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I TALK TO Kiell Smith-Bynoe

"I think we've done a really good job of having that dark undertone in a comedy show."

In recent years, Kiell Smith-Bynoe has become one of the most recognisable actors on British television, thanks largely to starring in hugely popular shows such as Ghosts, Stath Lets Flats and currently Taskmaster.

His latest, Dreamland, sees him star alongside Freema Agyeman and Lily Allen in Sky Atlantic's darkly comedic exploration of multi-generational female relationships and their (somewhat dysfunctional) family dynamics.

Kiell plays Spence, husband to the eldest sister of four, Trish, who is pregnant for the third time and this time she's decided it will be a girl. Her two sisters Clare and Leila played by Gabby Best and Aimee-Ffion Edwards, rally around her with their mum, played by Frances Barber and their Margate-legend nan, played by Sheila Reid, “manifesting” a little girl at Trish’s ‘mani-festival’.

But when their other sister, Mel, played by Lily Allen, makes an unexpected reappearance back into their lives, her return threatens to destabilise the entire family. A knock on their door and their ‘Dreamland’ is no more...

Earlier this week, I caught up with Kiell Smith-Bynoe to talk about filming in Margate, working with Freema Agyeman and Lily Allen, keeping the fact he was doing Taskmaster a secret for almost a year as well as what Ghosts fans can expect from what we now know will be the fifth and final series.

First of all, when do you rest? Because you seem to be in every hit show on television at the moment.

It's an optical illusion. I actually do one job a year and make it look like it's all at the same time. I remember the times when I used to work in a call centre and wished that I would get a chance to leave and do some acting.

You're supposed to be grateful for these things aren't you? And I am. I am. But do you know what I love even more than working loads? Sitting down. I would like to sit down for an extended amount of time. I'm planning to do that quite soon.

But it's also quite good to have things come out all at the same time.

Let's start with Dreamland. How would you best describe the show?

It's like a really good soap. It's got drama, laughter, shock, scandal - all of that. And I think it's been really well written, really well put together, fantastic cast. It's quite difficult to talk about the plot without spoiling the story.

That's very true. And we'll get to that. First though, who is Spence and where does he fit into the story?

Spence is the husband of the eldest sister, Trish, played by Freema (Agyeman) and they've been together for about 12 years and they're expecting their third child. She's hoping for a girl after having two boys.

So that's where we find them, and then when Trish's sister Mel comes back unexpectedly and it throws everyone. No one was expecting her to come back. Especially Trish as her and Mel haven't really seen each other in the past few years or got on.

Before Mel's arrival, what's Spence and Trish's relationship like?

I think it's great. We did work off camera to talk about dates and stuff and work out when they would have got together, how long they've been together and what their relationship is like.

We wanted to make sure that they were a really strong couple, who had never really had any faults, really loved each other, wanted to raise a family and were really happy together. I hope we've shown that.

Definitely. Had you met Freema Agyeman before working together?

No, I hadn't. I knew of her work of course because she's been all over our screens for ages. But I had never met her or worked with her, so when I found out who was playing Trish, we spoke on the phone, for ages actually, just to get to know each other without realising that we had a lot of mutual friends and things in common.

Similarly with Lily (Allen). Of course, I knew of her, but I'd never met her. We all met each other for the first time at the read-through.

This is Lily Allen's TV acting debut. What was she like to work with?

It was great. Really great! As a person, she's really funny, which I didn't know or expect. With people who have been in the spotlight for such a long time, everyone wants to know what they're like, but the only thing that I can say really is that she's really silly. Which is very nice to have on set. Especially if you're doing a drama-based project. It's really great to have silly people involved.

You mention drama-based because Dreamland is definitely a comedy, but there's also a lot of drama. This appears to be a growing trend, doesn't it?

