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 detail while we talk on Zoom. Would he read a few lines out?
“The car drives away. The waving ghosts recede into the distance. Fade to black. The music stops. Is that the end? No. We fade back in on the driveway, and the music starts again, but the house looks different. It’s all beautifully restored and decorated, tastefully, for Christmas.
“An older couple step into the frame in the foreground, their backs to camera. Looking up at the house, she holds the handle of the wheelie case, and he has a golf bag on his shoulder.
“There you go,” says Howick. “That’s that bit. I could read that all day.”
That bit is Ghosts’ final scene, a flash-forward some decades into the future, in which a much older Alison and Mike return to Button House – now a luxury golf hotel – for what we learn is their regular Christmas visit. The receptionist greets them. Alison walks up the staircase and into the Higham Suite – named for Kitty’s family who lived there before the Buttons.
Behind the closed door, we hear Alison wish the ghosts a Merry Christmas and respond to voices only she can hear: “Of course we can, Kitty. Thank you, Thomas. You flatter me. What’s new, Julian?”
Should fans draw any conclusions about the absence of Robin, Lady B, the Captain and Humphrey in that roll call? The others haven’t been – to use Ghosts speak – ‘sucked off’ in the interim? No, confirms Howick.
“She reacts to the characters you would expect her to react to straight away. So it’s Thomas and Kitty, isn’t it? It wasn’t that we wanted to throw any sort of mystery into it at all, it was just that we couldn’t have her go: ‘Oh, hello you! Hello you! Hello you! Hello you!’ in order because it would have been rubbish.
“We had to pick what would be the most realistic greeting and who would be champing at the bit to greet her like puppies at the door and it would be them. They can draw conclusions, but it is our belief, as far as we’re concerned, that no one else has been sucked off.”
Seeing the once dilapidated Button House restored to its former beauty in the show’s final moments is a heart-warming end for the show. There are no futuristic touches (“Hoverboards and robots are when it gets expensive!” jokes Howick) but look closely at the hotel décor and you’ll see that homage has been paid to its most famous residents. The stuffed fox is proudly on display, as are restored portraits of Lady Button – with her beloved dog Dante – and Humphrey Bone hanging by the staircase. During filming, the sight moved Howick almost to tears.
“Walking up that staircase with the portraits on the wall of Lady B and of Humphrey, that really got me going. I just felt, here are these sort of lost souls that only Alison knows about, being publicly displayed in all their splendour, and I felt so pleased for them. That really got me quite emotional.”
It was an emotional filming experience all round. Martha Howe-Douglas recounted at the series launch that she was so moved by saying goodbye to Button House that she “cried herself young” and needed her old lady make-up reapplied. Similar make-up techniques were used to age up actors Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe for the finale flash-forward, not that we’re shown much of it in the final edit.
“We talked very early on about having actually age-appropriate actors for those parts, but we didn’t want to remove their natural gaits and physicality from those moments. We wanted to know it was them and so we felt like the best way to do that would be to age them classily without prosthetics, and be very, very delicate with what we see.
“Natalie Pateman and her make-up department did an amazing job and [director] Simon Hynd did a great job shooting that. I know that we got some takes and rushes of the scene at the the desk where we sort of do get a glimpse of them more clearly in the mirror, but he felt it was more important to see the bustle of the hotel. And I agree.”
It was all about less being more, and not distracting from everything else going on, he says.
“The trouble is is that what we have is the grand finale of the show. We have so much information to take in, you don’t want to be distracted by any kind of artifice. No matter how good the make-up is, you would be trying to sort of soak in this emotion and all the information on the screen, but you just can’t help yourself thinking ‘Oh, that’s a good job! They’ve done a good job there with her hair’, you just can’t help but do that. We wanted to see them from behind and see them reflected, and see them sort of in the mirror and in profiles, just to keep it classy. We don’t go full-on frontal, because we all felt like you get taken out of the story if that happens.”
The storytelling message they didn’t want to distract from, says Howick, is that even though the finale shows the ghosts making the generous decision to let Alison, Mike and new baby Mia start a new life together away from Button House, they remain a family.
“I think the best sort of best way to describe it in our lives really is literally leaving home. So you know, if you’re parents, it’s sending your kids or waving your kids away to university, say, or leaving for university, because we don’t live with our families, you know. We visit them.”
A line that Howick was adamant had to stay in the flash-forward scene and be high enough up in the audio mix for fans to hear properly is the receptionist telling seventy-odd year old Alison and Mike that their “usual room” is ready for them. “So we know that’s where they go, that’s their place.”
For the last five years, the stately home in Guildford that stands in for Button House has been the Ghosts creators’ place. Every January to March, the gang have decamped to nearby and spent the winter months filming the show. It was a useful diversion at a bleak time of year, says Howick, who’ll miss spending time there with friends in the cast and crew, and walking his dogs in the grounds.
“We were so lucky to be able to do this job for five years and have this amazing time to distract us from the bleakness of the day, of the weather. It would finish as spring was in bloom.”
The gang will miss their time at Button House, says Howick, who predicts that they’ll all be a bit shell-shocked come January. They’re all planning to meet up there one more time in the New Year. But among the sadness, “and more importantly,” says Howick, “we’re just incredibly proud of the package we’ve created. It’s a privilege to be able to wrap a big bow around it and go there you go, that’s there forever now.”
The Ghosts creators‘ delight in what they’ve made is what stops the sadness, says Howick. “The physical sadness of not being there is more than made up for by our pride in in the show and what we’ve created, and our love for each other as a group.”
He’ll be watching the finale on Christmas Day with his family – a slightly smaller gathering than last year’s crowded cushions-on-the-floor scene (as chronicled by Howick’s niece on TikTok) but just as special.
“That was an amazing moment for me. When you’re writing something like this, it’s so nice to be reminded of the show that you’ve made by people, because really you’re stuck in a loop and there’s no real sort of sense of arrival, but us sitting around watching the Christmas special last year was a genuine sort of wow pinch-me moment. Christmas Day. You know, that was my dream, growing up. That was a very, very special moment for all of us.”
Ghosts series one to five are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
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