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    5. Melancholy, madness and strangely touching: why Rentaghost is so good ..


    Melancholy, madness and strangely touching: why Rentaghost is so good as children's TV

    Rentaghost: Michael Darbyshire as Hubert, Anthony Jackson as Fred, Michael Staniforth as Timothy and Edward Brayshaw as Harold

    Rentaghost recently appeared in its entirety – all nine episodes – on Britbox/ITVX Premium. Children's television shows are usually ephemeral in nature; Apart from warhorses like Blue Peter and Grange Hill, which naturally renew themselves every couple of years, a children's production rarely goes beyond a few episodes, especially if it's a drama or comedy. The public grows out of them on one end, and on the other wants something new and especially for them. But Rentaghost started in 1976, when I was seven, and closed its doors in 1984, when I was 16—an eternity in childhood time. I still watched – and by the end I liked it even more.

    RentHost was the child of writer Bob Bloch (not to be confused with Psycho's Robert Bloch), a radio and television veteran who was 55 years old when the series first began. He was part of the team that created Life with the Lyons, the '50s family comedy that crossed over from radio to television, and the very first British sitcom (although its stars, the Lyons themselves, were American).

    In Blok's work there is something of the very dynamic, intense and exciting American comedy of a much earlier era. As adult tastes matured, it was perhaps inevitable that he turned to writing for children, for whom such humor never gets old until they are old. His early 1970s ITV children's shows Forgive My Genie and Robert's Robots were very much in the vein of Rentaghost – messy romps with domesticity disrupted by an element of fantasy.

    Initially, normality in “Rentagosta” is provided by the hero Fred Mumford, who, although himself a ghost of very recent origin, is, by his own admission, an ordinary guy who failed at everything when he was alive. Mumford was played by Anthony Jackson, the rubber-faced actor best known for playing neighbor Sid James and “mini-me” in the homegrown ITV sitcom Bless This House. He opens Rentaghost, an agency for… well, ghost rentals, out of determination to succeed in death in a way he failed to do in life.

    Michael Staniforth as Timothy Claypole in Rentaghost Photo: BBC

    There's something terribly brooding about Mumford, but I don't think that was intentional. Even as a child viewer, I found it both sad and funny. He's always running into walls rather than through them, and he's woefully lacking in organizational skills. Out of sheer suburban embarrassment, he didn't tell his loving parents – John Dawson and Betty Ahlberg – that he was dead, an oversight that forms much of the comedy of the previous series as he struggles to hide his ghostly nature.

    All of this is played very lightly, but there is something inexpressibly melancholy about it – especially when we learn that he died from drowning and his body was never found. The world, even his nearest and dearest, did not even notice that he had died.

    Mumford intends to hide other ghostly talents for his new agency. His two key positions are Mr. Davenport, a Victorian gentleman, and Timothy Claypole, a medieval jester. Davenport (Michael Darbyshire) is another slightly unhappy character who was regularly visited on Earth by his mother, who died when he was a baby. It's another joke—a young woman telling off an old man—that carries an unintentional wistfulness.

    Claypole (Michael Staniforth) is Rentagost's most memorable character, a capricious and mischievous sprite who quickly became the main attraction and stayed until the end. Staniforth was an incredible talent, a musical theater star and accomplished dancer and acrobat whose bright-eyed, furry energy immediately attracted young audiences. There is something a little scary about his tantrums when he is offended; he always takes revenge for insults, sowing magical chaos.

    Staniforth wrote and performed the Rentaghost theme, which anyone over a certain age can sing for you at any time. The earliest version contains references to poltergeists, exorcism, and the line “get scared to death, become a ghost too!” which BBC bosses were quick with the blue pencil.

    The human element is provided by Mumford's landlord and Rentaghost partner Harold Meeker. Meeker is initially a somewhat seedy and aggressive character played by Edward Brayshaw, a former villain in series such as The Avengers and Doctor Who. His role is softened by the appearance of his wife Ethel (Anne Emery, Dick's sister), another of the series' great joys. She is Punch's Judy, always simmering on the edge of irritation, dreaming of suburban respectability despite her complete lack of taste.

    The Meekers are tasteless upstarts, slightly seedy, dreaming of provincial respectability, drawn to amateur performances and constantly tense relationships. Watching these early episodes for the first time since 1976, I was surprised to see that they have a child (mostly off-screen) who is quickly forgotten as their family life becomes one of the main focuses of the series.

