In the penultimate episode of the cult sitcom Spaced, Nick Frost’s character Mike ambushes Tim, played by a bleach blonde Simon Pegg, outside a newsagents. Tim has started ditching him for a new girlfriend and Mike isn’t happy. “We were supposed to go ghost hunting in Highgate Woods last week and you blew me out,” Frost whines. “Where were you?”
Truth Seekers is not, as some might hope, this imaginary deleted scene in full TV show form, here to comfort us through the winter, but it is about ghost hunting. In their new eight-part Amazon Original series, available from October 30, Frost plays Gus Roberts, a curmudgeonly broadband engineer who runs a YouTube channel about paranormal goings-on. He takes new starter Elton (Samson Kayo) out in the van to creepy houses and hotels where the initial mystery to be solved is often just why the internet isn’t working. After the opening few episodes, the show’s Scoobie gang of paranormal investigators includes runaway Astrid (Emma D’Arcy), Elton’s cosplaying YouTuber sister Helen (Susan Wokoma) and no less than Malcolm McDowell as technophobic grump Richard.
Pegg is more of an extended cameo throughout the show. He plays Dave, Gus and Elton’s chipper boss at Smyle, a Sky-style corporation that’s currently working on the big 6G rollout. “Nick is quite Gus-like in real life,” says Pegg. “He’s playing a guy who is obsessed with the minutiae of something that’s effectively fantastical. It’s funny for both of us to be playing these characters that are sort of dads and old men. It really highlights the rampant march of time.”
In fact, ‘Dissolution’, the Spaced episode with the throwaway ghost busting dialogue, aired almost 20 years ago, not long after the real-life ghost hunts in Highgate Wood. In the late 90s, when they weren’t driving around to stand-up comedy gigs, Frost and Pegg invented pseudonyms, drank cider and one night, stumbled across an old, abandoned tube station: “We’d listen to tapes, go get high then creep up to a church door, knock on it and run away crying.”
It’s not all ghosts, though. To source other-worldly material for the show’s monster-of-the-week stories (which I’ll try not to spoil here), Pegg and Frost holed up in a writer’s room, at the London office of their production company Stolen Picture, with co-creators James Serafinowicz and Nat Saunders. “I like the fact these are little mysteries,” says Frost. “I like that in television. Like, someone’s out jogging and they find the Mona Lisa.”
Serafinowicz trawled through his old emails to Frost a few weeks ago, after they were accused of stealing the idea for the show on Twitter. (They didn’t). The two friends started talking about the concept back in 2014, with Frost coming up with the idea of making a “funny X-Files”. First, they needed a good, mundane job that got the characters into lots of different situations. “We kept seeing those Sky vans everywhere,” says Serafinowicz. “We just thought it’d be funny, two guys turning up at a haunted house with a picture of Noel Gallagher or The Simpsons on the side of their van.”
They pitched the show to the BBC around a year later. When the commissioning editor they’d pitched it to left, though, the whole project lost momentum until Frost and Pegg founded Stolen Picture in 2016 and eventually took the show to Amazon. It still has the feel of a BBC show, though. Not the arched eyebrow of a Fleabag but an earnestness which will appeal to fans of both Doctor Who and the Gaiman-Pratchett adaptation Good Omens from Amazon and BBC Studios. There are some knowing jokes but the show itself is sincere and serious about grief, friendship, unconventional beliefs and the power of fandom. The oddball family dynamic combined with mild peril, pop culture quips and Prawn Cocktail crisps makes for satisfying comfort TV.
“At no point did we think we were reinventing the wheel with this show,” says Saunders. “Paranormal investigators are not a new thing but with each type of story or character, we put a lot of effort into finding a new way of telling it.” The BBC aesthetic even extends to the production, a combination of in-camera effects and VFX, and the gizmos scattered about Gus’s living room and stashed in the back of his Smyle van. “We all knew we wanted it to be BBC Radiophonic Workshop style tech,” says Frost, “just stuff that Gus makes himself. I like that the tech is kind of shit. In that, it’s kind of British. It’s not cool, there’s no LEDs on it, it’s like looking into the cockpit of an old Cold War fighter.”
