“It’s a suburban ghostbusters!” Richard McDowell laughs as we discuss his new TV series Truth Seekers. “Make of that what you will. That’s what makes it unique. There’s no show on television like this, that’s even close to this. There’s lots of wonderful things in it.”
Truth Seekers follows the story of Gus (Nick Frost) – an internet installer and part-time host of a ghost hunting web series – who forms a ragtag bunch of paranormal investigators to search out the unexplainable. Creating the series as well as starring in it, there was something about exploring beliefs of the afterlife that interested to him.
“I think we’re all terrified of fucking dying and then that’s it, there’s nothing else,” says Frost. “I think it’s just a way to cling on to there being a way to extend… us. It would be nice to think that. I’m an atheist, but honestly what do I know? I don’t know what happens afterwards. I kind of feel in the west, we’re always surprised when people die and we shouldn’t be, because it is inevitable. I think we should be better at it. Better at not being surprised by it. You can’t help it. If there’s another place when you die where you see all your relatives… my dad got remarried after my mum died so that’s going to be really fucking awkward. Will they all be together? Will there be two dads? [haha].”
Though he may seem positive on the outside, Gus is still reeling from the death of his wife under mysterious circumstances; an event that propels his search for signs of the afterlife. That search is soon kicked into overdrive after he meets new co-worker Elton (Samson Kayo) and strange things start happening around them.
Soon they bump into a potential possession victim, Astrid (Emma D’Arcy) who has a very complicated relationship with her late mother… and that’s not the only complicated familial relationship in Truth Seekers, either. The trio is also joined by Elton’s agoraphobic sister Helen (Susan Wokoma) and (reluctantly), Richard (Malcolm McDowell), who Gus calls dad but who is, in fact, his deceased wife’s father.
Indeed, Truth Seekers, not only delves into the supernatural, it focuses on the relationships between our ghostbusting group as well as each characters’ unique story. So it’s no surprise the series started with the idea of just one character…
“Me and [co-creator] James Serafinowicz really came up with the idea of Gus originally,” says Nick. “Over the course of a couple of years, batting it back and forth, we found this guy [who] was kind of funny, a bit sad and driven by demons… literally. He was a lone wolf, he was a bit moody and belligerent and cynical which is kind of weird for someone who believes in ghosts. It just stuck with us and we started to come up with storylines and me and Simon [Pegg] and James and Nat [Saunders] – we’d always been a fan of horror, mystery, ghosts, aliens and conspiracy theories and haunted dolls. So that was our language.”
A comedy-horror is right in Frost’s wheelhouse, writing the much-celebrated Cornetto Trilogy (comprising Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and World’s End) along with Simon Pegg. In fact, Truth Seekers heralds the return of his horror-comedy partner for the first time in almost ten years (their last collaboration was on Paul). “Unfortunately we have a life outside of what we do for a job,” Frost laughs when asked why it’s been so long since they have collaborated. “I think we’re both really aware that we enjoy what we do when we do it, in terms of us as a pair. Feeling that expectation of people… I guess it’d sully it by just pumping out some shit every year! If we do something, I want it to feel like it’s something we’d do and it’s fun and we’re enjoying it and you’re enjoying being with us.
“If we can’t find that thing organically then we’re not going to force it because we’ve got so much else on. I think we’re in a very lucky position [that] our characters have aged as we have, and the people who watch us have aged with us. I’m happy with that. If we didn’t do another thing together for another ten years, I’d be happy with that too.”
Pegg plays the mysteriously overly upbeat Dave, Gus’ boss at Smyle – a new internet provider that promises to get a signal anywhere. When Dave forces a new partnership with Elton on him, Gus’ reluctancy soon turns into a positive as he realises Elton’s a supernatural magnet and convinces him to join him on his paranormal quest, even though Elton is clearly (and understandably) afraid.
“We started to put stories around Gus and he meets this guy, Elton, and there was a nice natural growth to it – one’s a cynic and one’s afraid, that’s kind of a natural creation of these two guys that they’re polar opposites,” Frost explains. “Gus is driven by grief and wanting to ask a question that he knows he will never find an answer to!”
Gus is the host of his own paranormal web series named, appropriately, ‘Truth Seeker’ and he’s keen to show the world proof that there is life after death. “The internet’s so full of amazing shit in a good way,” Frost laughs. “We were always down some rabbit hole where we were watching an exorcism in the Ukraine, you know, and for every ten we’d watch, there was one that we’d send each other that genuinely seemed: “Er… I dunno that kinda seems fucking real!” It was those moments, it was that one clip of a door shutting in a school in Cork at night or something fucking moving, that’s where Truth Seekers was born.”
