Worst to Best
Rentaghost

Rentaghost was a fondly (and sometimes not so fondly) remembered children's sitcom, created and written by Bob Block. Running on the BBC from 1976-1984, and being much-repeated, it remains his most enduring series.


by
THE ANORAK
NOVEMBER
2020


The series was based around a recently-deceased man, Fred Mumford (Anthony Jackson) who wants a second chance at becoming a success. Determined not to let being dead hinder him, he recruits two fellow ghosts, the Victorian Hubert Davenport (Michael Darbyshire) and the medieval jester Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth). Their landlord, and, later, manager, was the very much alive Harold Meaker (Edward Brayshaw). The characters and situations changed over its nine years on air, but Staniforth and Brayshaw remained with the series to the end. Please join me as I rank every single episode from worst to best...

59 Episode 9.4

Even the most ardent fans of Rentaghost would probably agree that the programme declined horribly in quality over its nine years on air. The show became louder, the acting became wilfully more pantomimic and the jokes became even more childish. It doesn't really help that these things were intended, there's a generation who only know the series as the farcical version with a pantomime horse, not the genuinely inspired and witty series it began as.
     It's been so long since the three original ghosts were on air (41 years and counting) that there's probably entire generations of Rentaghost viewers who only recognise one of the men in the main picture at the top of this page. The programme is still fairly well-remembered, though not always fondly - even the BBC Cult TV website section ran an article with people slating it. Those who wish to read about what a decent/great series Rentaghost could be may wish to skip ahead and start at page five... these first few pages are going to be a rough ride.
      As for this penultimate episode of the series, then there's perhaps no other Rentaghost instalment that so lacks in its own identity. With the Meakers' car stuck in the neighbours' kitchen after the events of the previous episode, this hanging plot point forms the basis for this one, and not, as you may expect, the more pressing matter that McDonald McDougle, the malignant McSprite was still on the loose.
      Amusing moments are scant, though a scene where Michael Staniforth has to play a sanitary inspector, given his birthplace, raises half a smile. Although he mainly lived abroad while growing up, he was born in Birmingham, and adopts a Brummie-via-way-of-Dudley accent for the part. It's perhaps fair to say that in the last three years of the programme, if not longer, Claypole had gone from a free-spirited, lovable maverick and into, frankly, a pain in the arse, but Staniforth was always an energetic performer, no matter what material he was given. Sadly, he died less than three years after the final episode of Rentaghost aired.
      Speaking of energy, then the Harold Meaker of the final series isn't the same, and it's not just because the part doesn't quite work without his 70s-style moustache and sideburns. Edward Brayshaw's heart clearly isn't in it anymore, and he can't be blamed for it. Every utterance of series nine's anti-catchphrase "don't go into the cellar!" is met almost with no soul in his eyes at all. A terrific performer, he's clearly tired of the poor material at this stage, and it's perfectly understandable.

58 Episode 9.5

Yet in terms of the overall series, it's not especially known why Rentaghost ended, as it hasn't been the subject of many interviews, behind-the-scenes books, etc. The following year creator Bob Block was writing the slightly sub(space)-par Galloping Galaxies! (1985-1986), which is sadly not as amusing as may be remembered. But writing another programme wouldn't have precluded Block delivering more Rentaghost, as the Clive Dunn vehicle Grandad (1979-1984) ran concurrently with the show.
      While there was a spin-off musical theatre production in 2006, and rumours of a film persist to this day, there's no real reason to assume that Rentaghost wasn't ready for series number ten, and just didn't get recommissioned. It's this thought which perhaps makes the final episode such a let down. Not only is the majority of series nine terrible regardless, but there's nothing to indicate this is the end... instead, it just fizzles out with Dobbin the pantomime horse dressed up like an 18th century nobleman and Mr. Claypole as a half-dog, before they all inevitably go into the cellar.
      A new character for the final series was Susie Starlight (Aimi MacDonald), an actress ghost who encouraged bows to the camera and was basically a replacement for the neighbours' "magic talisman", a gift that unwittingly gave them whatever they asked for. While the talisman could sometimes be tired and sometimes quite amusing, Susie's habit of disrupting the flow of the plot by taking their every remark literally and performing a rhyme about it to camera is just openly irritating. It doesn't help that she's such a broadly written, underdeveloped character that she makes fellow spook (and Claypole love rival) Nadia Popov look three-dimensional.
      Whatever the details behind Rentaghost ending, when it became as bad as this, it really was a mercy killing.

57 Episode 8.5

As a point of note, then while the limited commercial releases of Rentaghost are covered in more detail in a later entry, the majority of the images from series 2-8 are screencaptures taken from off-air video recordings. While those sharing these copies must be thanked and credited with allowing me to complete this article, they're not, understandably, broadcast-quality copies. As a result some of the images in this article may be lower in quality than you'd expect, as with the blurry shot above. This "warning" did originally appear under the previous entry, though as BritBox started streaming series 9 in 2021, I've been able to upgrade my screenshots from that final series - I hope you like them.
     As for this episode, then it's a cluttered plot with many guest characters, and the ghosts working in a department store, a proposition which has no real meaning to the core purpose of the series. It contains a parade of corny jokes, including no less than three versions of the old "walk this way" gag, not the first episode of series eight to use it. The quality of material actually gets so bad that Harold's wife Ethel (Ann Emery) complains that one of the jokes is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, and it's hard to disagree. Rentaghost is a fun series about the spiritworld... but by this stage in the series the ideas have dried up so badly Ethel and Mr. Claypole have to become superheroes to pad things out, in a sequence that insults the intelligence of the viewers... and the viewers were eight-year-olds.

