Worst to Best

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.


UPDATED MAY 2018 Now containing an expanded guide, including a long overdue look at Rentasanta, please 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...

11Season Eight (1983)

To a certain generation Rentaghost has a very bad reputation, and the 1980s era is why... in fact, in an earlier version of this article, I threw in the towel and lumped them all together in the last spot, only watching two or three episodes to remind myself of the full horror. With the intention of making this a complete article, then I've finally bitten the bullet and sat down to watch the 34 episodes that were made during the 80s... or, at least, all the ones that were available.
     With the final three seasons incredibly difficult to get hold of, then in the interests of full disclosure I haven't been able to find a copy of the first episode and last episode of this run. There's every chance that the Meakers going over a waterfall or Adam Painting starting up a dream potion business were the equivalent of I, Claudius, but, sadly, for season eight we have to base judgement on the three episodes that can be seen. Featuring a "spookmobile" and Dobbin doing the cooking, what's available on video streaming sites is so low in quality that it actually ranks below the final, ninth season.
     What's also notable is that Michael Stanisforth, while perhaps never treating the role of Mr. Claypole to the Stanislavski method, is now completely over-the-top and unbearable in what was once the most engaging role. Compare and contrast to some of the 1970s episodes, which are positively restrained in comparison... late 80s Rentaghost is like being trapped in a lift with the loudest, most annoying drunks imaginable, shrieking and shouting over the top of one another to see who can make the most "witticisms".
     To get an idea of just how bad season eight is, there's an episode that features everyone dressed up in fancy dress for the duration... Bob Block, while an imaginative writer, was seemingly unaware that you don't need "funny costumes" and "comedy sidekicks" when............ you've already got a sitcom that's about ghosts.

10 Season Nine (1984)

If you look for it hard enough - and have the desire to - then most of season nine can be watched via video streaming, with only the opening episode still unavailable to date. That opening episode sees the neighbours unwittingly employ a ghost maid, Suzi Starlight (Aimi MacDonald) who breaks the fourth wall repeatedly and encourages the others to do the same. Suzi also acts as a replacement talisman, the "wish fulfilling" gift that was given to the Perkins in season six and then repeated to death thereafter.
     Then there's the living dragon Bernie St. John, created by Mr. Claypole "out of an old pantomime skin". This second new character leads to what is frequently cited as one of the worst elements of the final season, with every single week ending with the anti-catchphrase "don't go into the cellar!", only for some unwitting soul to emerge covered in soot and burns. However, this doesn't just happen at the end of episodes... it occurs several times during them, as well.
     Yes, season nine is Rentaghost completely out of whatever inspiration and originality it once had, with Edward Brayshaw, the cast's most naturally comedic member, then in his fifties and looking incredibly jaded, not even appearing in one episode. Look out too for Ann Emery in the end credits sequence, giving an OTT performance even by her usual standards, almost out of derision for the material she's been given. It's a tired show, well past its best, and the BBC deservedly put it out of its misery. Within six years both Edward Brayshaw (Harold Meaker) and Michael Stanisforth (Timothy Claypole) had passed away, a sad footnote to a once-inspired series that had been allowed to scrape the bottom of the barrel and then keep on digging...

9 Season Five (1980)

After the 1979 Christmas special was filmed, Michael Darbyshire (Davenport) had sadly died, and lead Anthony Jackson (Fred Mumford) declined to return as a result. Their absence is unconvincingly explained by Mr. Claypole at the start of the fifth season, telling Ethel that both are: "on an extended tour, haunting stately homes. They are a great success, playing twice-nicely to packed houses."
     This throws the entire series out of synch, as Mr. Claypole becomes the nominal lead, almost similar to what later happened with Shameless. Although it might seem odd to compare Rentaghost with Shameless, that series began with lovers Fiona and Steve steering the dramatic elements of what was a comedy drama, Fiona's father Frank a left-field maverick off to the side. With Fiona and Steve's departure, the more flamboyant character of Frank was brought centre stage and the supporting cast and situations amped up to accommodate the new set up. While Shameless began as a fine programme, it ended with increasingly unlikely situations and set ups, a shadow of what it once was.
     Making the new line-up here are Dobbin, the tiresome pantomime horse brought to life in the special, a robot called Jeremy, and, for three of the episodes, Hazel the McWitch. Molly Weir was in her seventies when she became a regular, and, while the character may grate and not work as well as when she was a rival, it's hard not to admire how sprightly she is.
     Completing the new team is Lynda Titchmarsh (under the professional name Marchal), playing a "funny foreigner" Dutch ghost who mangles the English language and sneezes when in the presence of flowers, causing her to accidentally transport herself away. It's a single joke stretched to beyond breaking point, occurring 16 times in just the five episodes present. Marchal fails to really make an impact, and went on to far more notoriety when she married Richard La Plante and began a career as a screenwriter, most famously with Prime Suspect.
     The quality of gags here plummets to such levels as Ethel Meaker asking for a spell and Mr. Claypole deliberately pretending he's misheard and she said "smell"... meanwhile, the series becomes increasingly insular in its outlook and more studio-based: only the first two episodes feature location work, and all of the "plots", such as they are, revolve almost exclusively around the Meakers.

