They’ve fought zombies, befriended an alien, and brought Die Hard-style action to a sleepy English village. Now, in new Amazon Prime Video comedy series Truth Seekers, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are exploring the paranormal, and it seems the duo are just as excited about their reunion as their fanbase.
“We’re both really aware that we enjoy what we do when we do it as a pair, and we feel the expectation of that,” Frost tells us. “If we do something I want it to feel like it’s fun and we’re enjoying it, and you’re enjoying being with us. But if we can’t find that thing organically then we’re not going to force it.
“I think we’re in a very lucky position,” he adds. “Our characters have aged as we have and the people who watch us have aged with us. I’m happy with that. It’s interesting to see how the characters change as we change as people, as humans and men, and fathers and husbands.”
While Frost and Pegg both star in Truth Seekers (as well as being co-creators and co-writers on the show), the latest release from their new production company, Stolen Picture, keeps the famous double act apart for most of its eight-episode run. Playing broadband installer and part-time paranormal investigator Gus Roberts, Frost is very much the lead, while Pegg is the supporting player as his boss, Dave.
Still grieving the death of his wife, Emily, Gus is brilliant at both his job and his hobby – even though his Truth Seeker YouTube channel isn’t getting quite as many hits as he’d like – and the show is careful not to make fun of his unusual pastime.
“I never want to write a comedy where someone feels victimized or have a group of ghost hunters at home thinking, ‘Why are they laughing at me?’” says Frost. “Anyone who goes to search for the Loch Ness Monster, good on you – a passion for anything is beautiful.
“James Serafinowicz [Truth Seekers co-creator and younger brother of regular Pegg/Frost collaborator Peter] and me came up with the idea of Gus,” Frost continues. “Over the course of a couple of years, batting it back and forth, we found that this guy was kind of funny, a bit sad and driven by demons – literally.
“He was a lone wolf, a bit moody and belligerent and cynical, which is kind of weird for someone who believes in ghosts. Then we started to come up with storylines. Me and Simon and James and Nat [Saunders, the fourth member of the show’s creative quartet] had always been fans of horror and mystery, ghosts and aliens, and conspiracy theories and haunted dolls. That was our language, and we started to put stories around Gus.”
Back in the ‘90s, before their Channel 4 sitcom Spaced became a cult hit, then-flatmates Pegg and Frost watched loads of videos of The X-Files, at the time one of the biggest TV shows on the planet. They also visited cemeteries to embark on pretend ghost hunts. Both things fed into the DNA of Truth Seekers – even if their paranormal investigations had more impact on an earlier collaboration than this particular project.
“I think our characters in Paul came from what we did in those cemeteries more than Gus Roberts in Truth Seekers,” explains Frost. “I think what me and Simon did [with the ghost hunts] was about wanting to feel afraid. Gus is more driven by grief and wanting to ask a question that he knows he will never find the answer to. The internet is so full of amazing shit – in a good way – and as a group, we were always going down some rabbit hole where we're watching some exorcism in the Ukraine. For every 10 videos we watched and laughed at, there was one we'd send each other where you’d think, ‘That one seems real.’ It was those moments, like that clip of a door shutting in a school in Cork at night. That's where Truth Seekers was born.”
Although there’s an ongoing arc running through Truth Seekers’ debut season, various spooky phenomena show up as cases-of-the-week – everything from haunted hotel rooms and number stations to walking burning corpses. Although some state-of-the-art visual effects help to up the scare quotient, most of the spooks were created in-camera.
“The vast majority of the ghouls and wraiths that you see were practical effects,” confirms Emma D’Arcy, who plays Astrid in the show. “There was actually very little acting to a dot on the wall, and there was a lot more screaming at genuinely horrifying things that were in the room with you. Arguably I had quite an easy time of it – if something's genuinely smoldering in the corner, there's not a lot of imagination required. I think that the fact that they use practical effects is sort of what gives the series some of its texture, a lo-fi-ness and a nostalgic quality.”
But as you’d expect from a Pegg/Frost collaboration, Truth Seekers isn’t all about the scares. There are also plenty of laughs mingling with the horror.