Yeah, definitely. There are a lot of British shows that are leaning towards comedy-drama now and sometimes I do think it's for the wrong reasons. For example, find a dark subject and make light of it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes it works really well like Big Boys which is able to find the light in a really dark matter. But it can also be done badly and I think we've - and I might be biased because I'm involved - but I think we've done a really good job of having that dark undertone in a comedy show.

That's why I reference soaps because you get so many twists and turns in one episode of a soap and I think the same thing happens here. In every episode, you find out about another scandal, another family shock. Something else to open your mouth wide about.

And this is the first time you've played a father on screen, right?

Yes, it is. It was really interesting actually because there weren't many scenes with just me and the kids. There's one where I take them to football, which is a really brief scene, but there isn't much of just me and the kids.

I guess that would have made it slightly different if in this show you watched me be a dad. But there wasn't too much of that, it was referenced. Which you still have to do your research for. You still need to know what it's like to actually be the guardian of someone you gave life to.

I guess also, I'm just getting to that age now.

Would you say this is the most dramatic role you've had to date?

I think it is, actually. Although fortunately, I was able to play a dramatic role in a comedy before in Man Like Mobeen. Which is something that I've wanted to do more of, so fortunately when this came around it wasn't my first time.

Although in Man Like Mobeen I was the antagonist, so there wasn't too much light and shade in that. My character was just an angry man. Whereas in Dreamland, you get to see more dimensions, I guess, and I get to play with variety and range. Hopefully, there are many more dramatic roles to come. And hopefully more of Dreamland as well.

There's a big twist that happens in the series. How do you think people will respond to it?

I think good people can make bad decisions and this is an example of that. I hope that there will be a split in the way that people see his actions. I hope it's not everyone against Spence. Hopefully, there's some sort of empathy or sympathy there. But also, I can understand if there isn't. Maybe people will relate to this story in their real lives in some way.

It'll be really interesting to see the response and hopefully, people will be vocal about it, because I'm sort of on the fence myself.

What was your reaction when you first found out?

I was shocked! Of course. But also, having seen the pilot, the short, I sort of knew where the story was heading. Which meant I had a bit of a cheat code in that respect.

Margate plays a massive part in this show. What was it like to film there?

I was there for three weeks. All the fish and chips I could have, stuffing my face every day, it was great. It's very nice to be in a seaside town actually and see the sea at the end of your working day. We'd all go out to eat and see the sights and get on the bumper cars. Fighting seagulls together as a family. It was really enjoyable and we'd love to do more.

So you'd be up for another series of Dreamland?

Yeah. For sure. I'd love to see where the story goes and what happens next. Where we find these characters in a year, for example. I think there are so many individual stories within the cast. There's a main cast of... seven, I wanna say... and everyone has their own storyline so there's plenty of room for it to keep going.

Let's talk about Taskmaster then. You're on the latest series. How long did you have to keep that a secret?

A long time! I got that email over a year ago. It was in January 2022 that I found out I was going to be part of that. I then had to keep it secret until it was announced on the 3rd of December. If anything, I should win extra points for keeping it a secret.

I'm sure everyone says the same thing, but it genuinely was the most fun I've ever had. You kind of forget that you're doing it for television. I'm very competitive. So the idea of having to do this against other people, be quicker than somebody else, or better than someone else, sort of took out the entertainment aspect on my part. Hopefully, people still find it entertaining, but it is scary to show my competitive side.

Your Ghosts co-star Charlotte Ritchie also did Taskmaster. She finished last in her series, so are you hoping to better that?

She came last?! That's tough. The thing is, I know that she doesn't care about winning. She went to enjoy herself and have fun and enjoy taking part. There's NO part of me that's interested in taking part. I want to win. That's what I was there for and unfortunately, that might show.

There's always a contestant in a great outfit. This series, it's you. How did you settle on yours?

I knew it was going to have to be some sort of all-in-one. I didn't want to do anything that had been done before. Mawaan (Rizwan) had the astronaut suit, Dara O'Briain had that boiler suit and a lot of people had done overalls, so I wanted my own take on it.

