monitor, and sees a blanket being pulled by an invisible hand over her sleeping grandchild. To a Button House outsider who doesn’t know that it’s Simon Farnaby’s Julian behind the blanket-pull, or that the sinister grey lady is really Martha Howe-Douglas’ clucky fusspot Lady B, “it’s freaky as hell!” agrees Howick.
“We were able to use genuine horror moments for the finale from Betty’s point of view, because she’d never seen the ghosts, and it was the unfamiliar. I think when it’s unfamiliar, that’s when it really works as a scare.”
But of course, after five series and four Christmas specials, there’s nothing unfamiliar about Ghosts’ characters, or the weird extended family they’ve become – both to each other, and to the show’s fans.
That family relationship determined the tone of this year’s festive special, which is also the Ghosts series finale. (“Who knows,” jokes Howick, “if the mortgage rates go up or one of us has an expensive divorce, we might come back.”) Howick wrote the final episode with Mat Baynton, who plays lovesick poet Thomas on the show – a neat bookend as the pair also wrote the Ghosts pilot. Approaching the last ever episode, Howick and Baynton knew what they wanted to avoid.
“We didn’t want to do make anything ostentatious or grandiose, with us all waving away into the light. We wanted to keep it on a on a human level, because that is where the show has really worked for us – people forgetting that we’re ghosts for a lot of the time, and just seeing us as a sort of family dynamic.”
Howick had fun following the online theories about how Ghosts will end. “A lot of people think ‘Oh, gosh! They’re all going to get sucked off’ because they’ve already seen Mary get sucked off”. (‘Sucked off’ is Ghosts-speak for when the ghosts mysteriously ascend to the next level of the afterlife, or, perhaps less mysteriously for Katy Wix’s 16th century peasant Mary – when they get a job on Ted Lasso). They could have chosen something “insanely supernatural” in the finale but instead were determined to make the ending “a human, living moment.”
We’re speaking on Zoom in mid-December, and early feedback from production colleagues has returned that the finale is… quite bleak, says Howick. That wasn’t the intention. “We wanted to make it a positive ending, but it’s also a goodbye. It has to be a goodbye.” In the finale, the ghosts choose to reverse the decision Alison and Mike made in the previous episode not to sell Button House to a golfing consortium, and give the Cooper family their blessing to go.
It’s quite a turnaround from the pilot, when Button House’s ghosts ganged up to try to force the couple out of the house. “We’ve gone full circle,” Howick agrees. “A certain number of the ghosts wanted them out straight away, and the fact that they sort of let them go feels, as you say, that they’ve matured in the short time that they’ve been in the house.”
Well, most of them have. “You can see live in the room the sort of debate that [the ghosts are] still having, certainly with the likes of Kitty and Thomas. I don’t know if they’re entirely 100% with the decision for their own sort of needy, selfish reasons, but they understand that Alison and Mike need to move move on now, and it’s a new chapter, and the house isn’t perhaps a good place for the baby to be.”
Howick and Baynton wanted to make the ghosts’ choice feel like any kind of normal family decision, one that we’re all familiar with in some way or another.
“Because we don’t live with our families, you know. We visit them. When we get to a certain age, and something happens in our lives – whether it’s university, or having a child or getting married, we move out, and we go to visit them, you know, once a month or something, and that’s our family life. We have our own families and that was the decision really: we’ll still be family, we’ll always still be here. One of us could get sucked off – just like one of us could die – but we will always still be here for you, and that’s the message we wanted to get across in the storytelling.”
“I hope that everyone’s sort of happy with it,” he laughs with some awkwardness. The Christmas special was filmed at the same time as the last series, so the creators have followed the response to the end of that run, knowing what was to come.
“We’re conscious that a lot of people watched the sixth episode of the series and were like ‘Oh okay, that wasn’t quite as finale-ish as we thought it might be, and that’s cool, okay that’s fine. They’re just getting on with their lives…’ And we were like, there’s going to be quite a big Judy Garland number and everything else, it works!”
The Judy Garland number contains a special message to fans from the Six Idiots (the fandom’s affectionate nickname for Howick, Baynton, Farnaby, Howe-Douglas, Larry Rickard and Ben Willbond’s group). Rickard’s caveman Robin performs a closing monologue over the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” which has the lyric “Someday soon we all will be together”. The song was chosen advisedly, says Howick.
“That was on purpose. That was on purpose. Definitely. Matt and I wanted that song right from the beginning. Songs are really expensive, and that song is quite expensive. It’s a big-un! We were given different versions of that song, because there are loads of different versions but we were like, no, it has to be Judy, it has to be that one and it just resonates with, we feel, our audience. Their demographic, it’s quite a large scale and we wanted the song to resonate with everyone. That line in particular. It’s a very emotionally charged line.”