8 Season Seven (1982)

All of the Rentaghost seasons were between 5 and 6 episodes long... all, that is, except for 1982's offering, whereby someone somewhere decided that a 13-episode season was required. This does have the unfortunate effect that it forces Bob Block to come up with more plots, which had been a weakness of his for at least two years. A particular low point here is an episode where Mr. Meaker takes up a role as an egg seller, and Mr. Claypole turns himself into a chicken to hatch the eggs. It's a series now devoid of all purpose, where an enemy ghost (episode two) returns to the "grey face" motif of season one, only for it to be completely redundant in this lighter, panto era.
     The "acting" of the regulars has now become so far gone that when another "villainous ghost" appears - Leslie Schofield as a ghost pirate - there's a jarring clash of acting styles. Another such rift between the old and the new is Kenneth Connor as failed ghost Whatsiname Smith. It's a hark back to the "failure looking for a second chance" comedy of Fred Mumford, only now - in an era where the three main ghosts can look to camera to simultaneously deliver a line to the audience while Dobbin dresses up as a ballerina - it's completely anachronistic.
     It's a series that is now so dumbed down and aimed at a perceived demographic that Mr. Claypole begins episodes by reading The Beano. The series has now lost so much of the roots of its premise that entrepreneur Adam Painting sets up a fashion line for ghosts, seemingly unheeding of where the revenue will be coming from. Once again, it's a season where not all of the episodes are available, with BBC never releasing more than the first three seasons in their ill-fated BBC store. Episodes 7, 9, 12 and 13 may have been classics, but have yet to be seen.
     So, this is pretty awful stuff, but why does it rank so (relatively) highly? Well, there's a hair's breadth between it and season five, but why it manages to scrape the higher position is that on occasion it'll have a halfway decent episode or the odd decent line. If nothing else, it edges season five for the revelation that Harold Meaker proposed to Ethel in a garage: "Yes... and then I couldn't back out."

7 Aladdin and the
Forty Thieves (1984)

Not, of course, an official Rentaghost story, this 56 minute TV movie is instead a notable curio for featuring most of the Rentaghost cast. Dobbin gets to appear as himself, while Sue Nicholls plays the role of a Princess with her Popov accent. Also in the cast are Edward Brayshaw (Harold Meaker), Ann Emery (Ethel Meaker), Molly Weir (McWitch), Jeffrey Segal (Arthur Perkins), Hal Dyer (Rose Perkins) and Christopher Biggins (Adam Painting).
     Produced and directed by Rentaghost producer Jeremy Swan, there's also room for actors who played guest roles or minor parts in the series, with Kenneth Connor, Paddie O'Neil and Geoffrey Russell also making an appearance. Then there's Rentaghost music composer Jonathan Cohen in a small role as a suitor, along with the visual effects department's Mat Irvine as a thief. It's not clear why Michael Staniforth was such a notable omission from the cast, given that all of the main cast were putting in an appearance. The one overt reference sees speculation of where Abanazar (Brayshaw) has got his clothes from, only for Mrs. Ping Pong (Weir) to suggest "Rentaghost?"
      Season eight had only just finished a couple of months before the special's January 1st 1984 broadcast date, and the final Rentaghost season was to come ten months later. Made in a time when it was still somehow acceptable for John Craven to do a stereotypical "Chinese" accent, or for Brayshaw to make a pun about "black magic" to Floella Benjamin's genie, perhaps the sequence that dates it the most is a reference to a certain wish-based series that the BBC screened for 20 years. Unlikely to be of much interest to anyone above the age of 10, this is nevertheless not a criticism of this production, given that was its target audience.

6Season Six (1981)

Season six isn't exactly a return to form - there's a large gulf between all of the 80s seasons and the 70s ones - but it is a refreshing upturn after season five. The rapport between the leads is restored thanks to Sue Nicholls, taking over from La Plante as her "cousin", Nadia Popov.
     While it's essentially the same character and the same two jokes, the sneezing schtick is not milked anywhere near as much, and Nicholls displays instantly great chemistry with her co-stars, and helps elevate an essentially underwritten character. While Rentaghost would never be mistaken for an episode of Boys From The Blackstuff, the increasing pantomime-like quality to the performances takes a little getting used to, but there are some decent episodes in this run.
     A note of trivia for those who care about backstory is given here: the fifth episode reveals that Claypole was the jester of Queen Matilda, a disputed Queen who ruled over England from 1141-1148AD. However, Matilda remarks that Claypole was her fool 800 years ago, which would put his antics at 1181AD, a time after she'd both died and left the country. In season eight Claypole celebrates his 860th birthday, which not only puts his date of birth as 1123AD, but would mean he was jestering in his sixties. Perhaps Matilda's "800 years" wasn't entirely literal, but clearly Bob Block didn't plan out a detailed backstory for a show that features a living pantomime horse.

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