In the second half of our two-part interview with Larry Rickard, the Ghosts co-creator and star discussed some of the challenges (or lack thereof) that come with writing an all-ages family comedy, detailed the origins of the US remake of Ghosts, and revealed a few details about his upcoming sci-fi feature film We Are Not Alone.
More broadly, Rickard discussed some of the group’s influences – both on Ghosts and elsewhere, from Monty Python to YouTube supercuts – and reflected on the series’ success after a “terrifying” launch.
Obviously, the show has quite a broad, all-ages appeal – is it difficult to write for so many people at once?
I don’t think so, weirdly. It’s one of those things that [is difficult] traditionally - and I know a lot of writers who can find that a little challenging, because you’re always pitching comedy at yourself, it’s so hard to second guess what might make someone else laugh. I think we, the six of us, are very different, but we share a sense of humour, And a lot of that is relatively childish – we’re never having to crowbar things in, it’s very rare where we go, that would be really funny, but we can’t do that.
When we approached this, we wanted to write an accessible BBC One comedy that the whole family can watch. It was never a sense of “what we really want to write is the edgy 10:30 BBC Two comedy,” and then we were being crowbarred into a different slot. It’s quite a natural fit for what has become our tone. I think we’re quite lucky in that way, that we found a happy marriage between what the demand was from, as it turned out, an audience, but also from BBC One, and what we naturally like to do and what we naturally find funny.
There’s a lot of love for the US version too, that seems to have really found its audience over on CBS. I know you’re all producers on the show, but are you particularly involved in it? What was your experience of that show starting up?
Early on, we were [quite involved], because there was obviously that’s such a nerve-wracking thing to do. You know, it really does feel like giving your baby to someone else. Watching it and being involved with the development of the pilot was such a surreal experience, because the show they’ve come up with is exactly the same and completely different. It’s really odd – it’s like watching your family, but you go ‘oh, my mum and dad are played by different people!’
But I think once it was up and running, and once we saw it, it was so clear that that what Joe Port and Joe Wiseman had done was find something that had completely its own identity, but which genuinely, and effortlessly kept the DNA of what the show was. Once it was on its feet, it felt like in some ways, the least helpful thing we could do was going on meddling, because the more we meddle, the more we would make it our show – our version exists, and it’s pointless to have them running a version that works for an American audience [with] us making it more like the thing that already exists. So, to a degree, once we knew what it was, and we felt that it worked, we let it be its own thing and they act with autonomy in terms of stories and gags.
They’re so across it all and the cast work so well together. They feel like a troupe, which was always our other worry – because we worked together for so long, and created it and wrote it together, that that’s part of it. I think what comes across is the fact that it’s friends having a laugh, I think that’s part of what feels approachable about our version. We were worried that, when it was table written and just cast with actors, some of that would be lost – but it’s worked so well with them all coming together as friends as well as actors. That tone, thankfully, has translated. Obviously it’s lovely as well that it’s found an audience, I don’t think we were expecting the reception it’s got.
I wanted to ask a bit about Series 3, just because it’s easier to talk about that in a little more detail. You had some more overtly serialised elements that year with Jessica Knappett’s character Lucy [Alison’s half-sister, at least seemingly] – I was wondering what influences structural decisions like that, when you’re approaching a series as a whole?
We always try and keep the series arc running through the background. It’s always tricky to weigh that balance – you want them to be proper standalone sitcom episodes, but at the same time, you want that story hook to pull you through a series, trying to not let that overwhelm the comedy and those stories of the week. That’s always can be a tricky balance to strike.
I think we foregrounded it more in Series 3, because we were really quite clear and overt in having a couple of episodes that were really focused on Jessica’s character. This time around, it’s been a little easier to navigate, because the series arc is more about the bed and breakfast. It’s focused on Mike and Alison, rather than another new character. But yeah, there’s always a little bit of pull and push with how much sort of series story you let seep into each individual episode, and how much you let it stand alone. But hopefully, we managed to strike about the right balance.
So, a couple of broader questions. What would you say are some of your biggest creative influences?
It’s always, I suppose as with anything to a degree, what you grew up with. We’ve all sort of said this to each other before, but the fact that we grew up through a time when comedy wasn’t as subdivided as it became – in the 90s and early 2000s, comedy, as a side effect of becoming a little edgier, became something that was only for adults, and kids got kid shows, and adults got comedies – whereas I think we grew up in a time where you had things like The Young Ones and Blackadder that you could watch for your parents.
I think that’s affected us in terms of the tone of what we do. Certainly, the reception to it, when people stop and talk to us, they go ‘it’s something I sit and watch with my mum and my daughter’, and they feel that that’s something which hasn’t been the case in quite a long while. The comedies we watched when we were growing up, that was more of the case. And, you know, things like Python, because it’s a troupe, the six of them, you know, it’s informed by them.
