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7 Episode 1.3

While the later years of the programme saw it stuck in a kind of holding pattern, with situations on repeat, here the plot is advanced as Mr. Meaker is told that his shop tenants are ghosts. Still not quite the comedy character he would become, Mr. Meaker is more of an aggressive, forceful character in this first series, but not without humorous moments.
      Speaking of aggression, it's perhaps forgotten just how confrontational early Fred Mumford was. A flares-wearing doofus, he staggers from misadventure to calamity in every episode, but here is very verbally abusive, and even slaps poor Mr. Claypole around the head. As this is early Rentaghost, then Mr. Claypole is quite a figure of innocence, so only engenders sympathy.
      However, there is a psychological precedent for this. While far from a physically imposing presence, Fred's dad constantly bullies and belittles him. It seems Fred's neurotic nature, even down to not being able to walk through walls, is all a result of his dad destroying his confidence. John Dawson puts in great work as the dad, a performance without a wink to the camera, but instead seeming like someone genuinely full of bile and resentment.
      Finally, Mr. Claypole tells a matron that Mr. Davenport last ate "88 years ago". The series was recorded in 1975 and aired in January 1976. If we take the date of transmission as being the same date of events, then we can work out that Hubert must have lived from approximately 1841-1888.

6 Episode 3.4

An episode with ghost squatters who refuse to leave the Rentaghost offices, a situation I found incredibly scary on first viewing... I was four years old. Seen again, and the squatters don't generate a great presence, and the confrontation scenes are particularly badly staged, even for Rentaghost. But memories are to be cherished, and sheer nostalgic thrills propel this one high up the rankings.
      This is Rentaghost when situations were still, up to a point, "normal". Harold lets the ghosts stay at his house for the first time ever, just because the office is having building work done, and Ethel's reaction to their presence is not a welcoming one. Astonishing to think that just three years later she'd be permanently living with a pantomime horse, followed by a flying robot and a pantomime dragon. Her reactions here, while obviously amped up for comic effect, are realistic, where her yelling is understandable, rather than her default setting.
      This is also the episode that was most heavily featured in the aforementioned BBC4 documentary Children’s TV On Trial, where producer/director Jeremy Swan cheerfully admitted that he discouraged genuine acting in the series, and claimed that Christopher Biggins once said to him "I can't believe we're getting paid for this." Biggins appears at the end of the episode, for just around four minutes of screentime as Adam Painting, the very first time the character was in the programme, and his only pre-Dobbin appearance. (In his autobiography, Biggins praises the show, and tantilisingly states that he was offered a role in the programme right from the start, but turned it down - but which role, he doesn't say).
      It's a relatively restrained performance, with little sign of the pure silliness that would be evoked when he became a semi-regular. From "Rentasanta" onwards, Painting appeared in exactly half of the episodes, often driving the plots when they shouldn't really have needed him. This said, it's clearly obvious that Biggins enjoyed appearing in the programme, so, like the rest of the post-"Rentsanta" cast, it's hard to begrudge them their enjoyment. Biggins had previously appeared in a Bob Block script, with a role as a "robot entertainer" in "Dial C for Chaos", the fourth episode of Roberts Robots.

5 Episode 1.2

The first case for the spooks sees them tackling a phantom highwayman terrorising an airport. It's standard kids' fare in some ways, though the real plus of the episode comes with the introduction of Hubert's mother. Appearing in just this and episode 1.4, it's one of the most perverse character backgrounds in a show for kids - a ghost who died young. As Hubert explains, the lady who corrects him on his manners and behaviour died when she was 25, whereas Hubert lived to 47 (although the actor was in his late 50s). It's a fine vein of comedy, the fantastically bizarre idea of a neurotic ghost still being held accountable to someone who is almost half his age.
      One thing for which Michael Staniforth deserves eternal credit is the show's catchy theme tune, with his inspired phrasing and delivery. The original version of the theme with different lyrics didn't scan quite as well, but there are suggestions that the BBC asked for it to be replaced as it contained the word "poltergeists" and they didn't want to be associated with The Exorcist. While this might be true, it appears to be unsubstantiated, and, in the first episode, Claypole says that he automatically qualified as a poltergeist upon entering the spiritworld. There the term "poltergeist" gets said six times, and it gets said four times here, along with Hubert talking about Claypole making his "ectoplasm boil". While this is far from the last time the term is used in series one, it is notable, however, that in the Jeremy Swan era, Claypole is described as a "sprite" when referring to his extra powers.
      The reason for mentioning such things is because the original version of the theme is heard on this episode and episode 1.5. While the familiar version is the better one, it's still intriguing to hear a different take, and the original has some bonuses, if only for the fantastically sick premise of Stanisforth urging the child audience to "get scared to death, become a ghost too."

