Worst to Best
Rentaghost

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36 Episode 6.3

The first appearance of the "magic talisman", a device Claypole made for the Perkins to grant their every wish. What this basically entailed was that any statement the Perkins made was taken entirely literally, sometimes to amusing effect, others to slight tedium at how predictable it got. Rentaghost began as a series with a great deal of originality and invention, but over the course of its run, particularly during its last three series, Bob Block was more than happy to take any joke and flog the (pantomime) horse to death.
     In regards this particular episode, then it's a string of silly, yet fairly amusing, set pieces. However, the growing magical powers of the ghosts as the series went on do strain credulity, even for a kids' show, and bring up some awkward questions: such as, if Mr. Claypole can magically increase the size of food to giant proportions, then couldn't he cure famine?
     

35 Episode 5.1

There was a very long gap between series 4 and 5 of Rentaghost, lasting over 16 months. Series 4 ended in October 1978, and 5 didn't come around until March 1980. Although the Christmas special "Rentasanta" was aired between them, the long gap was bridged by it being delayed a year in transmission; had "Rentasanta" been broadcast in December 1978 as originally intended, it would have been 14 months with no new Rentaghost on air.
      This is, of course, the first episode to feature the all-new '80s line-up of Mr. Claypole as lead, McWitch as the second ghost, and then one of two Dutch ghosts with sneezing allergies as the third. This throws the entire series out of sync, as Mr. Claypole becomes the nominal lead, almost similar to what later happened with Channel 4 series Shameless (2004-2013). Although it might seem odd to compare Rentaghost with the post-watershed 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. This is mirrored by Rentaghost, a series based around the story arc of Fred Mumford, which is then discarded due to the actor not returning, and a character who was never created as a central figure suddenly becoming one. (You can even stretch the Shameless analogy in the way that characters like McWitch were introduced as sort-of rivals, but are reworked as figures we're supposed to identify with, in much the same way the fearsome Maguire family became people we were supposed to relate to and love).
      The absence of original ghosts Fred and Hubert is unconvincingly explained by Mr. Claypole at the start of this episode, with him telling Ethel that both are: "on an extended tour, haunting stately homes. They are a great success, playing twice-nightly to packed houses." Also awkward is the set up for this episode, which involves the ghosts taking on a nanny service. As this also appears to include feeding them milk from the afterlife, it's a bit of a situation that's not for the squeamish.
      Lastly, the episode introduces Lynda Titchmarsh (under the professional name Marchal) as the character Tamara Novek. It seems almost mandatory for any Rentaghost review to mention that she went on to write screenplays, including Prime Suspect, under the name Lynda La Plante, so here we go... she married Richard La Plante, took his name, and wrote screenplays, including Prime Suspect.
     A few of the cast members of Rentaghost also appeared in Bob Block's concurrent series Grandad (1979-1984), including Paddie O'Neil and Hal Dyer. However, La Plante was the only one to appear in Grandad first, playing a French spy in a 1979 episode. La Plante doesn't especially talk about her time on Rentaghost (or Grandad for that matter), given that she's a serious writer who works on crime novels and post-watershed dramas, but she does state on her official website that "it has haunted me ever since, but I loved being in it!"
      Novek's one-joke schtick (she sneezes around flowers, which causes her to involuntarily teleport) is milked a lot, appearing 16 times in five episodes. In contrast, it was scaled back for replacement Nadia Popov (essentially the same character) in series six... if you isolate a tennis game and a sneezing fit in a postbox, her "in story" sneezes only occurred an average of twice per episode. Perhaps realising that he hadn't quite scraped the bottom of the barrel, Nadia's sneezes did get amped up considerably for series 7-9, almost to the point where keeping count was impossible.
      Yet away from such discussions, what's striking about series five is how quiet it is. The later series, particularly from series 7 on, became like being trapped in a lift with the noisiest drunks imaginable, all screaming at the top of their voices to see who could make the best cracker joke witticism. Here, while a step or two up from the origins of the show, it's all so comparatively sedate, a world away from the Spectorish Wall of Sound that the dirgelike run of 1982-1984 became. (Or should that be Spectreish?)
      Perhaps it's for this reason that the character of Tamara never quite "takes"... without given long enough to establish herself, the thinly-written character needed to be "larger" to compensate for the lack of subtlety in her creation. Sadly, because this is during a more restrained era, it all feels a little flat. In terms of trivia, Nigel Greaves as the Policeman is probably the only guest cast member to not get featured onscreen during his credit... again, there's no end credits of series six to be sure.

