Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Rentaghost

The Rentaghost cast

When I was young Rentaghost was my absolute favourite show ever Once, when I was about seven, in an attempt to integrate me, my mother suggested I join the Brownies; the idea was met with scorn and derision largely because the Brownies swarmed (I’m assuming that’s what Brownies do) on a Rentaghost night, and they sucked, and dressed like tiny poos, and they sucked. It turned out later that I just wasn’t a naturally inclined participator in group activities. Needless to say I didn’t have a lot of friends as youngster, but then there are also no childhood pictures of me dressed like a chubby, redheaded turd at a jamboree somewhere, so take that, Brownies, who’s big and clever now?!

Rentaghost was a British children's television comedy programme broadcast on the BBC between 1976 and 1984 and revolved around a company, 'Rentaghost', which hired out ghosts for a variety of potentially hilarious jobs and purposes.

The first series of Rentaghost saw the recently deceased underachiever Fred Mumford (Anthony Jackson) deciding that the most appropriate use of his afterlife would be to embark upon a posthumous business venture finding work for other ghosts whose mortal lives were similarly as aimless and ineffectual. His meager staff consisted of Timothy Claypole, (Michael Staniforth) a mischievous medieval court jester who, despite having clocked up the most years and experience as a ghost, is abjectly incapable of comprehending modern technology (by ‘modern technology’ I of course mean telephones and eight tracks, this was the 70s and 80s after all, people). He was joined by Hubert Davenport (Michael Darbyshire), a Victorian spirit who was equally troubled by the modern world or rather morally outraged by it. The ghostly team rented an office from Harold Meaker (Edward Brayshaw) who is initially unaware of their deceased status, though does discover the true state of affairs fairly early on.

Series One: Davernport, Claypole and Mumford

Now, from what I remember, though I didn’t particularly realise it at the time, the first series of Rentaghost was really quite dark. The principal character, Mumford, through whom we are introduced to this haunted universe, was essentially dealing and coming to terms with own death as his character developed. As I recall, one of the comedy devices used in the show was his attempting to carry on his previous relationship with his parents while trying to hide the fact he was dead from them. There’s a real sense of pathos there, seeing a man whose physical life was so unaccomplished, so unfinished that once dead he is completely unable to let go of all that wasted potential. Equally, his parents, blissfully unaware of the inevitable grief of his loss continuing on with old familial patterns with blasé ignorance are heartbreaking.

I am also fairly certain, though have been unable to corroborate it, that the death of Fred Mumford was somewhat ambiguous and traumatic. I pretty sure he fell to his watery death from a ferry and can’t recall if this was obviously accidental or if there was a darker connotation. Either way he was clearly presented as one of life’s losers, most tragically in his own eyes as well as to the wider world, and his need to make his afterlife a success is lamentable.

In an apparently typical tragic fashion, so I appear to be discovering, the series brightened up after the first series when Michael Darbyshire (Hubert Davenport) sadly died and Anthony Jackson (Fred Mumford) declined to continue with the show.

Following the departure of Mumford and Davenport (they were reported to have acquired a regular haunting gig at a stately home), former landlord Harold Meaker takes over the business with his wife Ethel and bore the brunt of varying degrees of chaos the ghosts brought their way.

Nadia Popov and Hazel McWitch

During the eight series that followed other characters were brought into show: Dutch spirit Nadia Popov (Sue Nichols) whose comedy trait is she suffered from hayfever when she was alive and post mortem that affliction now manifests in uncontrolled teleportation to unspecified (but usually hilarious) locations every time she sneezes. Hazel the McWitch (Molly Weir), a witch who was…well…Scottish and a pantomime horse imaginatively named Dobbin brought to life in a Christmas special and, due to the incompetence of Claypole, couldn’t be changed back and consequently remained for the rest of the show’s run We also had Biggins as department store owner and Rentghost client Adam Painting and next door neighbours the Perkinses who, I recollect, were at some point given a magic wish granting amulet that was hysterically literal in its interpretation of wishes: ‘I wish the Meakers would join us in a cup tea.’ and then all four of them wind up sitting in a giant cup of tea, etc. The Perkinses were also convinced the Meakers were mentally unstable and believe once hired an undercover psychiatrist (??!) to analyse them.

Throughout its run the show maintained the same super camp pantomime style, the gags were unashamedly terrible and laboriously contrived and the acting was hamtastic with frequent direct to camera asides. Despite all this, or maybe because of all this, I loved it. Whether it has aged well remains to be seen, probably not I imagine, and certainly not under the scrutiny of todays considerably more sophisticated kids, but unsophisticated little me loved it and I still love it now.

Rentaghost was a wonderfully bizarre, uniquely British piece of television history that you just don’t see the like of today. It also had the best theme tune of any TV show ever (well, it and Ulysses 31). Rush ye to YouTube and listen to it.