56 Episode 7.6

"Rentasanta" aside, none of the Rentaghost episodes have onscreen titles, explaining why they're all listed as things like "episode 5.4" for this article. Twenty-one of the episodes were novelised in four spin-off books from 1979-1985, with each episode given its own "chapter title", though there's no guarantee that these would be the titles that Bob Block would have intended for television. However, this particular episode, adapted by Hugh Morgan for 1983's novel Rentaghost Enterprises, was given the chapter name "Crash on Delivery". While this is just the chapter title like any of the others, what makes it different is that this particular title was used by the BBC on the official BBC website, where a clip was presented from the programme.
      Sadly, "Crash On Delivery" is an umbrella title for a series of weak slapstick events and half-hearted witticisms. No one ever claimed that Rentaghost was the work of Martin Scorsese, but the show's tendency to be a rigidly-blocked programme is at perhaps its lowest peak here. Characters stand awkwardly in a line to deliver a series of old jokes, many of them heard in other episodes.
      Yet there are some decent gags in this one, like Mr. Claypole scaring everyone by wearing a sheet and making traditional "ghost" noises, the joke being Harold saying "I thought you were a ghost!" But, while amusing, such an occurrence also points to a series that has long lost its original purpose. No longer do the Rentaghost team "aim to shock", but instead merely divert 25 minutes because there was nothing better on ITV. There's a very real case to be made that this is the most uninspired episode of Rentaghost ever written and performed.


55 Episode 7.11

The reason why Rentaghost had such a long run in 1982 is not entirely clear. Some sources allege that it was conceived as two separate series of 6 episodes each, as well as a standalone Christmas special. While it's entirely possible they were filmed some time apart, in the final event the run of thirteen episodes were all shown together in one continuous broadcast.
      With the BBC's habit of repeats, having already rescreened nine episodes earlier in the year, it meant that 1982 saw the series on the air for a massive twenty-two weeks. Unfortunately, listings magazines are limited when it comes to detailing what kind of audience the show was attracting, though it is alleged that over nine million were tuning in to some episodes at its peak.
      The cost of producing so many episodes in one year must have taken its toll, and while it's best not to take Rentaghost too seriously, obviously, this particular episode does have an enormous plot hole: entrepreneur Adam Painting (Christopher Biggins) opens a new fashion line for ghosts, but how will they pay for the clothes? In other episodes Claypole has talked about the charges Rentaghost apply (£20 per hour for hauntings, plus VAT) and Mr. Meaker has referred to paying the ghosts, but it doesn't really make any sense. In fact, it makes about as much sense as the neighbours, Rose and Arthur Perkins, being unaware of what the Meakers really get up to, when they're managers of a nationally advertised company called Rentaghost.
      All of which wouldn't be too bad if the story justified it with the wit and invention the programme had at its inception, but most of it is pretty flat. However, bright spots include Jeffrey Segal and Hal Dyer getting to have fun at playing Claypole-and-Popov-in-disguise-as-the-Perkins, and there's the revelation of Harold proposing to Ethel in a garage: "and then I couldn't back out."

54 Episode 9.2

Yet more evidence of how far the series had lost its core concept is here, where the ghosts play a prank on the Meakers by using an invisibility ray... which takes away from the fact that, as ghosts, they're able to do this anyway. It's a tired, uninspired episode, where the joke about things said to Claypole going in one ear and out the other (because there's nothing in between) gets its third outing. The episode also features, as pictured, Kenneth Connor's third and final appearance in the programme - see entry No.48 for more details.

53 Episode 8.2

Not much will be discussed in terms of the direction of the programme - no person in history has ever likely uttered the term "mise-en-scène" and "Rentaghost" in the same sentence - but for trivia's sake, then there were just four directors of the programme... well, probably.
      The "probably" comes about because the end credits to all but one of the sixth series are currently unavailable, but, striking off those six, what we're left with is the revelation that David Crichton directed 13 episodes, including this one, and was listed as "film director" on 20 more. (As was BBC practice at the time, if a producer directed a programme, they didn't receive a separate director credit, so the only time Jeremy Swan receives this credit is for episode 1.3, which was produced by Paul Ciani).
      Swan directed 36 of the episodes, including 16 without a listed film director (so either Swan directed the lot, or there was no outside film for that week), while Paul Ciani was responsible for 4 of the first series. Lastly, the fourth director was production assistant Renny Rye, who did the film directing for episodes 3.5 and 3.6.
      All of which fact-based ramblings lead us to the possibility of a continuity error with this episode, or maybe the suggestion that they were shown out of sequence: the Spookmobile. Heavily based on the Batmobile from the still-repeated Adam West TV series, it's described by Claypole as "our new invention"... despite the fact that it had clearly been seen in the previous week's episode. Attempts to justify this massive plot hole are desperate, and largely based around pretending the "new invention" refers to the fact that it can now travel through solid objects, something not shown previously. But really... someone somewhere messed up.

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