The show also stays fairly true to the original conceit of an eccentric horror-comedy homage to The X-Files, with the writers citing the meta masterpiece ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ (Pegg), iconic monster Tooms (Saunders), black-magic comedy ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’ (Frost) and “the X on the road” in the pilot (Serafinowicz) as favourite episodes and influences from the 90s show. The Japanese horror boom of the late 90s and early 2000s was another reference point; the writers tried to tap into the creepy, unexplainable dread they felt watching films like Pulse, Cure and Ring.
What’s peculiar to Truth Seekers’ paranormal lineage, though, is how very British it is. The four writers poured over a hundred or so copies of the early 1980s collectible magazine The Unexplained, which they bought from Andy Nyman at a charity auction, reading stories about Big Foot and spontaneous human combustion. “They were obviously about UFOs,” says Pegg. “The first issue came with a deck of telepathic playing cards with the squiggly lines and all that stuff. I remember trying to do it with my dad, trying to telepathically communicate.”
Frost, Pegg, Saunders and Serafinowicz studied episodes of the 1980 ITV series Arthur C.Clarke’s Mysterious World and took notes from creepy Reddit threads, Usborne’s World of Unknown Ghosts and ‘the world’s weirdest news’ in the pages of still-in-print British monthly Fortean Times. “During our research we watched a lot of Mysterious World and an old show called Sapphire & Steel,” says Frost. “So I guess it would sit somewhere between those two with a dash of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and a splash of Steptoe and Son for good measure.”
Another mystery turned obsession which made the cut were numbers stations, the shortwave radio stations that are said to have broadcast secret messages via speech synthesis and Morse code between intelligence services since World War I. “Boards of Canada, which is Peter’s [Serafinowicz, James’s brother] and my favourite band, sampled a lot of numbers stations,” says Saunders. “A lot of their music has hidden messages, numerology, hauntology and all the other ‘ologies’.” Serafinowicz remembers listening to numbers stations with Peter and Robert Popper. “I used to sit with Robert and Peter, getting stoned and Robert would go ‘listen to this’. It would just be a woman going ‘One… one … one… one…’ Like what does it mean?”
Samson Kayo, who as Elton initially seems to play something of the skeptic Scully to Gus’ Mulder, turned to old ghost movies from Nigeria to prepare for the spooky shoots. “I watched a lot of Nollywood ghost stories, for the humour alone,” he says. “It was quite low budget; you had people with a bedsheet on, that whole funny, spooky kind of thing. It’s voodoo, we call it, those ghosts and myths. It’s quite outrageous but still really addictive because that’s what I grew up on.”
This isn’t just Pegg and Frost’s first TV project together since Spaced, either. It’s their first narrative TV show, full stop. The original ambitions for an X-Files-style overarching mythology, interspersed with the ghosts of the week tales, were cut back significantly as the show became the final 30 minute Amazon Original. Each episode script was initially 50 pages long and when the Stolen Pictures team handed them in, both the execs at Amazon Studios and the director Jim Field-Smith told them they’d need to trim them down to 26 pages per episode. “Oh god, we had so much mythology,” says Frost. “We had to gut them and tear out a bunch of stuff. We got to a point in the scripts where me and Nat and James would just sit at the table, for about three days, looking silently at the scripts and then I said ‘what are we going to do? How are we going to solve this problem?'”
The upside to this is that Frost and Saunders say they have enough material for a potential Season 2 or even Season 3 of Truth Seekers, if Amazon renews the show. The other knock-on effect is that it allowed the writers to build up several mysteries slowly that won’t be resolved in the first series; one character who turns up in episode five was originally “a massive character”, says Frost.
