Ghosts have been festive since Ebenezer Scrooge was haunted in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, but the BBC Ghosts Christmas special doesn’t rely on this to provide a wonderfully festive and heart-warming episode.
The show’s last three seasons have followed newly married couple and recent inheritors of Button House, Allison and Mike, as they try to manage the rapidly deteriorating manor all the while haunted by a group of ghosts who have failed to pass on. This year’s Christmas special, entitled ‘He Came!’, sees the ghostly residents and living owners of Button House contend with social issues like poverty and homelessness, with the key message being not to judge a book by its cover.
While the interactions between veteran characters provide plenty of humorous moments, the introduction of new faces offers viewers fresh insights into their favourite characters. Nicholas, an ex-navy man, is found homeless and squatting on the grounds of Button House, causing a stir amongst both the living and the dead. While the Captain and Julian try to convince Georgian ingénue Kitty that, despite his name and faithful dog Ruddy, Nicholas is not Father Christmas, Mike and Allison struggle with how to deal with their unexpected visitor.
Throughout the episode Mike and Allison are torn between their compassion for Nicholas and their distrust of him, and the ghosts themselves express their own opinions on the matter, leading to a surprising revelation about Fanny, previously Lady Button. One of the things Ghosts does brilliantly is combine humour with genuinely moving moments, including the often tragic backstories of the ghosts.
In this episode Fanny’s show of sympathy for Nicholas is followed by a flashback in which we see her own family’s finances fall apart, and her consequent ill-fated engagement to Lord Button. Jennifer Saunders performs admirably in the role of Fanny’s mother, mimicking Fanny’s facial expressions to perfection, but it is Martha Howe-Douglas who shines as she unveils new aspects of Fanny’s character. The generally prudish Lady Button exhibits a proto-feminist progressiveness in her eagerness to reduce her father’s financial difficulties with her mathematical acumen, instead of through an advantageous marriage. This makes the circumstances of her death, revealed in the first season, all the more heart-breaking and encourages a new appreciation for the character. Despite a series of misunderstandings, the episode ends with the wholesome resolution between Nicholas and Mike and Allison, and a Christmas dinner for the local homeless centre at Button House. Even self-interested and disgraced Tory politician Julian gives into the festive spirit, assuring Kitty that yes, Santa does always come.
Despite the important issues the episode addresses, it never feels too dark and retains its festive spirit. Long-standing gags and innuendos continue to elicit laughs, but the writing remains fresh and offers new opportunities for comedy. The newly formed alliance between caveman Robin and witch-trial victim Mary is refreshing and a source of multiple laughs throughout the episode as they present Allison with increasingly ridiculous offers in amateur legal proceedings for ownership of Button House. Scout leader Pat’s Christmas quiz similarly evokes laughs just when things are taking a darker turn and leaves us frustrated but ultimately eager for the next season of Ghosts when he just falls short of revealing the Captain’s name.
The Captain himself delivers his usual dose of deadpan wit, illustrating what makes the show so effective, humour which can only be described as very astute and very British. The normally uptight and war-obsessed Captain trying to convince Kitty that Nicholas is, in fact, one of Santa’s elves on a reconnaissance mission, is a welcome nod to his more sentimental and caring side. Regency dandy Thomas provides a standout moment in his hyperbolic reaction to an, admittedly awful, portrait of himself painted by his beloved Allison, which nevertheless reinforces the principal theme of the episode: not to judge too quickly.
The episode offers a brief escape from the anxieties of Covid-19, yet still manages to address important issues in a moving and cheerful way. While it may not be as original or packed with laugh-out-loud moments as previous instalments, its poignant subject matter and seasonal message of goodwill to all ensures that, as Dickens had hoped for his own ‘ghostly little book’, the Ghosts Christmas special will ‘haunt the house pleasantly’ this season.
Image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash