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Looking Back At RENTAGHOST

Tony ain’t afraid of no ghost…
Rentaghost is a children’s show of two halves, based around an incredibly strong central premise from writer Bob Block.

There had been, for more than 30 years, fun to be had in film and TV with the idea of ghosts returning to Earth, and being visible only to certain people. From Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, in the movie version of which, Rex Harrison was delightfully haunted by ex- and current wives, to the likes of Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), where detective Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope) was killed in the first episode, and continued to work alongside his partner, Jeff Randall (Mike Pratt) in the early Seventies.

Rentaghost took the central idea of these stories, and gave it a children’s teatime twist. Everybody could see the ghosts – unless they spent a lot of psychic energy to be invisible. That meant there was a market opportunity for anyone who could use a spot of creative and timely haunting. Think Beetlejuice, but British (and, given that movie’s success, a little ahead of its time!).

The initial set-up is that modern Seventies man, Fred Mumford (played by Anthony Jackson – who had previously carved his place in children’s legend by voicing characters in Oliver Postgate’s Ivor The Engine), feels like he never achieved anything in his life, prior to falling off the cross-Channel ferry and drowning. He determines that his death will be a new chapter in his… erm… ‘life,’ and that he will knowingly employ other ghosts who, during their lives, were utter failures. It’s actually quite a sweet redemption-engine, and after six months of ghosthood, during which Mumford still hasn’t been able to master the simple art of walking through walls, he sets up his company.

Initially, there are two successful applicants to join the firm – Hubert Davenport, a frill-shirted, top-hatted Victorian gentleman, played by Michael Darbyshire, and Timothy Claypole, a medieval jester, played by Michael Staniforth (who also wrote and sang the theme song which, if you ever watched the show, probably started playing in your head the moment you read the title of this article).

There was a fourth character who drove the show’s storyline along – Mr Meaker, played by Edward Brayshaw (Dear Internet – yes, Meaker, with an ‘a’), who was originally the landlord of the office in which Rentaghost was based. His initial purpose was precisely that – to be a mortal who could drive stories, and who wouldn’t understand the supernatural nature of the business, despite the word ‘ghost’ being in the title. In fairness to writer Bob Block though, that was a conceit that didn’t last beyond the first three episodes, Meaker proving himself to be smarter, though not necessarily more pleasant, than that role of straight man demanded.
Rentaghost, when it started in 1976, was a children’s sit-com, Mumford acting as a kind of kid-friendly mixture of Tony Hancock’s famously self-regarding loser character and Leonard Rossiter’s Reginald Perrin (who, not for nothing, took to TV the same year). A born loser, determined to make something of himself in the company of a couple of misfits. That they were supernatural misfits only added to the texture and the potential of the piece. While Fred was an ‘average bloke,’ Mr Davenport would frequently react in dismay or horror at the moral decay of the age, while Mr Claypole, exposed to the technology of the 1970s, would often cause a scene or set off a funny misunderstanding by his misapprehension of what the technology must be or do.

The three of them together worked well, and drove the stories of their ill-fated business in three different directions – or four with the involvement of Mr Meaker. There was usually an idea of the week – Rentaghost Taxis, for instance, or Rentaghost Removals – and each idea would blossom once you applied the notions that a) these people were dead, and b) two of them had very little idea how to interact with 1970s Britain. If you tell a medieval jester to help your parents move house, for instance… you get a house that has literally moved, and so on. Deliciously bonkers stuff, but done with a good heart, a sense of silliness that appealed to the children’s audience, and for all that, a sense of internal logic. That’s what made it feel like a children’s sitcom, rather than, for instance, a pantomime.

The fact that Rentaghost lasted for eight years is, with the best will in the world and no wish to speak ill of either the actual or the fictional dead, something of a supernatural miracle.

In 1979, Michael Darbyshire sadly died (No, for real). Anthony ‘Mumford’ Jackson declined to come back and star in the 1979 series. With Michael Staniforth (Claypole) left as the only original ghost, the series needed to evolve or come to an end. With audience appreciation still high, the show pushed on. And here’s the controversial bit – there are those who will argue it should have come to an end, instead.

Harold Meaker became the owner of Rentaghost, with Mumford and Davenport allegedly away on a deeply unlikely extended haunting tour of stately homes.

That changed the whole dynamic. No longer was it about a hopeless ghost trying to make something of himself and give opportunities to other supernatural nonentities. Now it was a mortal, more or less grinding the noses of the ‘stupid spooks,’ who more or less existed to mess things up for comedy value. Meaker never really grew to like any of the ghosts, and went through the rest of the show trying to be the put-upon mortal. In essence, the balance was off, and the growing roster of spooks at Rentaghost were more a sequence of liabilities as Rentaghost became a truly capitalist concern.
At the same time, the balance of the humour shifted from fairly intelligent, silly, children’s sit-com more and more towards actual televised pantomime, the jokes getting more and more predictable and broad as the likes of Hazel the McWitch (played by the always effective Molly Weir), Nadia Popov (the Dutch ghost with hay fever who dematerialised when she sneezed, played by Sue Nicholls before she moved to Coronation Street), and Dobbin, the haunted pantomime horse (played by William Perrie and John Asquith) joined the team.

As if to up the potential for chaos, Rentaghost became a suburban supernatural panto, moving more and more into the Meakers’ home. The foregrounding of Harol and Ethel Meaker (Ann Emery, half-sister of Seventies comedy legend, Dick Emery) allowed for twice as many supernatural/domestic misunderstandings, and bringing in their ‘normal’ neighbours (think the Dursleys in Harry Potter), Arthur and Rose Perkins (Jeffrey Segal and Hal Dyer respectively) allowed a new canvas for supernatural calamity and outrage.

If anything, the more domestic Rentaghost focused on getting more supernatural silliness and more over-the-top laughs out of each episode. There are fans who love that version of Rentaghost for its anarchic energy, especially as Mr Claypole grew in confidence and power (if never, noticeably, in 20th century nous!) – and for lots of kids in the late Seventies and early Eighties, that increasingly absurdist energy, complete with the pantomime horse, gave the show an inclusive, runaround, intensified atmosphere.

For fans of the original version, it sometimes felt too crowded, because everyone needed their ‘bit’ of the storytelling to justify being their place in the company from week to week. But though it spiralled significantly away from the set-up of the original show, Rentaghost always had the power to keep you in your seat, and to not let you blink till that glorious theme tune kicked in at the end every week – increasingly often, over a scene of pantomime chaos.
Rentaghost will always be a show of two halves – that fun three-or-four handed sitcom of the start, and the high-octane pantomime ghostfest of the later years. Each iteration has its fans, but the premise overall was genius, and the lynchpin that made it coherent and made it work was undoubtedly Michael Staniforth, as Mr Claypole the jester. There are other ghosts in every single episode, but if you think Rentaghost, you immediately think Claypole, and that’s only right, because his energy and performance lit up the screen for eight years in the show.

In the years since it ended, there have been plans for a movie version, first with Russell Brand as the new Fred Mumford (Really? Not the new Claypole?), and then with Ben Stiller in the lead role. Watch this space for any movie developments.

But first, watch the TV original for that sense of British children’s sitcom-cum-supernatural-farce, with a genuinely funny Seventies vibe.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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