Looking for something light and historically adjacent? The BBC comedy series Ghosts (2019-) is good fun and currently available on HBO Max and BritBox in the U.S. The plot follows a modern couple who inherit a dilapidated mansion that’s inhabited by the ghosts of people who’ve died there over the centuries. Due to a near-death accident, the wife of the couple, Allison (Charlotte Ritchie) becomes able to see and hear the ghosts, while her husband, Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) can’t. Mayhem ensues as they try to fix up the house and sometimes rent it out to make money for repairs.
There’s a main group of ghosts that Allison interacts with, plus lesser seen ghosts who “live” in places like the basement and don’t have as, uh, fleshed-out of characters (these are mostly medieval plague victims). The series slowly rolls out the backgrounds of these central ghosts, so we learn how they died — often rather hilarious, weird, or somewhat sad. Through Allison, the ghosts also learn about the current day, such as the lives of their families and descendants, and how technology works. Plenty of fodder for jokes there!
Many of the writers and actors in Ghosts are from Horrible Histories (2003-21) and Drunk History UK (2015-17), so this series has a similar vibe. If you enjoy those, you’ll probably like this one too. Costume designer Lucy Williams worked on Drunk History UK and a Horrible Histories TV special, so the costume style is not dissimilar here. Each ghost wears their same outfit throughout the series, being the clothes they died in. That identifies the historical era they’re from, so let’s look at them chronologically.
And I’ll note that although each character is stuck in the clothes of their original time period, the characters learn, grow, and change as they experience things, especially via Allison, so their mindsets aren’t stuck in the past forever. This becomes apparent in terms of various relationships that are discussed in the series, showing that if hundreds-of-years-old ghosts can become queer-friendly, everyone should be able to figure that out.
On to the ghost roll call, beginning with Robin (Laurence Rickard) the “caveman” ghost, who has been on the site of what’s now Button House the longest. He pretty much looks like a cliche movie/TV prehistoric person wearing raggedy animal skins. The character gets some good lines though.
Sir Humphrey Bone is an Elizabethan nobleman who was beheaded, so he carries his head around. The running gag is that his body (played by Yani Xander) drops his head (voiced by Laurence Rickard). Unfortunately, he’s mostly used for that gag in the first couple seasons, so he doesn’t have a lot of dialog and interactions with the rest of the characters until late in S2 and then his backstory is shared in S3.
Mary (Katy Wix) was burned at the stake as a suspected witch, so she’s supposedly from the early to mid 17th century. She’s very reticent to talk about her burning, so her story doesn’t come out for a while. Mary’s costume kind of bugs me because it’s so poorly or weirdly fitted, and I don’t understand what those layers are supposed to be. Is she wearing a princess-seamed kirtle over a loose jacket and a smock? I don’t get it.
Kitty (Lolly Adefope) is a Georgian-era lady who’s extremely bubbly, chatty, and friendly, annoyingly so at times. I’m about halfway through the series, and it looks like we don’t get the real deal on her backstory until late in S3. But she has one of the most interesting historical costumes, so we can talk about that! Since there’s no back pleats (and no back-lacing, yay!), you could call this a robe à l’anglaise and a rather nice one. The trims and lace are appropriate, she’s wearing an accurate neckerchief, and her hair is lovely. The gown’s colors are a bit bright, but that works for a TV comedy.
Thomas Thorne (Mathew Baynton) seems to be from the Regency period, claiming Lord Byron as his poetic nemesis. Thomas is a melodramatic artsy fellow and a super Romantic, capital “R”! The reasons why become apparent in S2.
Lady Fanny Button (Martha Howe-Douglas) is the great-grandmother of the last person to live at Button House, the distant relation who Allison inherited it from. Lady Fanny is snooty and obsessed with manners. I think hers is the most historically accurate for her time of 1908-10s, and this may be the most elaborate outfit in the show. Hard to tell in photos, but her gown is a combo of pale lavender and ivory that’s typical of her period, and I find really pretty.