Worrying early crush

On a personal, and slightly worrying, note, Timothy Claypole was my first crush (him and Quincy); this is disturbing on many levels not least because I clearly wasn’t his type and the fact of his being dead. My feelings now clearly out in the open on this matter, I was devastated learn whilst researching this that the actor who played him, Michael Stainforth, passed away in 1987, I can’t believe I’ve managed to live all these years and not found this out! Nobody tells me anything! I also can’t believe that in all the intervening years and the advent of the internet it never once occurred to me to look this stuff up. It’s like a bit of my childhood has died. Melodrama aside, I also learned that the song The Vaselines song, later covered by Nirvana, ‘Molly’s Lips’ was apparently inspired by Molly ‘Hazel McWitch’Weir. Isn’t the internet marvellous?

My apologies to anyone who isn't British and in their thirties for the above post.  To you this is probably just disturbing and faintly ridiculous and I am sorry about it, but that was my childhood, while you grew up on Buffy we got Rentaghost.

9 comments:

  1. I too would like to apologise to people who aren't British and in their thirties, but at the end of the day it's their own fault, and there's nothing we can do to help them. But Rentaghost - now you're talking.
    I only ever saw the later post-Mumford series at the time, but got the first series when it briefly came out on DVD a few years back. (And man, is there some interest in it now: I copied it - unless you work for the Federation Against Copyright Theft in which case I didn't copy it - and then put the original on E-bay starting at 99p and it went for about thirty-five quid.)
    Why they haven't brought out the other series I can't think: they'd make a fortune I'm certain. I've tried for many years, without luck, to get copies of them. I didn't know that Mumford and Davenport's absence was explained in so charming a fashion in series 2, but I can confirm that Mumford fell off a ferry accidentally, and that, yes, there is indeed a very bleak feel to the scenes where he revisits his parents (and to quite a lot of it really).
    Is it true that Staniforth - who looks somewhat like Charles Manson - died of Aids? That was what I heard. I also believe he was one of the original stars of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. As I'm sure you know, he wrote the Rentaghost theme.
    If you want to shoot a postal address to matthewconiam@aol.com I'd be happy to send you a copy of series 1 (with perhaps an episode of Cheggers Plays Pop or something like that to pad the disc out - for some reason there's only five episodes.)
    And if anyone else reading this has any of the later series: I think you're looking really pretty / very handsome today and I'd love to be your best friend.

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  2. Matthew, I adore you! I kind of knew you'd be the only person who'd appreciate this.
    Thank you for confirming my suspicions regarding series one. Glad to know my aging memory hasn’t entirely deserted me.

    I believe the reason that no further series were realised was something legal and complicated to do with copyright, wranglings between surviving cast members (Biggins!) and the families of the deceased etc.

    I’m also sad to confirm that lovely Michael Stainforth, who doesn’t look at all like Charles Manson, not even a little bit, well, maybe a smidge, and that’s now something else that makes my childhood crush disturbing, did indeed die due to AIDS related illness. Breaks my little heart. However, he was indeed an original cast member of Starlight Express and did utilise his roller skating skills in Rentaghost too from time to time as I recall, and he did indeed write and sing the Rentaghost theme tune. He rules!

    I’m so excited you’ve got the first series and would utterly love a copy, I will rush my details off to you, you genius man, you. I also echo your sentiments to anyone handsome/pretty out there in internetland who has any further series.

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  3. Thanks for my CD, Matthew! You're the best!

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  4. I really want to see the show now, sounds pretty damn funny. I'm gonna try to check it out. Thanks for introducing me to something new.

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  5. Rick! That makes me sooo happy! Thank YOU for embracing retro British tomfoolery.

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  6. I wouldn't know anything about this series, being American and in my twenties, but I always enjoy hearing how horror fans got their fix when they were wee. I have a lot of blog posts rattling around in the back of my brain about my silly childhood excursions into fear.

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  7. Thanks, Mr. Groundskeeper. You should definitely get those childhood posts out there, I'd like to see them, I may even recognise some of them, for some reason American TV tends to travel more and translate easier, I can’t imagine why, and I did live in your good country for quite a while, but I am regretfully still in my thirties.

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  8. Given how far better the Mumford version is than the later version which was too much about silly slapstick magic - and bringing a standard kids' show witch into what had originally been a spiritually clever show without one was unforgivable -

    I am pleased to confirm the Mumford version was not confined to the first series. It was the first 4 seasons, all of 23 episodes.

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  9. http://crappytvs.blogspot.com/2014/09/rentaghost-bbc-1-1976-1984.html
    Must say Rentaghost was fantastic! Loved the early episodes but really enjoyed the later one's too!

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