“Comedy sort of breaks the tension, and horror builds it up,” says Julian Barratt, The Mighty Boosh/Mindhorn star who plays academic and paranormal expert Dr Peter Toynbee. “It’s a timing thing. You've got to have the right amount of gaps between the jokes. Jokes [can be] brilliant in horror, because they can sort of make you feel as though everything's going to be alright. And of course it isn't. Going between those things is a delicate one to thread but I think they're doing a great job.”
Gus isn’t alone in his ghost hunting exploits. His day job for internet company Smyle pairs him with a new rookie partner, who accompanies him on his paranormal investigations. Elton John (not that one), played by Timewasters’ Samson Kayo, is the sceptical Scully to Gus’s Mulder, and has a few secrets in his own past.
Their fledgling partnership quickly finds itself pulled into the world of Astrid, a mysterious young woman who recently lost her mother and saw her house burn down, and has now become a magnet for ghosts. When we first meet her, we know next to nothing about who she is.
“I think it's quite unusual to have female characters who are allowed to have a degree of mystery, but not in a sort of femme fatale way,” explains D’Arcy. “Characters who maybe aren't defined by their background, who maybe aren't even defined by the situation – when we first meet Astrid she is sort of contextless, and sort of friendless. The only thing she has is a load of ghosts and ghouls!”
Elton’s sister, Helen (Susan Wokoma), plays a key role in Truth Seekers. A keen cosplayer and YouTuber, she’s obsessed with taking her creations to CovColCosCon (aka Coventry Collectible Cosplay Convention), but her agoraphobia prevents her from mingling with others. She also forms an unlikely friendship with Gus’s dad, Richard, played by A Clockwork Orange and if…. star Malcolm McDowell.
“Helen has her YouTube channel where she's really creative and she has a big following,” says Wokoma. “Then in real life she just finds bonding with people hard – she finds people scary and is quite distrusting. She manages to find that connection when she meets Malcolm's character, and they have that unlikely friendship that I really love.
"I love intergenerational friendships. There's so much to learn from each other. In a lot of comedies, it's normally the old person rolling their eyes at the millennial going, ‘Oh, God, how stupid are they?’ But you have them sort of seeing each other for who they are, and their loneliness. They're all trying to find a family and those are the kind of people that you root for, I think. I think a lot of a lot of people are drawn to supernatural genre shows because those worlds make more sense than the world that we live in.”
Alongside the ghosts and ghouls, the human threat comes in the form of Barratt’s Toynbee, whose book-writing, academic facade is a front for a cult with sinister intentions. How much of a bad guy is he?
“I don’t think any villains see themselves as villains, do they?” says Barratt. “I just sort of wanted him to have a lot of belief in his own ideas and less belief in other people's. I suppose maybe the hallmark of a villain is that they don't really give that much credence to other people's points of view. That they’re doing something for the greater good is what they usually have in the back of their mind, and the means tend to justify the ends for them – unless you’re into the moustache twirling sort of villainy. I have got a moustache – but I don’t twirl it.”
Although Truth Seekers is bankrolled by the very deep (and internationally facing) pockets of Amazon, the show doesn’t forget its British roots. Like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, it embraces its UK setting (in this case the county of Dorset) and doesn’t lose sight of its local quirks – in other words, there’s no need to worry about any The Haunting of Bly Manor-style controversies about “doing the math”. In fact, Truth Seekers is cut from the same visual cloth as a UK network drama like Doc Martin – albeit with rather more ghosts.
“That’s a great reference,” laughs Wokoma. “Sometimes you can tell when someone's trying to like, glossify it. They're saying, ‘It's set in London!’ but it's kind of an LA London. You're like, ‘That's not London, man!’ And I think the fact that you have all these references to a Digestive biscuit and [quiz show] The Chase, those things, kind of pull you back from the bigness of it. It feels familiar and just means that we can jump in.”
“I also love that there’s a sort of folk sci-fi element to it,” chips in D’Arcy. “It’s like they’re exploring the outer reaches of experience and phenomena using a pair of baked bean tins in the garage. Something about that feels strangely British. And also, even when you are on the edge of a huge paranormal discovery, you’ve still got to go and do your day job. That I really rate and see almost never. I just really like that throughout the whole series, Gus keeps going to work!”
You can watch Truth Seekers season 1 now on Amazon Prime Video
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Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.