The Captain (Ben Willbond) died in the Second World War and is the very model of a modern major-general, sort of. He’s wearing a uniform, which, as per usual, I don’t have much to say about, though he’s a great character with more going on than it seems at first.
Pat Butcher (Jim Howick) is a scout leader who was leading an archery demo on the grounds of Button House in 1984 and was accidentally shot by one of his scouts. Modern scouts uniform, so nothing to say about that, but he’s a sweetheart of a guy.
Julian Fawcett (Simon Farnaby) is a Tory MP who died in a 1993 sex scandal, so he’s left not wearing pants for eternity. HI-LAR-IOUS character.
And yes, I know there’s an American remake that premiered in 2021 and starts a second season this fall. I may watch it at some point to compare, no idea yet!
Have you watched the original or the remade Ghosts?
Is Kitty an example of color blind casting or is her color a story point?
Kitty is supposed to have been adopted; it’s never really explained where she originally came from (and her negative memories from childhood are something she works to repress) but it’s clear that she’s partly inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle.
That’s what I was thinking. Dido Belle was very fortunate in her family. Other biracial children might not have been so lucky.
Race isn’t really mentioned, so it’s left up to the viewer to decide whether they’re doing color blind casting or showing historically accurate examples of people of color. In addition to Kitty, there are also flashback scenes to the Regency Era where the crowd of aristocrats include a few people of color, which would’ve been possible but very unusual. The medieval flashbacks also include a black person, but that’s because the plague ghosts are all played by the members of the main cast for comedic effect.
I quite like both versions; the American remake follows a lot of the same beats but made the wise choice to swap some of the ghost’s stories for ones that fit American history better; so Julian is now Trevor, a Wall Street party boy, Thomas and the Captain are combined to make Captain Isaac (a gay American Revolutionary officer who died during the war and considers Alexander Hamilton his nemesis), and Robin becomes Thorfinn, in recognition that the Vikings were likely the first non-Indigenous people to make contact with North America. My favorites though are new creations for the America version – Sasappis, a Lynape Indigenous ghost and Alberta, who was a Probition-era Jazz singer; she gets a not entirely period accurate but still very gorgeous magenta velvet dress and silk robe combo for her forever outfit.
Thing is ‘cavemen could sew, we have the needles and also to prove it. 8ce age Britons probably dressed much like traditional inuit.
That’s ‘awl’ and Ice Age.
Lady Fanny’s garment is so spot on that I wonder if it was made of real period elements.
I think Kitty’s dress seems better fitted in seasons 2 and 3 (and spoilers! we get a flashback to a more expanded wardrobe as well!)
Just discovered this. Glad to read it’s worth the journey of watching!
I hope you do watch the US version, it’s pretty funny! The costuming isn’t as wide-ranging, but the characters are hilarious and play well off each other. After reading this, I’m definitely going to check out the UK version. Interestingly, all the characters are not direct translations.
I am also left slightly confused and bemused at Mary’s ensemble. I am really not quite sure what the layers are meant to be or represent, 17th Century costume wise – it is almost like she is wearing two costumes, one on top of the other! Weird… but I do love her subtle ‘scorch’ makeup and hair though. I do love 18th Century Kitty, both her characterisation and her gown. Her hair is amaze-balls and really detailed from the back/side and I really appreciate the accurate elements of her costume, although the vibrancy and clash of the colours and the height of the stomacher/bodice is slightly distracting when you study her intently. Definitely no period décolletage here, even without the kerchief. A great show all round I feel!
Mary’s outfit seems like it could have been inspired by the Vermeer painting of a milkmaid, but on a TV budget. Kitty’s outfit is by far my favorite of the main cast, and her backstory episode had some really beautiful costumes, including a couple of recycled ones.
Pat’s uniform is inaccurate as scout leaders stopped wearing shorts in th 1960s