4 Episode 3.2

On a personal note, I watched Rentaghost as a small child, and, while it might seem far from a "scary" show today, the early series did, as discussed with entry No.6, produce the odd chills. Possibly it was just the right age to see the show, an age where The Witches and the Grinnygog seemed like the most terrifying series on Earth, and dummies coming to life in The Enchanted Castle was mind-boggling terror. While Rentaghost isn't exactly up there with the Lonely Water public information ad, the notion of Claypole losing his memory and not realising he's dead is still quite eerie.
     Bob Block's skill at juggling lots of elements at once also make this one such an admirable farce. Fred has to contend with an amnesiac Claypole without his parents finding out they're ghosts, and all the while any mention of the word "work" will send Mr. Davenport unconscious. In the meantime, Harold, incensed by Ethel's preferential treatment towards their budgie (the brilliantly-named "Joey Beak") sees Claypole, pre-memory loss, turn him into one.
     It's all silly stuff, but inspired silly stuff, with a great role for Mr. Claypole. While the backbone of the series is carried by Fred, and Mr. Davenport does well as the straight man, Claypole is clearly the best of them, the third-billed but real star of the show. However, his role here perfectly encapsulates why he should never have become the central character: Mr. Claypole isn't a protagonist, but a scene-stealing maverick. Forcing him to become a cartoonishly stupid lead in the '80s was never going to quite work, with no real sense of reality and no genuine driving force to hang the plots on.

3 Episode 3.3

As this episode centres on the Meakers putting on an amateur revue night, then it's the first real sign of Rentaghost losing its core focus, with even Mr. Davenport remarking that ghosts aren't supposed to be scene shifters. Yet it scarcely matters, as it's a very likeable 25 minutes of TV, with Brayshaw and Emery getting to show their talents with a very charming and amusing song and dance routine. (Look out for Brayshaw accidentally slipping when he climbs the boxes). The song, "Cheek To Cheek", does gets many understated musical callbacks over the years, with Mr. Claypole whistling and singing it to himself just the following week.
      It's also tied in to the series' driving point, with Fred still unable to tell his parents he's dead, but terrified they'll see him as a ghost when the revue gets televised. This does bring up some plot holes, such as Mr. Claypole fixing it so that his parents' television vanishes, and they're unable to say the word "television" if they want to buy another. But not only is it likely they'd be able to find a way round it (which they eventually do), but what if someone the Mumfords knew watched the programme and told them? Yes, it all works out in the end (the psychic energy of the ghosts causes the TV signal to crash, so no one sees it, yet Fred couldn't have known this) but it seems churlish to raise such objections with what must be one of the series' most charming episodes.