Then we’ve got our individual influences – Mat’s very influenced by physical comedy and silent comedy, and I think that influences the physical comedy in our show. I always love Douglas Adams’ writing and I think a lot of the dialogue sort of reflects that influence. So, it’s a nice cocktail of influences we share and our individual ones, injected into specific episodes.
So much of what we reference is either weird little snippets of things that you’ve seen on the internet, or someone who was interviewed on the news who had a funny voice [laughs]. The number of times where we’re sat in the writers’ room, and it’s got to a moment of impasse where we can’t quite work out what to do, and ‘we go we should watch the YouTube supercut of all of the closing credit sequences of Police Squad’ [laughs]. So, it’s often things from way, way back that you suddenly find are really influencing you at a particular moment.
Is there anything you can share about We Are Not Alone, the sci-fi comedy film you’re writing with Ben Willbond for Dave? Or is that all top secret still?
No, no, it’s… I mean, I’ve no idea what we’re allowed to say and not say! Obviously, the cast has been revealed, there are a number of real coups in there, in terms of people who responded to the script and agreed to come on board. It was a really fun, really tough production – it was up in Runcorn, running up to Christmas, and we got bitten by COVID a couple of times. We ended up shooting our final week of We Are Not Alone while we were shooting our first week on Series 4 of Ghosts, which wasn’t how it was designed.
We’re really thrilled with how it’s come out. Fergal Costello, who directed it, has done a tremendous job of making a television comedy feel like a feature film. It’s – I think, hopefully –s really interesting. You know, that was our hope. And it’s laugh out loud funny – there’s certainly still a number of things which make me laugh in it, which given how many times we’ve seen it through post-production has got to be some hallmark of quality! We’re just really excited to get it out there now. I think they’re still to confirm the date, but we should be seeing it this year, once Ghosts is put to bed.
Have you been thinking much about a potential fifth series of Ghosts?
There’s two or three things that we’re working on the moment – a couple of things I’m doing with Ben, and there’s a gang project as a possible feature. So there’s, always other things that we’re developing, that we’d like to do. Certainly, while we were writing Series 4, there are other ideas that we were kicking around for the future for Ghosts, so fingers crossed for that.
And, you know, the same for We Are Not Alone, the support that we’ve had from UKTV has been great, so hopefully that’s something else we can take forward. And then there’s a couple of new things that we’re kicking around! So yeah, it’s a really busy time, up until Christmas, getting some things together for the future.
Finally, just to kind of wrap everything up – how have you felt about the reception to Ghosts? What’s that meant to you?
Generally, going into any new show, you’re always terrified – I don’t believe anyone who says anything else – and particularly so with Ghosts. Everything we’d done before, it’d sort of been an unexpected hit: Horrible Histories was a children’s sketch show on a kid’s channel, and I don’t think people were expecting that to crossover in the way it did; with Yonderland, it was in the vein of those tea time Jim Henson shows, I think people thought it was a surprise to find on Sky, and so the critical reception to that, I think, was so heartening; again, the same with Bill, because we were doing a sort of historic British ensemble comedy, which hadn’t been done for a long time.
I think [Ghosts] felt like we were sticking our heads above the parapet. We’re going right, we’re primetime BBC One, yeah, we’re funny, come on then, come and get us - and it was horrifying, I was so nervous on launch night. But I mean, I think we’re really lucky in that there’s a core group of fans who’ve followed us through everything we’ve done, and thankfully, they took to the show really quickly. It found that broad, inclusive audience that we were hoping to – the fact that family sit and watch it together, that it’s just pre-watershed so that we can be cheeky, but never cross, it felt like it works. This series should be really interesting – due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, we’re starting straight after the first Strictly show, so going from one of the BBC One’s big family audience shows to BBC One’s other big family audience show, that will be an interesting one.
But I mean, just generally, I suppose you always hope that either critics will be kind to it, or people will find it – the real dare to dream thing is that you might get a bit of both. So far, we’ve been so lucky on that front, and it always slightly feels like that’s a plate you’re constantly spinning, and you’re always terrified that it’s gonna fall off the stick. But I think that that means that we’re never complacent when it comes to the writing and the shooting any of it – each series we think a little more and try a little harder, because we feel so privileged that the show’s got to where it’s got, and none of us want to be the person responsible for breaking it.
Ghosts begins on BBC One at 8:50pm on Friday 23 September, with every episode available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer too.
You can read the first half of our interview with Larry here, check out more of our interviews here, and follow NationalWorld’s television section on twitter here. Don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly What to Watch TV newsletter too, of course, where there just might be something of interest for Ghosts fans on Monday...