34 Episode 6.6

Rentaghost only had two commercial releases - the first series was released on VHS and DVD back in 2001, while the second series was made available (along with the first) via the ill-fated BBC Store. An online service launched in November 2015 where digital copies were available to buy, it was closed two years later. It's possible that at least one more series, the third, was also released, but fading memories and the incomplete archiving of the site have made this impossible to confirm.
     As a result, the later series do the rounds on video streaming sites from off-air VHS recordings, many of them in quite poor quality, (despite the best intentions of the sharers) particularly this sixth series. This episode is particularly badly affected as the beginning and end are cut off. While it's entirely possible to roughly estimate how long the episode would be if you put the end credits on (around 19'30m) there's no way of knowing how much of the beginning was cut off, and so whether or not this really was the shortest episode of Rentaghost, or it just appears to be.
     As for the story, then it's a quite sweet tale of Harold and Ethel's wedding anniversary. Arthur Perkins notes that they've been married for 14 years, and this would seem to fit, as in episode 7.10, aired 18 months later, Ethel talks about being married to Harold for 15. (This is somewhat contradicted by them about to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary in episode 2.5, which aired five years earlier, but then this could add to a non-existent theory that the pre-Dobbin episodes take place in a parallel reality).
     Their anniversary is one of the few unique moments of the episode, as the rest of the storyline, and many of the jokes, are a straight steal from the Pardon My Genie episode "Comic Cuts", even down to a confrontation with a rival store owner. The rival (Tony Caunter) punches Harold Meaker twice in the face, and, although it's far from graphic (you can even see neither punch lands, but it's only a kids' show after all) Harold crying like a child afterwards is an odd mix of the real and the surreal that the series indulged in. Overall, this is a slightly flat ending to the sixth series, but one not without some form of charm, something that the shoutier, screechier '80s episodes often abandoned.

33 Episode 5.2

The episode where the Perkins hire a private detective to spy on the Meakers. No one ever claimed that Rentaghost was an episode of Boys From The Blackstuff, but the presence of the detective (and the following year's psychiatrist) does add a very "sitcommy" feel to the proceedings, where the guest actor (in this case Tim Stern, and in series six Robert East) both give very "kids' show" performances, and the whole thing does get a bit Galloping Galaxies!
      This is not a knock on either actor, who both had extensive careers after Rentaghost, and still work to this day. But clearly they're instructed to give that odd, "not-real" performance that a lot of actors in lesser children's series give. Contrast East in series six with East in Episode 2.6, where he has a guest role as an Italian waiter... while he's not exactly channelling Stanislavski for the part, it's more of a - within context - "real" performance.
      There's some nice bits and pieces in this episode though, such as a very surreal moment where Claypole messes up a spell to cure Harold Meaker's cold, and all his senses are displaced through different body parts, such as being able to see through his ears and hear through his nose. It's a nice imaginative conceit, and it's hard to imagine any other series giving a character the line "I'm fed up... every time I lie down I go blind in one ear, and when I close my eyes I can't breathe." Well, except for, perhaps, Roberts Robots, where Bob Block recycled his own idea from (see Entry No.38), or the sixth episode of Galloping Galaxies!, where he again reused the situation.
     Far, far less appealing is the plotline that sees Ethel want a singing career, only for Harold to tell her "if you think a career is more important than being a wife, well then you may have to make a choice between the two". Such "I know it was 40 years ago, but..." mindsets are backed up by Mr. Claypole, who spends the rest of the episode sabotaging Ethel's chances, though, in fairness, he does so out of a medieval jester's innocent ignorance, and not out of any implicit sexism.

32 Episode 9.3

British TV had a very traditional attitude towards racial stereotyping, and Bob Block's work was far from exempt from this. Episodes of Grandad would see Clive Dunn pretend to be other races, at one point even using his fingers to slant his eyes, whereas in an episode of Roberts Robots a "foreigner" who constantly misunderstood English speech made a remark based around a famous English idiom that uses the concept of a flaw in armour to indicate weakness.
      Pardon My Genie, a very creditable series, actually fares better than most... although it's not without rhymes about playing with gypsies, or reflections on racial interbreeding, it does contain the brilliantly satirical line of "that's the common market for you, bloomin' foreigners coming over here putting British tramps out of work."
      Rentaghost obviously has regular characters who are racial stereotypes, but here Geoffrey Russell goes all-out as a ginger bearded Scottish stereotype who takes revenge on McWitch by turning her into a haggis and some bagpipes, in an oddly sadistic sequence.
      Although Russell had two prior guest roles in Rentaghost, his most famous association with the writing of Bob Block was as Clive Dunn's constant foil in Grandad, where, ironically enough, the same year as this episode was broadcast also saw Dunn pretending to be a "Scotsman". It's Londoner Russell's full on turn as "McDonald McDougle, the malignant McSprite" that makes the episode rank this highly as, attacking people with his magic bagpipes, he gives the role everything, and, if you do get amusement out of some stereotypical humour, can still amuse. The "racial" humour in Rentaghost generally seems a lot tamer, if only because an actual Scottish actress is involved in its propogation, with Molly Weir working very well with Russell.
     Edward Brayshaw didn't appear in a couple of series one episodes when Harold Meaker was just a supporting character, but it's not clear why he should be absent from this episode. However, there's the possibility that this was plot mandated, as Harold's absence "until Saturday" causes Ethel to decide to tell the Perkins about the ghosts. Frustratingly, this element again goes unresolved. But, considering series nine is rock bottom for the series - constant fourth wall breaks, the tiresome "cellar" routine, horrible overacting - then this one is quite amusing, if you're prepared to adjust your expectations of what constitutes "good" television.

