Queen of comedy Charlotte Ritchie on Ghosts: ‘It’s loving, uncynical – and people fall over’

Charlotte Ritchie is video calling from her London flat, which she has shared with two friends for the past seven years. “How do I do this? Do I need to quit WhatsApp? ok! I’m here! I’m really sorry, I got my timings wrong," lei dice, mildly flustered, having arrived barely a couple of minutes late. “I was very lazily putting on lunch, and then I thought it was later and … my bad.”

We only talk for an hour but it’s easy to see why her character George was adorned with a series of silly, effusive nicknames in the British comedy drama Feel Good: English rose; a little kidney bean; a Dangerous Mary Poppins. “The fit squirrel reference is good,” she adds. “And Dangerous Mary Poppins, I love that one!"

She is here to talk about the return of Ghosts, the much-loved BBC comedy written by the Horrible Histories crew, about to start its third series. Ritchie plays Alison, a young woman who inherits a massive mansion that is haunted by a number of spooks and spirits dating back to the stone age. Only she can see and talk to them. Its humour is as sharp as it is broad, and it has proved hugely popular. Ritchie describes it as “really uncynical and very loving. If there isn’t something you like in the first minute, then there will definitely be something for you in the next three minutes. If you don’t like a bit of wordplay, then someone will fall over.” I ask who her favourite ghost is. “Politically, I can’t say,” she insists, firmly. “I am very fair about the group. But I do feel like Lolly [Adefope, who plays Kitty] is often on fire.”

Ghosts is a perfect ensemble comedy, which suits Ritchie down to the ground. “I’m sure it’s great and very satisfying to be a lone ranger, heading up something, but I’ve always worked best with other people," lei dice. It was an earlier ensemble comedy, Fresh Meat, that made her name. Before that, she had been in a four-piece vocal group called All Angels, who toured the country performing classical music to massive audiences. “The image of the group felt very separate from the experience of the group," lei dice. “And I think that was a hard thing to bridge for me. I have to be careful what I say, because I don’t want to be rude about it. Maybe it’s not to my taste now? But it was an amazing experience. I did that for four or five years.”

Nel 2011, Ritchie was in her final year at Bristol University, where she studied English and drama, when she auditioned for Fresh Meat, a series about a student houseshare. She went on a Monday to read for the part of Oregon, a poster-girl for student-activist pretension; she got the job that day, packed up her house in Bristol and moved to Manchester to start work the next morning. The cast have been in touch with each other a lot recently. “We had a 10-year anniversary. I think it was May when we joined the show. ‘We’ as in the cast, not ‘we’ as in me," lei ride. “‘One’s show.’ Me, myself. Anyway, I watched some of them back, and I can’t believe I got to be part of that.”

I also watched some old clips for the first time in years recently, and I got far more of a twinge of recognition from Oregon than I had at the time. “This is what I’ve realised!” says Ritchie. “Now that I’m 10 years older, I can see how Oregon I was at the time. I’m amazed that I’ve only just begun to realise how much like Oregon I was.”

Fresh Meat was a hit, and the previously unknown members of the cast suddenly found themselves being recognised. Ritchie still remembers the road she was on in Bristol when she was spotted for the first time. She had just bought some new leggings. “And I was like, ‘Fuck! They’re laughing at my leggings. I hate the pattern, obviously they hate the pattern, too.’ It sends you right back to being 14 and somebody whispering about you in the classroom.” What did these leggings look like? “They were furry inside, with a Christmassy pattern.” Was it Christmas? "No! It was March.”

After the Fresh Meat students graduated, Ritchie moved to Sunday night, primetime BBC, joining Call the Midwife nel 2015, where she played the beloved Nurse Barbara. It was a shift from Channel 4 to BBC One, from comedy to drama. “Totally different. Although there are comedic bits in it, it was definitely a conscious decision to do something that had more drama. I remember saying to my mum while we were watching it, ‘I’d love to do a show like that.’”

After three series, anche se, she found she was starting to miss comedy. “And I felt like maybe I was just getting a little comfy, and that’s probably not great. I wasn’t ready to get comfy yet. But it wasn’t an easy decision.” A nation wept when Nurse Barbara succumbed to septicaemia while her husband Tom and Nurse Crane kept vigil at her bedside. “It was the first time I’ve died in anything,” Ritchie says. “It felt very morbid. It’s weird to perform or act something that is really real for people. There were a couple of directions where it was just, ‘Lie in bed and think about the fact that your life is coming to an end.’ I mean, that’s a good exercise in general. I have grown up feeling like I don’t have a very good outlet for talking about death, or it being part of our culture at all.”

There’s plenty of dealing with death in Ghosts, and there’s a similar spirit of openness in Feel Good, pure. The second season was released to much fanfare earlier this year and earned a devoted audience who found a deep connection with its central themes. The programme touches on addiction, grief, PTSD and codependency yet still manages to be extremely funny. “That’s what I love most about the show, the intelligence and the empathy, as much as the honesty,” says Ritchie, directing all credit to the writing by Mae Martin and their co-writer, Joe Hampson.

Martin’s mother in the series was played by Lisa Kudrow. “Lisa is just the best. She was really funny, really cool, really low-key in a way that I guess I didn’t think she would be, because I have this impression of famous Americans, piace, having an entourage. I get an impression from Mae that Lisa is really invested in the show, and that’s amazing, because she could pick and choose what she wants to do.”

At first, Ritchie says, she didn’t feel she should mention Friends. “I didn’t want her to think that was all we cared about. But obviously she knows we’ve all seen it, and it’s a big part of her life. So we did end up talking a bit about it. The thing I found so weird is that she hasn’t seen every episode of Friends, whereas I know them really well. So it’s quite strange that we might know her show better than she does.”

Ritchie and Martin lived together in a bubble while filming the series. Given the emotional intensity of Feel Good, how was it to be in each other’s company 24/7? “The bottom line is that we get on really well. We have known each other now for quite a long time.” The two met at the Edinburgh fringe, anni fa. “And it’s just really easy to hang out with Mae. We’re interested in the same stuff and we like the same dumb TV shows. And by the time you’ve finished a day, you just sit and watch something bad, piace Below Deck, and then go to bed.”

On the subject of dumb TV shows, Ritchie competed on the latest series of the brilliant Taskmaster. She was a fan, and jumped at the chance when they asked her to do it. “I loved the stuff that was like, ‘You have to get a banana into a frozen thing of jelly covered in Vaseline,’” she says. But she won’t be back, as only champions get to return. “And I was amazingly last," lei dice. “You have to realise that early on, and do it in style.”

She can’t talk about what she has on next – she is in rehearsals for something secret, “but not like a big new Hollywood film or anything”, and then she’s going to see where the year takes her. Will she do more comedy, or more drama? “I wish I could come out with a really offensive statement,” she sighs. “‘I hate comedy, and I never want to do one again.’ But I hope, for ever, a mix.”

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