It’s October, so there are naturally ghosts and ghouls everywhere. But on 19th October, three very special spooks return – as Marley’s Ghosts begins its second series on Gold.
Sarah Alexander returns as Marley – a magistrate haunted by her husband, her lover, and a local vicar, played by John Hannah, Nicholas Burns and Jo Joyner respectively. And following Cariad Lloyd’s cameo in the first series, Jim Howick will be appearing in an episode of the second series.
But is it any good? TVO took a look at the first two episodes of Series 2 to find out. Here’s what our editor, Paul Holmes, made of it…
Where do sitcoms go after they die? For many years, the answer to that could quite easily be UK Gold, which has been providing a second life for the nation’s most loved comedies since 1992. Yet, when the channel was rebranded Gold in 2008, and the repeats of Doctor Who, Planet Earth and Who Do You Think You Are were shunted over to sister channel Watch, there’s been a change afoot within the channel, and now UKTV is one of the best places a sitcom can live.
The shift began when UKTV G2 (a clunky name for a backup channel if ever there was one) became Dave, and began showing a fresher wave of alternative comedy than its more traditional counterpart. Following the runaway success of Dave’s revival of Red Dwarf, the channel has been developing its own original content to such great acclaim that it was only natural the older sibling would want a part of the action.
Thus, the last few years have seen Gold testing out several shows of its own, including sitcom mini-series The Rebel and Bull, and the occasional revival for The Comic Strip Presents team. The closest the channel has come to a bonafide hit, however, and the first to get a full series commission as a result of a taster run, is Marley’s Ghosts – 2015’s highly acclaimed three-parter written by former Comic Strip star Daniel Peacock, featuring Sarah Alexander as a woman haunted by the ghosts of her husband (John Hannah), her lover (TVO’s Nicholas Burns), and the local vicar (Jo Joyner).
With more than four times Gold’s regular audience tuning in for the first episode, it’s no surprise to see the show back for six more, and it would be very easy for the team behind it to rest on their laurels to create more of the same. And, to some extent, there’s an understandable feeling of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ about this sophomore outing, even if there has been a bit of a structural overhaul.
It’s not just a case of slapping a new title sequence on and making the ghostly apparition effects a little swishier whenever one of Marley’s three spooks turns up mid-scene. Writer Daniel Peacock and his cast now know these characters better than before, and having already worked out all the establishing detail they need to make an audience buy into the concept, they can make a clean slate of just producing a funny sitcom instead, utilising the show’s off-kilter premise to craft stories a more traditional concept would never allow for.
With the renewed energy comes new surroundings. Marley starts this series in a brand new home, which does have the downside of the series losing the talents of the brilliant Mina Anwar as now-former neighbour Tina. The change of scenery does, however, give us a whole new set of people to observe Marley’s seemingly baffling habit of talking to thin air (in actually her three troublemaking spirits), including the criminally underrated Elizabeth Berrington (Camping, Psychoville) as new neighbour Jill, and – for you Whovians out there – Anwar’s Sarah Jane Adventures predecessor Juliet Cowan as Marley’s needy sister Aby.
As for the central cast themselves, they remain as flawless as ever. Sarah Alexander – an unsung comedic talent if ever there was one – convincingly handles the kooky misadventures that having, in essence, three imaginary friends can bring upon a person, and is thankfully allowed to be just as funny as her ethereal lodgers. The rivalry between John Hannah’s Adam and Nicholas Burns’ Michael has been toned down this season: they still try to one-up each other, but the end result is less irritating, and more playful than before. And as the Vicar, Jo Joyner is a scene-stealing, sound-effect making, dancing ball of energy it’s hard not to adore.
It’s clear there’s a great affection between the cast off-screen, which makes them a hugely engaging quartet to spend time with, even when some of the situations they find themselves in are down to their own stupidity, or push the boundaries of credibility. A few of these – such as magistrate Marley opening talking to the ghosts in the middle of her courtroom, or clearly flirting with a police sergeant whilst he is giving evidence – push a little too far, reminding you that, for all the good work building a believable world for its characters to inhabit, this is a fanciful sitcom which doesn’t quite feel like reality. That’s a great shame, because the combination of pitch-perfect slapstick, witty dialogue and at times genuine pathos which only a show with this kind of set-up can pull off, manage to combine so beautifully that the occasional logic flaws feel shoehorned in.
For example, in the opening episode Dead Man’s Chest, Michael sees his ex-wife in court and decides to follow her home without telling the others. Adam and the Vicar are understandably curious, and go to great lengths to find out what he keeps in his locked trunk that Marley looks after. Later, Marley is roped in to explain Michael’s feelings for his former love to the woman herself, and the results tie in magnificently with the banter that has been bouncing between the three ghosts throughout the episode. This is hardly a new concept in fiction of any kind, least of all television, but it works brilliantly because, by this point, we care about these characters and enjoy watching them, and to his great credit, Burns plays his conflicted self-torture magnificently.
And yet, the neighbourhood watch sub-plot, in which Marley inevitably makes a prat out of herself publicly because she’s handling three ghosts at the same time as trying to impress, never quite feels like it belongs in the same piece. In part, this is because the watch are such a caricatured bunch of snoopy pensioners (with only one member really characterised as anything other than ‘meat in the room’), that it feels like someone dialled this storyline in from an episode of Keeping up Appearances, and the sequence of events which lead up to her eventual, unavoidable embarrassment feel forced as a result.
There’s an equally strange vibe about a core concept within episode two, Fit, in which Marley’s niece, Mia, is dumped upon her for the night and sneaks out to a club. Marley is mocked, repeatedly throughout the episode, for looking old and unattractive, much as she was at the end of the first series, but one can’t help wonder if this routine would work a lot better with an actress who didn’t look as naturally glamourous as Sarah Alexander!
It must be stressed that these are petty gripes, and episode two is a masterclass of tying up several disparate strands – Marley’s need for acceptance into her community, her relationship with her stroppy niece, Adam & Michael’s girlie night out with ladies who can’t see them, and the Vicar letting her hair down for the first time – into a deliciously well-honed script that is perhaps to be expected from a talent like Peacock. Though, again, there’s an entire sequence in which Marley is allowed to talk to a ghost in her courtroom with reacting beyond looking at her with confusion.
And that’s the rub, really. When the brilliant concept and the sensational cast are fused with a complete jigsaw, the final product is hard not to love. When there’s a piece or two out of place in a scene, and it is often a background character just inhabiting a space rather than reacting to what they’re seeing, then it threatens to pull you out of the illusion.
Make no mistake: this is a great show, nicely shot and lovingly put together, so these irritations can be glossed over, and allowances made for the kinks. But if they were just ironed out a little, we’d have a bonafide classic on our hands. Look past them, and you’ve got a brilliant sitcom here. Fail to switch off the voice in your head telling you this could be tweaked slightly and be much more enjoyable, and you’ll be joining me hoping third time’s the charm for this genuinely fun and witty sitcom, and that there will be plenty more where these came from.