    “Be scared to death, become a ghost too!”: Rentaghost opening Photo: Alamy

    At the end of the fourth series, in the Rentasanta Christmas special, which is inexplicably missing from the Britbox packaging, the series undergoes something of a sea change. This is signaled by the arrival of Dobbin, a mime horse magically brought to life by Mr. Claypole for Meekers' Christmas show. Dobbin is mute aside from the odd neigh, but becomes a vital element of the show. There's something about the sculpt of his head – with its oddly long, fluttering eyelashes – that's comically expressive. To their horror, he becomes “soft” towards the Meekers.

    Michael Darbyshire died in real life in 1979, during the premiere at the Theater Royal, Windsor (a great choice for an actor), and Jackson decided to leave Rentaghost. For me, episode five is where Rentaghost really hits its stride. A strange folklore has developed around this place. Many people's first reaction to the mention of Rentaghost is to lament that it was never as good without Fred Mumford and that it has become “stupid”. I don't know what these people thought about the incredibly stupid early episodes, but the way some of them talk, you'd think they were watching Edge of Darkness. I think there's some casual sexism here too. Because in the imperial phase of Rentagost (in my opinion) there are many women.

    The new ghosts hired by Meeker for season five are Hazel McVitch, a Scottish witch straight out of Macbeth, played by Molly Weir, with a broom and a boiling cauldron, and Tamara Noveck, an Eastern European nanny with hay fever who sneezes and disappears. – at the mere sight of flowers.

    Incredibly, Tamara is played by Linda La Plante, under her real name Linda Marshall, shortly before she became the lead writer on the television series Widows. After one series, she left to focus on her blossoming writing career and was replaced by her similarly allergic cousin Nadya Popova, played by Sue Nicholls, already a semi-regular Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street. With her Central European accent, mangled English, and unrequited, ghostly crush on Mr. Claypole (“he's luring me… he's not luring me”), she's another of the late Rentaghost's great joys.

    Other invaluable additions to the cast include Christopher Biggins as the nervous Adam Painting, owner of the local department store, and my favorite characters Rose and Arthur Perkins (Hal Dyer and Jeffrey Segal), the Meekers' next-door neighbors. For some reason (the logic doesn't hold up, but don't let that stop us) the Meekers don't want the Perkinses to know that they are involved with ghosts (this depends on the Perkinses not noticing that Meeker is running away – very publicly – from the firm Rentaghost, but no matter). Essentially, the later series becomes a sitcom about trying and failing to appear respectable to the people in your neighborhood.

    The Perkins never found out the truth – they think the Meekers are “crazy” with “very strange friends and this strange horse” (!), but they are forever traumatized by the strange events happening in the neighborhood – rain pouring in the house, chickens laying eggs. square eggs, etc. The Meekers try to make amends by giving Rose Perkins a magical amulet that, unknown to her, will grant her every wish. Unfortunately, the mascot takes everything very literally: “I would like to sing at any moment,” “I need a very large cup of tea,” etc., which only makes the situation worse.

    Rentaghost stars Sue Nicholls and Molly Weir with a goat Photo: Alamy

    It is in such utter chaos, as plots become increasingly convoluted and incredible events collide with each other, that Rentaghost truly takes off. There's an exhilarating joy that comes from the fun and sheer silliness of it all. Ethel sings “Tangerine” at Biggins' disco. Harold, made irresistibly sexy by a misdirected spell, is pursued by screaming fans who knock down a sleepwalking Dobbin. The psychiatrist the Perkins had been consulting looked up from his desk to see the entire cast suddenly stand behind them.

    I know for a fact that this was a very successful filming – this is not always the case with children's television or comedy – and it shows. You want to join them – they look like they're having a lot of fun.

    Rentaghost also provides a very hopeful and certainly unique perspective on the afterlife. You just carry on – minus the extra creepy powers and endless pranks.

    As the series draws to a close, more characters emerge – a fire-breathing dragon named Bernie St. John, Kenneth Connor as the forgotten ghost What's His Name Smith, even Claypole's former employer Queen Matilda (a terrible 12th-century tyrant) – and the pace becomes increasingly faster. even crazier, more frantic and involved. There are moments of mad genius that reach the heights of the Marx Brothers. But now it has been so amplified that it must have confused new young viewers.

    So, Rentaghost exhaled. Block returned with the sci-fi comedy Galloping Galaxies, but its characters turned out to be too soft and tough. Despite Kenneth Williams lending his voice to the wonderfully sarcastic, bug-eyed computer, it only lasted two episodes. There are some very striking ideas – an alien for whom time goes backwards, and a housewife who takes it all in stride – that seem perhaps a little too complex and intellectual.

    I'm happy to say that Rentaghost can still make you cry with laughter as an adult. It amazes with its joyful absurdity – a scent that we almost never see on television, even for children.

    Michael Staniforth died in 1987 at the age of just 44. I hope he knew how much he was loved.

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