‘Ghost stories are essentially optimistic’: Mark Gatiss leads a spooky on-air Christmas

League of Gentlemen star’s two programmes are part of a rich seam of shows about the supernatural this year

Mark Gatiss and Rev Richard Coles making Hunting Ghosts for Radio 4 in Coles’s old parish in Northamptonshire.

Mark Gatiss and Rev Richard Coles making Hunting Ghosts for Radio 4 in Coles’s old parish in Northamptonshire. Photograph: Simon Barnard

Mark Gatiss and Rev Richard Coles making Hunting Ghosts for Radio 4 in Coles’s old parish in Northamptonshire. Photograph: Simon Barnard

This year’s Christmas TV and radio schedules feature more spooky and supernatural content than before the pandemic, reflecting a hunger for answers during uncertain times or grief for loved ones.

That’s according to Sherlock and League of Gentlemen writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who will be appearing in two ghostly programmes over the Christmas period.

In 2019 Christmas content was mostly straightforward light entertainment shows such as Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas on BBC One, with a nod to ghosts on the main channels mostly via versions of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.

BBC One’s Ghosts Christmas special
BBC One’s Ghosts Christmas special. Photograph: Guido Mandozzi/BBC

But this December on BBC One, for the first time the festive special of hit comedy Ghosts will be shown on Christmas Day, while over on ITV1 Ant and Dec are going ghostbusting in Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway Presents: Polter Guys.

Meanwhile, Netflix will be premiering the prequel to its popular supernatural series The Witcher and BBC Four is showing Gatiss’s Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story.

In addition, on Christmas Eve BBC Radio 4 is airing Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and the Rev Richard Coles and this week has broadcast a Christmas special of Danny Robins’ popular ghost podcast Uncanny.

Other shows include Jason Watkins in A Ghost Story For Christmas: Count Magnus on BBC Two, and this month Netflix is airing the new animation Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, starring Luke Evans and Olivia Colman, while the BBC World Service is running an adaptation of Susan Cooper’s Christmas novel about primeval forces, The Dark Is Rising.

Despite this being a bleak midwinter due to strikes, the cost of living crisis and people still processing the pandemic, ghost stories were often popular, Gatiss said, as “they are essentially optimistic, because it means there’s more to life … there’s more to it than dreamt of in our philosophy”.

In Hunting Ghosts he and Coles visit Coles’s old haunted parish of Finedon in Northamptonshire and discuss the paranormal, life and grief.

Gatiss said Christmas was often harder for people who had experienced loss, as it represented a milestone and harked back to the past and happier times: “There’s a reason that doesn’t happen in the summer holidays, even though we probably have very strong childhood memories of that.

“Christmas is such a bright spot for all of us who are lucky enough to have a fairly happy childhood; it was literally a light in the darkness of winter … so inevitably that’s when you remember those you’ve lost, what they used to represent and all that tradition.”

That sense of loss is reflected in the Christmas episode of Ghosts: amid the usual spectral comedy antics the episode features one of the characters looking back at past Christmases with their family.

The paranormal expert Prof Chris French, the head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of the forthcoming book The Science of Weird Shit, said there had been a tradition going back centuries of telling ghost stories at Christmas, as the nights were longer and “pre-electricity there wasn’t a lot else to do”.

“This time of year, interest in the paranormal tends to increase, particularly during times of uncertainty. Covid is still going on and … many people lost someone or knew someone who came close to dying. Also at Christmas we do tend to look back … and we look to traditions.”

He said it had been “a good year for ghosts, mostly due to Danny Robins [who has had success with the podcast The Battersea Poltergeist and stage play 2:22 A Ghost Story] and a lot of successful TV, radio and theatre”, so the subject was on commissioners’ minds.

French added: “There will be lots of people who’ve lost loved ones, and when it’s the first Christmas or first birthday your thoughts do turn to people you’ve lost and one part of that is the notion of what happens when we die.

“We tend to have ghost stories that are associated with Christmas [such as A Christmas Carol] and which are quite scary, but when it comes to grief and loss … in some vague sense people find that comforting, rather than scary.”

  • Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and Coles is on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Eve, repeated on Christmas Day then on BBC Sounds

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