While everyone’s free to try their hand at reinventing ghost stories, BBC One’s Ghosts seemingly had no interest in trying to. Instead, it opts for a much more straightforward approach. At the same time that the show introduces Mike and Alison, it also begins spotlighting the sizable, titular cast of departed spirits who’ve been spending their lives at Button House unseen by the living.
One of the reasons that living people tend to avoid Button House are numerous reports from locals about a gray lady who can be seen wandering the halls at night, and who can be heard screaming as she falls from one of the windows on the second floor in the moonlight. Alarming as the gray lady’s reputation is, the reality is that Lady Fanny Button (Martha Howe-Douglas) is a rather harmless apparition who simply can’t stop herself from regularly reliving the traumatic final moments of her life while her fellow ghosts in the house are trying to sleep. Fanny, like all of Button House’s other ghosts, is bound to the property because of some sort of unfinished business she can’t be over and done with due to her inability to fully interact with the living world. The presence of Alison—one of Fanny’s descendants—both delights and alarms the ghost because of what it might mean for the future of their familial estate. Alison keeping the house would mean that Button House stays within the family, which would please Fanny deeply.
But Alison and Mike’s plans to turn it into a hotel is the sort of thing that Fanny and other ghosts like Mary (Katy Wix), a Stuart-era ghost who was burned at the stake under suspicion of practicing witchcraft, want to avoid because of what a nuisance living people can be to the dead. Early into Ghosts’ first series, Fanny, Mary, and other ghosts like the Captain (Ben Willbond), a closeted WWII army officer, rally together to drive Alison and Mike out using the handful of abilities being dead affords them. Robin (Laurence Rickard), a caveman who died on the land where Button House was eventually erected), can interfere with lights by focusing, 90s era lecherous MP Julian Fawcett (Simon Farnaby) can move small objects by concentrating enough to make his finger point tangible, and whenever people walk through Mary, they catch whiffs of the same smoke that suffocated her as she was roasted.
Together, the ghosts all try to haunt Alison and Mike out of Button House, but because none of the ghosts can manifest enough of a disturbance to be noticed, it all seems for naught. All of that changes, though, and Ghosts really hits its stride once Alison has an accident and a near-death experience that suddenly gives her the ability to perceive her and Mike’s new housemates.
Though Ghosts isn’t exactly a spoof of any one series, many of its best jokes are subtle deconstructions of the haunted house genre and ideas about ghosts that come to mind when you’re watching stories about them. Pat (Jim Howick), the ghost of a camp counselor who perished during an unfortunate archery accident, doesn’t truly consider him the leader of Button House’s ghosts, but he best represents how each of them genuinely do enjoy the company of other people regardless of whether they’re dead or not, which is one of the subtler truths Ghosts begins establishing early on. No one really comments on the fact that Kitty (Lolly Adefope), a wealthy socialite from the Georgian era, is a Black woman who, historically-speaking, does not seem to make much sense in Button House because everyone’s far too busy being annoyed by Kitty’s incessant questions and over-excitability. The ghosts’ familiarity with one another makes them family to each other, especially in moments where they have to decide how to proceed once it’s clear that Alison can see them all.
What seems to be the biggest difference between the BBC One’s Ghosts and CBS’s adaptation is how comfortable the two shows are simply being stories about a bunch of people hanging out in a home together. As interesting as some of Button House’s mysteries are, the bulk of the BBC show’s episodes are really about Alison and Mike learning that yet another thing about the mansion is beyond their abilities to fix, and they’ll have to think of a new way to come into quick cash like renting the place out to a film crew shooting a Downton Abbey-like period drama.
The other most glaring way the new adaptation deviates from its predecessor is with the ghosts exclusively haunting Button House’s basement after dying at some point during the bubonic plague’s spread across Europe. Whereas the plague ghosts of BBC One’s Ghosts are all portrayed by the same actors playing the upstairs ghosts, CBS show drops the running joke by instead bringing in other actors, which has the overall effect of making the haunted house seem like a much more transient space.
Every time Ghosts reminds you that there’s the possibility that one of its spirits might pass on into the next stage of the afterlife, it’s less about highlighting what’s at stake as everyone’s relationships grow stronger, and more about having a chuckle at the fact that some people really can’t get their mess together, no matter how long they try.
What’s undoubtedly makes BBC One’s Ghosts something worth checking out regardless of whether you were planning to tune in to CBS’ premiere is the fact that it’s been on for a while. CBS’ Ghosts might turn out to be the short of show you want to tune in to watch weekly once it premieres on October 8, but the BBC One original’s first three series are streaming on HBO Max now.
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