2 Rentasanta

Long-unseen, copies of Rentasanta began leaking out during May 2018, enabling this 40 minute Christmas special to once again reach a wider audience. Added to the original Anorak Zone ranking article that same month, it was rush-watched and received only begrudging praise.
      Partly it's that so much, retroactively, is expected of the special - airing between series four and five, it's the last time Fred Mumford and his parents are seen in the programme, so it carries the incredibly unfair expectation that such things would receive "closure". However, it's hardly the fault of the episode itself that it didn't anticipate such major changes in the line-up.
      One other criticism cited at the special is that it doesn't so much conclude as just kind of fizzle to a halt, but such detractions are unwarranted; it wasn't the purpose of the special to be anything other than an extra-length Christmas edition, just a regular romp that ends with the usual chaos, rather than something that made definitive statements or brought long-standing plotlines to a end. It would, after all, have been something of a downer for Fred to tell his parents he's actually dead six days before Christmas.
      So no, Rentasanta doesn't act as a key component in any Rentaghost plots, other than bringing Dobbin to life. Neither does it aid world famine, act as a vaccine for Coronavirus or redistribute wealth to the homeless. Of course, many of the song choices and situations seem old-fashioned when watched today, maybe even a little twee... but it's worth remembering that when this went out, Fred Mumford had been a ghost for just four years and Mr. Davenport was the much older spirit from 88 years ago. When watched in 2020, said ghosts are another 40+ years in the past, making Fred Mumford half the anachronism today that Hubert was at the time.
      Probably watching the special at the dawn of summer didn't help, but the 2018 write-up was unnecessarily scathing, expecting far too much from an episode there to entertain children. In order to really appreciate Rentasanta, it's not required to dissect it from a modern standpoint, but to watch it in context of the series, and to truly put yourself into the mindset of a child, watching at a time when Christmas was still presented as a magical occasion, without oversaturation by commerce.
      One final thing of note is that strikes in 1978 saw the transmission of the special delayed by a year, by which time Michael Derbyshire had died. Lost on the child audience, they were watching a man who had been dead for less than a month playing a ghost on their screens. In a way, it was oddly fitting, one final sense of the truly macabre for the original line-up...

1 Episode 1.1

The truly brilliant first episode of Rentaghost, where the entire premise unfolds. It does feel odd to be ranking it as the greatest episode of the series, given that it implies the rest of the show was an anti-climax in comparison, but this one really is that good. Unusually dark for a children's series, it revolves around Fred Mumford, who died six months earlier, but regrets that he never achieved anything in life. As a first episode, then naturally there's a higher level of exposition than usual, but it's handled very well as Fred recruits stuffy Victorian Hubert Davenport and medieval jester Timothy Claypole into his new venture, "Rentaghost".
      Harold Meaker, just a supporting character at this stage, is a much more aggressive, burly cockney figure than he would later become, with even his accent and manner of speech quite different to how he would later be known. As for Mr. Claypole, he's here is in the fine tradition of Catweazle, a man out of time and unable to understand the modern world. Although this may have gotten old quickly, and Mr. Claypole learns fast (for completeness' sake, his 12th century existence also puts him a century after Catweazle's) it's a nice source of not just humour, but character background.
      But the central core of early Rentaghost is Fred's emotional journey (which sadly never really gets resolved) as he tries to get back his self respect. In a particularly macabre touch, we learn that he drowned, but, because his body was never found, no one knows he died. As a result, he tries to reestablish a relationship with his parents, and pretends that he's still alive.
      It's pretty bleak, black stuff for a kids' series. A much darker show where Davenport and Claypole spend the first series in grey face... because, as the long dead, there'd be no indication of blood or life. Also a little more adult is the amusingly prudish references to sex by Hubert, who calls a train a "travelling palace of iniquity" because there's a photograph of a bikini'd girl in a newspaper.
      Also unusual for the series (in hindsight, at least) are the many references to the spiritworld in a religious context. Not only does Hubert stuffily remind Claypole of "where they are", in an implied spiritual way, but Claypole thinks that a train is the work of "the Devil". Most significant of all, though, is Fred talking about how peaceful his life had been, with no cars, aeroplanes, etc., before choking on his tea when his mother says that it "sounds just like Heaven". It's a successful bit of dialogue, so successful in fact, that Bob Block revisited it almost word-for-word in a conversation between Susie Starlight and Rose Perkins in episode 9.1.
      (For the rest of the show's religious references, then in Episode 1.2, Hubert's mother talks about being behind a campaign to "keep Heaven respectable", and Episode 8.3, when Arthur Perkins exclaims "Heavens above!", Mr. Claypole concedes, "Indeed it is... I can vouch for that". In 9.4 Susie talks about doing her "A Levels" in playing the harp, and there's also the start of 6.3 where Claypole insists, with Nadia knitting him a halo that "sprites are not permitted to wear halos, we are too mischievious." There's also 2.3, where Beethoven is said to have done a "sensational tour of Heaven", and 4.3, where Catastrophe Kate is in the "Halo Boutique". Lastly, the ghosts make Harold Meaker a "honorary ghost" in Episode 3.6, and make him a pretend halo. While such things may seem pedantic, given that they're always referring to the "spiritworld", there's no guarantee that said spiritworld has a deity behind it... or, if it does, which one.)

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