For Gus and Elton, what first starts as a part-time poltergeist search soon becomes something much bigger, forcing our ghostbusting gang to look much deeper within themselves and face past traumas – Gus is still grieving for his late wife, Helen is frequently struck with anxiety, Richard is lonely, Astrid keeps having flashbacks to a horrific memory that involves her mother and Elton is suffering from a secret childhood trauma.
“I think [the show is] very beneficial just in terms of people who are also suffering from similar sorts of traumas to understand that they’re not alone,” says Kayo. “And you can free yourself from those shackles and be able to not just cope but overcome that trauma through unlikely pairings. Which is this case. I think it’s a very sensitive subject but also it’s very touching.”
“Even though [Gus] is a ghost hunter, he’s also sad and a bit lonely and grief-struck and he’s happy too at times and he gets hungry and frightened and horny,” Frost explains. “If you can write a character that’s all of those things, then the audience feels like you’re talking to them directly. If they can laugh with you then they’ll be frightened with you too and I think that heightens the comedy and the horror side. We want people to be with us. Like the X-Files, I was with Mulder and Scully. I wasn’t looking from the outside, I believed those characters. I believed Mulder’s pain that his sister was gone. He was a human being.”
“Of course all the characters are screwed up in their way,” adds Malcolm McDowell who plays Gus’ father in law Richard. “Especially Richard who’s this lonely guy. And I think that that’s a universal problem. That people get to a certain age and their spouses are gone and their kids have gone and they’re sort of alone in the house that they shared with everyone. So there’s a lot of aspects to it which I liked. The character was fun, he’s a lovely old bugger.”
Though Richard is cynical of Gus’ supernatural exploits he soon becomes curious and becomes unwittingly part of a nefarious supernatural event himself: “If you’re stuck at home flipping around [the TV] channels and looking at stuff, of course he [gets] very curious as to what’s going on with Gus!” McDowell laughs. “It’s perfect because he’s such a cynic. I mean it’s great stuff, it provides a lot of comedy!”
Though not a dab hand at technology in the slightest, Richard also becomes curious with Gus’ internet show and with technology in general, teaming up with YouTuber Helen to take on the ghoulies from the world wide web: “People of my generation, it’s all new stuff. I mean I’ve [only just] learnt things with the bloody iPhone,” McDowell laughs. “I love the way he goes “oh you can get on the internet with this [phone]?” He hasn’t got a clue. I love all that, it’s fun stuff, it’s generational. People can really relate to that because it’s real. That’s what I love about it. There’s a terrific realism about it but it’s also funny.”
The team-up between Richard and Helen is unlikely but sweet – they couldn’t be more different but there’s a connection there: “Susan’s a wonderful actress and when you get somebody who’s good to work with, you don’t know what’s going to happen but you know it’s going to be good,” McDowell says. “She’s fabulous and so when we’re together we had a lot of fun doing it. It was nice to just have a relationship with none of the strings attached, just friends and just something they have in common. That they can actually relate to each other. Weirdly it’s a very pure relationship, it’s a beautiful relationship. She’s also of course isolated, alone. She has all these phobias. He’s obviously alone too. So when they meet up it’s rather nice.”
Though this is a horror-comedy about ghost hunting, Frost made sure that Gus and the gang never came across as people to be laughed at, rather people to laugh with. “I never want to write a comedy where someone feels victimised or there’s a group of ghost hunters at home thinking ‘why are they laughing at me?’” he tells us. “Despite me not knowing what comes next, anyone who goes to search for the Loch Ness monster, good on you if that’s your passion. A passion for anything is beautiful, I think.”
Gus’ ghost hunting passion takes him and the group to some seriously dark places during their investigations including a creepy cottage, a haunted hotel and an old school… “The shut school for the deaf children was kind of creepy, the old abandoned hospital, they’re always creepy,” Frost shudders, remembering some of the eerie places where they filmed the series. “They feel creepier to me than graveyards because graveyards you’re already dead when they put you there. You wouldn’t haunt a graveyard, you’d haunt the place where you died, not the place where you rest. That’s my weird fucked up thing!”
Now that Truth Seekers is out for the world to see what will we be seeing next from Frost? Perhaps another horror-comedy? “I always try and keep it fresh, I’m not someone who looks back at my stuff and dwells there and lives in that,” he tells us. “I like to believe and hope that my best stuff is yet to come. I’m always searching for that. I love being with Simon and I like writing comedy, I like to be afraid and that’s just kind of what we do. Maybe we should write a fucking western [next] or something that’s completely out of our comfort zone!”
As for McDowell, he hopes what’s next is more Truth Seekers and more from Richard: “It’s a beautiful show. It’s something I’m very very proud of, and even if we stop now, I would still say how much I loved this show. I’m lucky they wrote me a terrific part, they gave me some great one-liners which was nice,” says McDowell. “He’s a really lovely character to play and I can’t wait to play him again on the next series – if there is one – who knows?”
Truth Seekers launches on Prime Video on Friday 30 October.