Whatever they paid, it was worth it, I say, even if it did mean having to lose the guest appearances by Beyoncé and the cast of Cats… “and the scene on the aircraft carrier” jokes Howick. “We had to pick our battles.”
The song helps to tie together the episode’s separate threads, something Howick and Baynton initially struggled to do. With the baby and the hotel storyline established, the challenge came in making the episode Christmassy.
“Because we’ve done three Christmas specials in a row now and there’s only so many Christmas themes you can do that are sort of joyous and not kind of… sad,” Howick explains. They wanted to surprise viewers and not deliver the expected Nativity featuring baby Mia (a name chosen because it felt instinctively right but which they later realised is a happily accidental mix of the names ‘Mike’ and ‘Alison’) not only because it’s been done before in The Vicar of Dibley and Bottom, but because there’s nothing funny about a genuine childbirth emergency.
“We already had a sad idea. So it’s like, well, what can we do? Then one of us came up with the idea of Robin not feeling Christmassy after being the one who wasn’t into Christmas in the first place, and loving it like a child and then all of a sudden, he’s not feeling Christmassy anymore and doesn’t understand that he’s matured like a child in the last five years.”
As the ghosts suggest their own trigger points for Robin to get that Christmas tingle, it injects the episode with more festive stuff – including the joy of Howick’s character Pat doing the distinctively seventies thumbs-in-belt-loops shoulder bobbing dance to “Merry Christmas Everyone” by Slade. (Howick saw a couple at a wedding dance like that all night, regardless of tempo and never forgot it: “I was like, Pat definitely did that!”)
It all leads to the beautiful conclusion that the real Christmassy feeling is being able to give somebody a gift. Like so many other insights on Ghosts – to do with love and grief and family, it’s a little bit of truth that the creators have learned themselves, loaned to their characters.
Howick finds Christmas gifts a little bit overwhelming now, he says. “I obviously love getting presents of course and I’m very grateful, but I much prefer to give them. It’s definitely a mark of maturity.” He agrees that the show’s ending – in which Button House is renovated into a fancy hotel – is a gift of sorts from the creators to their pastime-starved characters.
“If you know the series, if you know the show well, then, you can completely understand that a hotel is something that [the ghosts] feared the most at the beginning, but really it offers them all the greatest distraction, the greatest entertainment. You’ve got gossip for Lady B, you’ve got honeymooners for Julian, you’ve got tennis, golf, sports, you’ve got everything. And knowing the ghosts and how they’ve adjusted to modern life thanks to Mike and Alison, they probably feel equipped to deal with anything now.”
That’s why the coda at the end with the Plague pit ghosts enjoying a steam bath in Button House’s new basement spa was included, to show that “this hotel has actually been a really good thing for them.” The steam room was the last scene filmed on the show, on an emotionally charged set. Everyone had turned up for the wrap, so behind the camera there were cast members, producers, BBC execs… For the 20 seconds that ended up on screen, they filmed 15 minutes of footage as the gang improvised lines in character. “We didn’t really want it to end, but they had to cut it at some point.”
The same is true for Ghosts as a whole. As much as the creators and fans have loved it, the end was always going to come, says Howick “That is inevitable. In in a way, the show is a sort of metaphor for that: everything has its exit. All things must pass, and we just have to make sure that it’s tailored correctly, and the legacy we leave is, in our minds, as perfect as it can be.”
And so we leave Button House and the horror-comedy gang that unexpectedly became a family behind, but it goes on without us – for years and years, as the finale flash-forward shows. That scene is there “to encourage the understanding that their lives have gone on together,” confirms Howick. As will the careers of the Ghosts, Yonderland and Horrible Histories gang, he’s confident. The six of them are pursuing their own projects for the time being, but keep meeting up to chew the fat and throw around future ideas. Whatever it is they do next as a gang, Ghosts has taught them that it should exist in a hyper-reality, says Howick.
“I don’t think that it would be right for us to write something that is completely natural and drama and normal and isn’t sort of quite big. There’s a lot of reality in Ghosts, but certainly the ghosts operate on a different level of reality. They’re a little bit more hyper. And and we have to sort of be aware that that is our sort of brand, really, that’s our tone, and we wouldn’t want to give that away and just all of a sudden do something completely different where no-one recognises us – they might recognise us as actors, but they don’t recognise our sort of collective canon, our tone.”
They each have their individual next jobs, but like any family, he promises, they will always come back to each other. If the fates allow?
“If the fates allow!”
Ghosts series one to five are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
The post Jim Howick on the Message of the Ghosts Finale: ‘We’ll Still Be Family, We’ll Always Still Be Here’ appeared first on Den of Geek.