31 Episode 7.13

Ethel buys a ceramic Cornish Pixie at an auction, but Rose Perkins accidentally activates her magic talisman, bringing it to life. It's a silly but quite fun episode, though it's easy to see Hazel McWitch's point of view when she complains about being made to do domestic duties and longs for more "spooky business". So many of the series seven episodes have really nothing to do with the core concept at all, including this one.
     However, it ranks fairly highly here, possibly boosted due to its relative obscurity. Many of the Rentaghost episodes, "Rentasanta" included, had been leaked on streaming sites in the absence of any official, post-series two releases. Yet just over a handful of episodes had been particularly hard to see, this one included, only leaking out during August 2020. Watching what is effectively a "new" episode (or, at least, one unseen for nearly forty years) does lend an allure which it perhaps doesn't quite deserve.
     (A "worst to best" article on Rentaghost was originally published on the Anorak Zone way back in August 2013, but it only covered the overall series, not individual episodes. In fact, the first version of the article lumped all five '80s series together as one, before being updated in May 2018. Largely this was because of the then-unavailability of some episodes, a situation only resolved this year, but it was also because it seemed like a massive undertaking, particularly in regards the low quality of the later years. Such a defeatist attitude is unbecoming of a true anorak, and so the task has finally been met for this new article).

30 Episode 9.1

A suprisingly amusing episode of Rentaghost, given that it kicked off the show's final death throes, and introduced almost inarguably the two worst characters in the entire series: Susie Starlight and a living pantomime dragon.
     However, there's not much evidence of the show's death throes here, as the only thing that runs out of steam with this instalment is Ethel's central heating. Mr. Claypole brings a dragon to life to relight it, and, although "don't go into the cellar!" gets dragged out four times (once as a thought balloon by Dobbin) it's okay as a one-off occurrence. It does, at least, make sense within the context of the episode, and would have worked okay for a single week. It's just that it happened again no less than ten times over the following four weeks, causing the show to look like it had a paucity of ideas.
      There are some amusing lines in this one where you can see the punchline coming a mile off, but somehow that makes it all the funnier... McWitch insisting that "Mr. Meaker has been neglecting the old boiler" leads to a very obvious misunderstanding, as does Harold's car troubles with "my big end's in a terrible state." Perhaps a routine that will play less well to audiences in 2020 is Tony Aitken as Ethel's cousin, Eric, who breaks out a "Chinaman" impression.
     But overall, despite the nagging feeling that series nine should probably take up the entire bottom five by itself, this one works, if only because of the comic timing of Edward Brayshaw, even at this tired stage, managing to "sell" some of the routines, such as the dragon burning his behind in a phonebox. As with the previous entry, this episode was unavailable for many years, so its status as a "new" or "fresh" episode may have helped boost its placing.
     Past the last series of Rentaghost, it continues to shows signs of, ironically, life: as well as the aforementioned stage show and movie rumours, an unseen pilot episode was reputedly made for Australia in 1989 with a role for Lisa McCune.

29 Episode 2.6

The lowest-placed of the "original trio" episodes, while it seems almost sacrilege to rank them in amongst some of the Dobbin episodes, particularly following a series nine entry, this is one of the blandest and silliest of the original team. For those who are unfamiliar with the original set-up, then the series centred around Fred Mumford, a recently-deceased man who comes back to Earth to try and make something of his (after) life, in order to regain some self respect. He sets up "Rentaghost", and hires two ghosts to help him run it - a stuffy Victorian ghost called Hubert Davenport, and, of course, medieval jester Timothy Claypole.
     Fred's failures eventually lead to their shop landlord, Harold Meaker, taking over the business as their manager, and this basic set-up remained for the first four years. A Christmas special, "Rentasanta", saw a pantomime horse brought to life, and then the death of Michael Derbyshire (Hubert Davenport) and Anthony Jackson (Fred Mumford) declining to continue led to major changes to the set up for series five.
      For this episode, that original Rentaghost team go into the reporting business, ambushing a psychiatrist to talk about his controversial new book. Maybe it's living through the last 15 years, where the already low quality of British tabloid journalism has gone even lower than ever thought possible, but somehow seeing the ghosts doing an ethically murky job just doesn't seem that funny in 2020. Or maybe it's just that the various goings on are a little childish by the standards of the 1970s productions, and it all seems a little tired.
      For trivia, Harold Meaker remarks of Claypole "no wonder they used to call him the King's fool", to which Claypole enthusiastically nods. While this would seem to be at least partially contradicted with the introduction of Queen Matilda in series six, it's possible that Mr. Claypole could have served under two rulers, with King Stephen being on the throne during the time that Claypole was 12 years old and just due to celebrate his 31st birthday. (Staniforth would have been approximately 33-41 when the series was being filmed, so this would be a more realistic age range for the character).