Morecambe and Wise are back on BBC television on Christmas Day: some old tapes that were lost and are now found and digitised will be shown on BBC TWO. Meanwhile, BBC ONE tonight offered us Christmas present with the festive Ghosts special. The sitcom, which mixes warm-hearted plots with traditional sitcom silliness is almost custom made for the Christmas special. Last year’s was about the importance of family to the Christmas season and this year involves homelessness. Alison and Mike find a man, Nicholas, camping on their grounds with his dog. They don’t really know what to do about him – do they help him or do they ask him to leave?
It’s surprising how infrequently (to my recollection) sitcoms tackle this sort of moral dilemma – certainly not at Christmas – given that the fish-out-of-water theme that these comedies thrive on lives in this space. This episode’s writers, Laurence Rickard and Martha Howe-Douglas, don’t moralise, although they do contrast the fate of Justin Edwards’ Nick with that of Fanny, the overbearing (ghost) lady of the house. We find out more of Fanny’s back story in this episode, and learn how fate was unkind to her, just as it was unkind to Nick. Howe-Douglas, who plays Fanny, gets to show that she wasn’t always repressed and uptight but mathematically gifted as a young woman and it was the norms of society at the time that would criminally waste that talent.
That all sounds a bit serious though Rickard and Howe-Douglas never forget that it’s meant to entertain. And meanwhile, all of the ghosts revert to childlike behaviour (with Alison as a surrogate mum), giving us humorous vignettes. Pat is obsessed with winning the Christmas quiz, with bizarre and outlandish questions. Kitty is convinced that Nick and hound Rudy are St Nicholas and Rudolph. The Captain is happy to believe in the goodness of a fellow ex-serviceman as long as he’s ex-army. And in a fabulous sub-plot Thomas learns both that you should never look at a present before time but that Julian is right in that there are worse things than telling the truth. The odd ones out are Robin and Mary who indulge our inner 8 year olds by pretending to be solicitors and coming up with odd and childlike reasons about how they are really Button House’s owners. Because Robin is my favourite of the ghosts, I tend to get defensive when he’s portrayed as unsophisticated, but it’s quite a clever approach to have a running joke about the meaning of property rights in an episode that tackles homelessness. Oh, and Humphrey is given a View-Master – definitely a reference for the show’s adult fans.
With series 4 now confirmed as filming in January, we also see that Button House could be used differently. It doesn’t have to be only a home or a hotel – indeed it became a kind of community space in series 3. The space is flexible, and the Ghosts team have shown us that yet again they can be serious, warm and silly all at the same time.
Ghosts is available on iPlayer.