Larry Rickard on making Ghosts, working with friends, and more

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Larry Rickard discusses Ghosts Series 4, revealing Robin’s backstory, and more in the first half of a two-part interview ahead of the beloved sitcom’s BBC One return

Ghosts – the much-loved sitcom about a group of, well, ghosts – is returning for its fourth series on BBC One this September. Alison and Mike have, finally, started to have some tentative success with their bed & breakfast, and the lives (deaths) of the Button House ghosts are about to change forever.

In the first half of a wide-ranging two-part interview, Larry Rickard sat down with NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss the production of Ghosts Series 4. He talked about how the cast have developed backstories for each of the Button House ghosts, explained how a BBC iPlayer boxset release impacts writing the show, and reflects on almost fifteen years working with the ‘Six Idiots’ comedy troupe across Horrible Histories, Bill, and Yonderland.

So, just to set the scene a bit: when did you all start working on Ghosts Series 4? Was there anything in particular you were looking to do or achieve this year?

The show’s got to the point now where it’s a little beyond the rolling 12 months: we’re writing the next batch while we’re still in post-production with the one before. We normally start discussing episodes in the spring, so we’ve got to go from a vague idea of the story to the point where we’ve got finished, polished scripts grips within about six or seven months. Then we go into prep in late autumn, to shoot just after Christmas, that’s how it all breaks down.

We’re always keen to try and do combinations of characters that we haven’t tried before, pairing people up in unlikely couples. That’s always fun. On particular things in terms of story we wanted to do this time round – you know, we’re always aware of that thirst there is for backstories, and one part of us always wants to eke those out as long as possible, but there’s a couple that we’ve been busting to do since Series 1 that we’ve explored this time round. [We also wanted] to have Mike and Alison, albeit sort of in a quite a small way, finally open a B&B. After three years of trying to do something, they’re getting to dip their toe. And that’s sort of as rewarding and problematic as you think!

We’ve just – literally just – finished doing the last visual effects on the last episode. So it’s sort of done!

Is that typical, for you to still be working on it so close to transmission? [This interview took place on Tuesday 20 September, three days before Ghosts S4 began.]

It’s got usual, because it used to be that you kind of got a period of grace where the first episode went out, and then you’ve got six weeks before the last one came out. But now, everything goes out as a boxset, so everything’s got to be done by the time the first one goes out, and our last episode was quite VFX heavy. So yeah, it’s become the norm, but it’s lovely to see it all put to bed.

The ghosts – Lolly Adefope as Kitty, Mat Baynton as Thomas, Jim Howick as Pat, Ben Willbond as the Captain Larry Rickard as Robin, Yani Xander as Humphrey’s body, Simon Farnaby as Julian, and Martha Howe-Douglas as Lady Button – looking slightly shell-shocked after a big telling off from Alison (Credit: BBC/Monumental/Robbie Gray)

Are you conscious of that as you’re writing them, the fact they’re going out all at once?

Kind of, yeah. I think the first series just went out each week, and then went on iPlayer after they transmitted. But it’s so the norm now for everything to go out as a boxset at the same time – I think, even in the amount of time that we’ve been on, viewing habits have changed to the point where, for our show, it’s almost beyond fifty-fifty, that more people watch it online than watch when it transmits.

So, viewing habits are constantly in flux, and even the way that the budget breaks down – the amount of money that comes from the channel and the amount that comes from iPlayer – all of that is always shifting around. We try and make it so that we cut our cloth a bit in terms of budget – you go, okay, that’s a big tricky VFX episode, so we offset that with one which is a little more straightforward so that we don’t give everyone a heart attack trying to get everything ready.

I always try and pace myself with the show – I say to myself, you know, I’ll spread this out, take my time with it – and then I’ve finished them within the first week.

I mean, it’s a lovely problem to have, the number of people who go “yeah, I’ll watch one each week as they go out…” [and then don’t]! This year, to help people pace it out, there’s a companion podcast on BBC Sounds. As soon as the episodes gone out on BBC One, then the podcast discussing that episode goes out online, so it’s an incentive there to stagger it.

A sort of behind-the-scenes making of kind of thing?

Yeah, exactly. It’s really fun. Nathan Bryon, who plays Obi in Ghosts, presents it. It’s one of us as writer/creators and one of the actors in that episode on each podcast, discussing the show generally, their characters, the stories and the things that have come up that. It’s been great actually, it’s been a real laugh.

So, you were saying a moment ago about backstories – and we see a bit more of Robin’s in particular this year – I was curious how much of those you’ve tended to know already, maybe since the beginning of the show even, and how much comes out of the writing of the individual episodes where they’re revealed.

Once you get down to actually plotting the episodes, you always find there’s some vagaries there that you need to nail down, but the general direction – some general character arcs, and how they died, you know, what those circumstances are – we knew in quite a lot of detail for I think pretty much every character.

There’s a couple we’ve slightly adjusted as we’ve gone through, and as you go through previous series, you introduce other characters – we’ve got this big, confusing timeline graph, so you can see who’s about as a ghost at the same time as which characters dying. It quite quickly can become quite confusing, and sometimes that has a knock-on effect to how you tell the story. You suddenly go ‘oh, hang on, that can’t happen, then because that character will be seeing that’. You spend a lot of time unpacking those knots, but yeah, we tend to have a pretty good idea going in what led to their demise.

Jim Howick as Pat, Mat Baynton as Thomas Thorne, and Larry Rickard as Robin in Ghosts S4, all dancing awkwardly (Credit: BBC/Monumental/Robbie Gray)

When you’re working out the different pairings for a given episode, what does that tend to grow from? What makes you think something might be an interesting or fun combination of the ghosts for a particular storyline?