As reassuring a watch as this is, a few more minutes of runtime per episode wouldn’t go amiss, even ten or 15 minutes extra, to allow for more character-driven downtime in between plot points. The show is trying to do a hell of a lot in each episode and some characters feel slightly more lived-in than others. Through Helen, in particular, the series is able to explore the links between fandom and mental health with sensitivity and wit. Not every single gag lands, either, and Serafinowicz says plenty of jokes were also cut in the big cull with Frost and Kayo’s on-set improv sneaking some back in. Still, Kayo’s charm should win over anyone tempted to switch off because it’s not Simon Pegg by Frost’s side and Frost-as-Gus turning on a torch, peering down some stairs and saying “hello ghosts” is just objectively funny.
Proclaiming Truth Seekers as good comfort TV isn’t an insult. Under stay-at-home orders in April, people in the UK watched an average of 6 hours 45 minutes of TV and online video a day. We’ve all got a lot more TV to watch in 2020 so it’s nothing less than an act of public service. The series works as a sequence of whimsical, family-friendly mysteries for the Doctor Who crowd, a few of the scares and scenes stick with you and the denouement clicks into place nicely. It’s also stacked with references to classic horror and just about every other genre of cinema. “Nat and James are equally, if not more, nerdy than Nick and I so they laced it with cheeky moments,” says Pegg. Look out for nods and riffs on Parallax View, Carnival of Souls, Cypher, David Cronenberg, British anthology horror film Dead of Night, John Carpenter, Studio Ghibli and Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man.
Saunders pushes back against the idea that all horror has to be ‘elevated’ too. “Sometimes you can just tell they’ve ladled the socio-political subtext in,” he says. That said, he has been keeping tabs on the Truth Seekers hashtag on Twitter to track early reviews and reactions to the show: “It’s mostly QAnon types, talking about seeking the truth behind what they perceive to be a lizard government controlling the world. We do touch on that. Obviously it was permeating our brains while we were writing it.”
Spotting all the references, callbacks and connections in a Simon Pegg/Nick Frost movie or TV show feeds a similar, though not identical, impulse to following and decoding ‘real world’ conspiracy theories. The throughline in Truth Seekers is loneliness. “It’s these lonely people finding each other then discovering some lonely ghosts,” says Saunders.
McDowell’s character Richard is partly inspired by Serafinowicz’s 93 year-old grandfather and as well-meaning volunteers ‘befriend’ the shielding over 70s with check-ins and parcels this year, the friendship between Helen and Richard should resonate with a lot of people. “A lot of those things come from me and people I know,” says Frost. “I’m anxious, I’m nervous of things, I’m afraid to go out sometimes.”
During the spring lockdown, alongside making a Shaun of the Dead -themed coronavirus survival skit with Frost and writing lots, Pegg sat down to watch The Shining and Terminators 1 & 2 with his 11-year-old daughter, who had seen the homage to the Kubrick film in Spielberg’s Ready Player One. While Kayo is watching “Friends, start to finish” and Saunders and Serafinowicz have mostly been “burning through” critically acclaimed shows including Watchmen, Pen15, Barry and Giri/Hajj, Frost and his family went in a different direction.
He got through lockdown by watching Storage Wars, Outback Opal Hunters and Bargain-Loving Brits in the Sun. “It’s people who decide to jack it all in and go and live on a campsite in Benidorm,” he says. “It’s just their life; a cat needs rescuing or they’ve found a sofa, it’s beautiful. They’re all so happy, I’m really jealous.” This last show sounds like something Frost has made up but Bargain-Loving Brits in the Sun is real, it’s on Channel 5.
With the trend for rewatching the classics likely to roll through the winter lockdowns (or until the pandemic blows over), Truth Seekers might just satisfy that nostalgia itch while offering something new. That is, if we’re not allowed to go out ghost hunting.
Sophie Charara is an associate editor for WIRED. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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