In less than three years' time, Rentaghost will reach its fortieth anniversary... and yet it's not one that many are likely to celebrate.
A much-loved childhood favourite here at The Anorak Zone, Rentaghost was a children's sitcom that saw recently-deceased Fred Mumford try to gain some self-respect in the afterlife. Advertising his business in the spirit world, with the proviso that "only total failures need apply", he was joined by Victorian ghost Hubert Davenport (who, like Fred, had hang ups over his parents) and court jester Timothy Claypole. Join me as I look back on what, in my view, made the series worth celebrating... and what, sadly, gave the programme such a bad reputation today...
There's no denying that Rentaghost doesn't generally have a great reputation and isn't celebrated that often today: even the BBC website has a series of posted reviews slating it. And the 1980s are why: 34 episodes of utter childish inanity, spread out over five seasons. It's a painful sight to see the series die a long, drawn-out death before being put out of its misery, but for the majority of people this is how the series is most remembered: Audrey from Coronation Street playing a "funny foreigner" with a sneezing schtick that got old after about three seconds; Mr. Claypole as the main lead and that godawful pantomime horse. The show was faster, more puerile, and the plots non-existent: many of the episodes were just a series of haphazard events randomly glued together at the scripting stage.
Shameless went a similar route. And although it may seem odd to try and compare Shameless with Rentaghost, consider the parallels: the first few seasons were considered comedy-drama with a left-field maverick off to the side, disrupting the sense of order from the "normal" characters. And just as Frank acted as an occasional comic counterpoint to central characters Fiona and Steve, we also had the violent rivals, the Maguire family. Sadly, after a brilliant first two seasons (and some so-so middle ones), Shameless was a series that was content to defile its reputation with overlong, plotless seasons, Frank Gallagher now the misguided central character and audience identification figure; the Maguires suddenly characters we're supposed to love and empathise with, not fear, and all the situations noisy and cartoonesque, pseudo-reality completed abandoned. Rentaghost of the 80s, then: it dragged on far too long (a bit like this summary...), offbeat prankster Timothy Claypole was suddenly the lead ghost, and bitter rival - plus appalling Scottish stereotype - Hazel McWitch was a team member. And all with awful puns that wouldn't amuse a four-year-old.
The Holy Grail of Rentaghost, this one was never repeated and doesn't appear to be available anywhere outside of the BBC archives. The line in the sand between the old and the new, Rentaghost didn't jump the shark - it brought a pantomime horse to life. Less than a year after this Christmas special was broadcast, Michael Darbyshire (Hubert Davenport) sadly passed away. As a result, Anthony Jackson (original lead ghost Fred Mumford) declined to reappear, and 1979 was the only year that saw no new episodes in the programme's nine-year run. Due to its lack of repeats, appreciation of Rentasanta is left to 35-year-old memories. And so we must ask... did Fred Mumford's parents ever find out he was really a ghost?
Season two was the season where director Jeremy Swan took over as producer from Paul Ciani, and the difference is immediately felt. Encouraged to be broader, and more middle-of-the-road, some of the cast initially seem to struggle with their "larger" personas (Anthony Jackson particularly) and the programme continually plays with the dead laugh area, where one ghost will make a terrible joke only for the other two to wince at how bad it is. And although Rentaghost always looked very "BBC" compared to the better-produced but never-as-much-fun The Ghosts of Motley Hall, the "it'll do" attitude to jump cuts on the ghostly transportations really starts to plummet here. However, one improvement over the first run (which largely opted for a single, linear plot) is that two parallel plots are utilised in most of the scripts here: not only will the two plots dovetail at the end, but every occurence will be as a result of them. It shows a growing confidence in Bob Block's writing, even if the audience he's writing for has dropped in age range. Lastly, for fans of trivia, then their miserly landlord blackmails the ghosts into becoming their agent and manager after they fall behind with the rent once too often. Although this does clash with Fred Mumford's intent to gain self-respect, it does mean we get to see even more of Harold Meaker, played by the superb Edward Brayshaw. Sadly, Rentaghost has been held up in rights issues, meaning only season one has even been released on VHS or DVD... and also explaining why so many of the images on this page are of a low resolution. Apologies for that, but write to the BBC to encourage 'em to release the lot. Okay, maybe just seasons 1-4...
The future direction of the series can be seen here, where not only are the stories even broader and we get an instance of breaking the fourth wall, but we also get some new guest characters that would become regulars in the 1980s. For the first time we meet Hazel The McWitch (referenced but unseen in season three) and a one-shot with MOR sitcom nosey neighbours (and Mumford carbon copies) the Perkins. There's also the two final appearances from misfiring season three semi-regular Catastrophe Kate. But away from all of this is the realisation that a lot of these episodes are pretty funny. Brayshaw, the most naturally comedic of the cast, really excels in his more OTT playing and disastrous relationship with wife Ethel, before the 80s would overstep the line and make it all just too silly for words. There's also, particularly in the final episode of the season, a large number of a curiously 70s phenomenon: guest actors who are required to interact extensively with the cast, but without saying a single line so they can complete the episode on extras rates.
Season three is blessed with containing arguably Rentaghost's most memorable plots, including Mr. Claypole losing his memory and thinking he's alive, plus the quite-scary-for-the-really-young antics of the ghost squatters. A weaker element is that the season introduces cowgirl ghost Catastrophe Kate, a fundamentally childish character, though the sole appearance of Adam Painting (Christopher Biggins) isn't actually so bad this side of the panto era. Overall, this run of six episodes was one of the high points of the programme.
The very first season of Rentaghost, while perhaps not top tier television, is in a different class to everything that followed... it may also be the most macabre children's programme ever made. Michael Staniforth (Timothy Claypole) had placed himself in viewer's minds as the nominal lead right from the start by volunteering to write and record the theme tune. And, while his first attempt (heard on two of the five episodes) may not be as melodic, it may well be the only children's programme in history that had one of the stars singing that he hoped the viewers died and became ghosts. Although a tamer, rerecorded version replaced it, it's something that's as startling as Claypole and Davenport appearing in grey makeup to indicate their undead status. What's also surprising is how relatively sophisticated the humour is under one-time producer Paul Ciani. The episodes set in a department store and hospital ward point a little towards the more childish antics that were to come, but the season climaxes with an appearance of Fred's uncle, a militant ghost who organises strike action. This is to say nothing of the downright perverse appearances of Hubert Davenport's much-younger mother, who died when she was just 25, or of the central plot thread of the first four seasons: Fred creates Rentaghost to earn some self-respect and get over his depression, all the time lying to his parents that he's still alive. While it would be overstating it to describe the first season of Rentaghost as "dark", it was certainly a rarity in children's television... before becoming abruptly lightened soon after.