I didn't know exactly what it was going to be, but then I found this go-kart suit. And as soon as I saw that, I knew that that was right. There was a bit of deliberation about the colour scheme and then I ended up with all red and customised it with the patches.

We've only seen one episode so far. The standout task has to be the barge. How did you find that? Because you made it look easy.

I think it was insane that we were even allowed to do that. There was a guy on the barge with us who gave us a 15-minute intensive course. A crash course, if you will. Some people took that literally and crashed the barge into the wall numerous times. I think I only crashed once, which is a personal best.

Anything you can tease about the rest of the series?

I have seen comments and responses on Twitter about my performance. Saying that they can't believe how much I'm like Mike. And I think as the series goes on, you'll see how I'm much more like Dean (who Kiell plays in Stath Lets Flats).

You mentioned Mike so we have to talk about Ghosts. Sad news broke last week that series five will be its last. How are you feeling?

All good things must come to an end and it's done very well so far and we want to go out on a high. You want to leave people wanting more, rather than getting bored of it. Also, you want to have ownership over ending a story. For something that's been going on for so long, you don't want to be told by the channel that you can't do any more before you've written the end, for example. And I'm sure those are all the things that the writers thought about.

I think it was the right decision. Of course, it's sad and I'll definitely miss that cold old house, but I think it's a good decision. Also, I know that whatever they do next, will be incredible. And who knows, even if it's not Ghosts as we know it, maybe in the future we'll get to see a story from the past that we never got to see. Or a spin-off. Something like that. And all of those doors are open so fingers crossed.

Could you ever have imagined how big the show was going to get?

I had no idea. I knew that the work that this team had done before had been really successful, but I had no idea that it would be to this amount. For it to be an international success. I'm just really happy to have been a part of it. The American version will probably go on for twenty years and all of them will be gazillionaires!

Is there anything at all that you can say about the series coming to an end?

Everyone's going to cry.

Red Flag, your brilliant Channel 4 short which came out last year, any plans to make more of that?

I've got loads of plans to make more of that, but I don't know if the channel does. Stevie (Martin) and I were talking the other day because she wrote the wobbly table sketch - which is one of my favourites - and we were talking about the idea of doing more. We're just waiting to hear what they (Channel 4) say, and if not I'll just go to the park and film it on my Blackberry.

There still doesn't seem to be a lot of sketch on television, does there?

No. And I don't know why, because I think they're great. I guess maybe it's a budget thing. But hopefully, we start to see a renaissance.

Well, Jamie Demetriou seems to have made it work on Netflix with A Whole Lifetime.

Yes! I'm in that and I think it's a great example of how good sketch can be. Hopefully, someone lets us make more.

Speaking of Jamie Demetriou, Stath Lets Flats came back briefly for Red Nose Day. No Dean though. Where were you?

I wasn't allowed to do it! I didn't get the time off Ghosts, we were filming. I actually think we were filming the Ghosts Comic Relief sketch the same day.

That's a pretty good reason to be fair. What was that sketch like to film, working with Kylie Minogue?

It was good. She was really enthusiastic! She loved it. She was a big fan of the show and I guess I thought that anyone who turns up will say that they were a fan, but she was referencing specific moments in the show. So I was like, oh, she's really done her research. Either that or someone else has done the research for her.

It's rare to chat with someone about so many projects, but is there anything we've missed? What's next for you?

Sitting down. I want to sit down in as many countries as I can. That's my plan for the rest of the summer. Maybe there'll be little bits here and there. I'm still working on my own projects. We've just finished two weeks writing String V SPITTA for TV (Kiell and Ed MacArthur's brilliant live musical comedy). So hopefully bring that back and shoot the TV version in 2039, or however long it takes to get shows made.

Is there anything left that you haven't done yet, but really want to?

Period drama. So if you could make that happen... I'm leaving it with you.

Dreamland starts Thursday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and Taskmaster continues Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4


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