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Ghosts review: 'It's joyously, infectiously silly, yet at the same time whip-smart'

Ghosts ****

Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema *****


Ghosts, BBC One

Ghosts, BBC One

Ghosts, BBC One

IN comedy, bleak is the new black. We live in a post-sitcom world. We’ve entered the era of the “sadcom”, comedies where investigating the dark and sometimes unsavoury corners of the human condition is as important as raising a few laughs.

At its best, the sadcom genre gives us Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Ricky Gervais’s After Life. As writers, Waller-Bridge and Gervais are far too good to forget to make us laugh as well as cry or gasp.

At its worst, it gives us star and co-writer Toby Jones’s Brexit-y, Bognor-set Don’t Forget the Driver, which has pathos, bathos and a gag rate of 0.3 per episode. It’s not so much a sadcom as a noncom.

Frankly, I’m sick and tired of dreary alleged comedies which appear to disdain actual jokes, as though making an audience laugh now and again is somehow vulgar and beneath them.

By all means be as dark and bleak and miserable and melancholy as you want; just make some small effort to be bloody funny with it. Trying to make an audience laugh is not an option for a comedy; it’s an obligation.

There’s no danger of anyone mistaking BBC1’s sparkling new offering Ghosts, which began last week and continued last night, for a sadcom.

It’s joyously, infectiously silly, yet at the same time whip-smart. It’s just the ticket to scare those sadcom blues away.

Coming from the team behind Horrible Histories — a CBBC sketch show that attracted a grown-up following (and a grown-up British Comedy Award) by virtue of being funnier than any of the adult sitcoms around at the time — you wouldn’t expect anything else.

Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) are a cash-strapped young couple on the hunt for a house. They learn that a distant relative of Alison’s has died, leaving her a dilapidated country pile called Button House. Rather than sell it, they decide to take out a huge loan and turn it into a hotel.

This is horrifying news for Button House’s hidden residents: a bunch of ancestral ghosts who, for unspecified reasons, have been denied entry to the other realm and are doomed to stay in this rambling pile, bickering among themselves forever.

There’s a caveman, who’s still struggling to master the language; a pompous, stick-up-the-bum army captain; a scout leader with an arrow through his neck; an Edwardian matriarch doomed to relive her noisy death (her hubby pushed her out of a window) at the stroke of midnight every night; a decapitated nobleman whose body has a habit of leaving his head behind; a flighty Regency woman who runs around the house playing silly games; a sappy romantic poet who writes terrible verses; a witch who was burned at the stake, and a disgraced MP who was embroiled in a sex scandal at the time of his death and must spend eternity without his trousers.

The ghosts, aghast at the thought of hotel guests invading the place and “taunting us with the lives”, resolve to scare off the new owners.

Trouble is, they’re useless at it. The caveman can make the lights flicker. The MP can, if he concentrates really hard, push a cup a couple of millimetres. And that’s about it.

Things change, however, when Alison falls out of a window and, once she’s recovered, discovers she can see and hear the spooks. And not just these spooks, but all spooks. It’s a treat.

So was the latest in Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, in which the best film critic in the business ran the rule over the disaster movies, a seemingly indestructible genre, even if everything on screen usually ends up in bits.

Fans (and I’m a huge one) will have known what to expect as Kermode and the series’ unseen and usually unsung hero, co-writer Kim Newman, wittily and informatively dissected the genre’s tropes, backed up by a wealth of wonderful clips.

It’s like sitting through a lecture from the world’s coolest professor.