We’re sort of a bit blessed, because you know normally the greatest fuel for sitcom is people in a difficult situation, and we’ve got the ultimate version of that – they’re not just from different backgrounds, they’re literally from different time periods, and no one can just go out for a walk and leave the others, they’re really trapped there.

All of the combinations are potentially combustible. There are characters who get along better, and sometimes that’s brilliant – there was a really fun episode with Lady Button and the Captain both trying to work out what a joke was – and equally putting really unlikely ones together. In one episode this year, through circumstances beyond her control, Alison is forced to hang out with Robin, who’s everyone always keeps a little bit at arm’s length, because he’s quite unpredictable. [In another episode it’s] Lady Button and Julian, a very moral and a very immoral character, putting them together was fun. So sometimes it’s fun putting the most unlikely characters together, but a lot of the time it’s what the worst combination can be and the worst situation.

And of course, speaking of different character combinations, Robin had a lot more scenes this year with the actor who plays Humphrey’s head. What’s he like as a co-worker, as someone to act with?

Yes, well, I mean he’s a genuinely fantastic actor [laughs]. Those scenes are always slightly odd, because he you have to know the scenes a little better in terms of blocking them out. Sometimes those elements are picked up on the same day – I’ll do one character in the morning, and then there’ll be a makeup change for the afternoon – but normally, the Humphrey shots we bank together. So, we might be doing the Humphrey stuff from a couple of different episodes at the same time, and then slot them in. Those are always interesting, trying to get a feel for the rhythm of the dialogue when you know that the other side of it’s not going to be there on the day. It’s tricky, but nice as well – this year, there’s an episode later on in the series where I got to do quite a lot as Robin with Yani [Xander], who plays Humphrey’s body, and those are always quite fun. Getting to hang out with myself, in a way.

In terms of your experience on the show, how do you find it’s evolved now going into its fourth year? Are there any particular challenges that arise from that, or do you find it’s more comfortable across the board, or…?

There’s a give and take to it, each time round. You become more and more comfortable with the characters, how it works, what the tone of it is – but at the same time, every time you shoot an episode, that’s something else that you’ve done, and it’s so easy to think you’ve got a great story and then go hang on, that feels actually quite close to one that we’ve already done.

We try and keep it as fresh and unexpected as possible; the main difference this year was just things were a little more open. While we were ramping up into shooting Series 2, COVID was just a story in the newspaper, and then it shut production down on our penultimate day. Series 3 was under a very rigorous lockdown, so trying to film group shots when we couldn’t be physically in each other’s orbit was very tricky and quite time consuming. To have a scene of us all sitting around the table, we’d have to green screen elements together.

This one, we were still under COVID protocols, but it was just that little bit looser. It just made life slightly easier. By the end, there was a day where all of our testing timetables sort of coalesced, and there was an evening where we could all – guilt free, and with the approval of production – go out and have a meal. Which, you know, after three years of not being allowed to do things like that, it was just really lovely to hang out with everyone. We’ve been so lucky that we the cast get on so well – that’s not always the case, particularly on quite big ensemble shows, but it’s lovely to just hang out with them.

A promotional image for Ghosts S4, depicting a mobile phone taking a picture of Alison, Mike, and the Ghosts – who can’t be seen through the phone screen (Credit: BBC/Monumental Pictures/Guido Mandozzi)

It must be coming up to fifteen years now that you’ve been working together?

Yeah, it’s been a long, long while. We think we’ve done something together – there was one year where we were just developing things – but pretty much we’ve done a series or a film together every year. Thankfully, everyone still gets along, everyone’s still making someone else laugh, and there seems to be a real thirst to keep doing it.

It’s always a little trickier every year, trying to get everyone’s diaries to align. Now that Simon’s in charge of Hollywood – apparently they’re going to take the sign down and just replace it with FARNABY, which I think has been needing to be done for a long time – it always does get more and more difficult to get everyone together. But everyone’s so keen to do it. You know, the hours are long – particularly for me and Martha with our makeup – but there’s a bit of it that feels like you’re going on holiday with your mates. We go out to a nice country house in rural Surrey, and we hang out for a couple of months. It’s lovely.

By this point, knowing the characters and each other as well as you do, I was curious – are there any of the other Ghosts you’d be interested in playing?

Ooh, yeah. I think there’s always a bit of us that is scared of playing any of the other characters, because you know someone’s already nailed that – but equally, you want to play all of them. I mean, I would say Pat, because I adore Pat, but I think I would be a pale imitation. I think the most fun I’d have would probably be with Julian – I like his complete lack of a moral compass, he’s always a really interesting character to throw into any situation, because he’s absolutely awful yet there will be moments where genuine humanity comes out. Those always feel like they land really well, because they’re the last thing you expect from him. I think that would be the most fun – and I’m used to having cold legs playing Robin, so that’s no problem. Trousers optional!

Are there any of the others you’d want to see play Robin?

Oh, god! Yeah! Oh, who would be a good Robin? Actually, I’d quite like to see Ben do it, which is sort of unlikely because he’s the certainly the classiest of us hoodlums. But I remember him playing a kind of crazed laboratory assistant/henchmen in Yonderland, and he was just brilliant. I’d be really interesting to see what he did with a kind of growling Neanderthal, I reckon there would be some surprises.

You can read more of our interviews here, and follow NationalWorld’s television section on twitter here – and don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the second half of our interview with Larry Rickard, where he discusses the challenges of writing for a family audience, the success of Ghosts US, his upcoming feature film We Are Not Alone, and teases the possibility of Ghosts Series 5…

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