Rentaghost

Rentaghost

1976 - United Kingdom

There have been several attempts to revive Rentaghost but none so far have proved successful

Fred Mumford is dead. But like Marty Hopkirk he refuses to pass over quietly. The whilst-living entrepreneur has actually been dead for six months, but his parents are unaware of the fact, believing him to be on holiday abroad. So they are not surprised when he turns up at the family home asking to borrow £30 for the rent on a South Ealing-based office (this was 1976) where he wants to base his latest venture - Rentaghost.

Unlike Marty Hopkirk, Fred (Anthony Jackson – best remembered as Sid James next door neighbour in Bless This House) is not invisible to all except his business partner, and therein lies his business opportunity. Putting together a motley crew of fellow spirits, Fred and company advertise themselves for hire. As the opening theme tune explains; "If your mansion house needs haunting just call Rentaghost. We've got spooks and ghouls and freaks and fools at Rentaghost. Hear the Phantom of the Opera sing a haunting melody. Remember what you see is not a mystery but Rentaghost."

This half-hour children's sitcom was the creation of Bob Block, a Plymouth-born writer best known for his slapstick comedy, who had begun his career with the radio series Life with the Lyons and had gone on to write 18 episodes of Our House, a vast number of ‘dad-jokes’ for Crackerjack! had created both Pardon My Genie and Roberts Robots and was also a script or gag writer for Arthur Askey, Frankie Howerd, Terry-Thomas, Ronnie Barker, Tony Hancock and Ken Dodd. All-in-all, not a bad CV.

Block developed the series under the title Second Chance and the original premise was to feature ghosts returning to Earth after a lifetime of failures, hoping to make amends and win some respectability before finally finding everlasting peace. Each ghost had its own distinctive character and its own special abilities. Each can cast spells but there's no telling what that will lead to because every cast has unpredictable consequences. They maintained their corporeal status almost all of the time but through psychic energy, they could disappear. They were able to walk through walls and transport themselves elsewhere by pinching their nose. This clearly left an impression on writer Toby Whithouse who, years later was writing the first episode of his own supernatural series Being Human, when he wrote the line, "Are you going to Rentaghost-in?" when a character was asked how they were going to get in and out of a room without being seen. Although the spectres had magical powers, they still tended to be cursed by the same ineptness that had dogged them during their earthly lives.

Rentaghost

Fred is helped (or more likely hindered) in his agency plans by a fussy Victorian ghost, Hugh Davenport (Michael Darbyshire - The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm), who is constantly bullied by his long-dead mother who regularly appears to scold him about the vulgarities of the modern world, and mischievous medieval poltergeist Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth – who was mainly a stage actor and had appeared in the original London production of Hair). There is no love lost between Mr. Mumford (John Dawson – The Newcomers) and his son. In fact, Fred’s dad seems to be constantly suppressing an explosion of exasperated rage. So Fred is somewhat relieved when his landlord, Harold Meaker (Edward Brayshaw – Doctor Who as the War Chief) discovers the truth about the Rentaghost Agency and he doesn’t have to rely on the old man as much.  With his wife Ethel (Ann Emery - Julia Jekyll and Harriet Hyde), Harold eventually takes over Rentaghost.

Rentaghost

Over the 58 episodes, characters come and go. Hazel McWitch is a Scottish witch played by Molly Weir (Life With the Lyons), Nadia Popov (Sue Nicholls – Coronation Street) is a Dutch ghost who suffers from hay fever and teleports away when she sneezes, and the pantomime horse Dobbin (William Perry and Roland A. Wollens – although who was at which end we don’t know), first appears in a one-off Christmas special called Rentasanta and is brought to life by Claypole, who is unable to cancel the spell afterwards, thus allowing Dobbin to remain in the show for the rest of the run. A Wild West cowgirl called Catastrophe Kate, discovered outside a magic carpet shop in the Spirit World, is played by Jana Shelden (Oppenheimer), Aimi MacDonald (At Last the 1948 Show) is fairy godmother Susie Starlight and Adam Painting, a 'living' local entrepreneur who constantly tries to involve the ghosts in his latest business enterprise is played by Christopher Biggins (Porridge). Lynda La Plante (the creator of such crime classics as Prime Suspect and Widows, but still known here as Lynda Marchal) appears in 5 episodes as Tamara Novek and Kenneth Connor (Allo, ‘Allo and the Carry On franchise) is Whatsisname Smith – so-called because he couldn’t remember his own name!

Rentaghost

Bob Block wrote all 9 seasons of Rentaghost, and in all honesty, it began to show towards the end, which is a shame because the early years of the series really were both funny and intelligently written. But you can’t keep flogging a dead horse forever – not even a pantomime one.

Rentaghost

There have been several attempts to revive Rentaghost but none so far have proved successful. A pilot for an Australian version of the series was filmed in 1989 but was never shown. Allegedly, the producers wanted Michael Staniforth to reprise his role as Mister Claypole only to discover that he had passed away in 1987! In any case, the Australian networks declined to take up a series feeling that the theme was too dark for children! In 2008 a UK production company, RDF Media, bought the television rights to both Rentaghost and Worzel Gummidge and whilst the latter has reappeared (with The Office’s Mackenzie Crook in the titular role), there is still no sign of the former. The rumour mill began churning again in 2010 with Russell Brand (Brand X with Russell Brand) reported to be starring in a Warner Bros. film version, and then in October 2011, it was reported that Brand had been dropped (possibly due to the awful remake of Arthur) and Ben Stiller had signed for the project. With 12 years (at the time of writing) having passed since that snippet of information, it feels safe to say that there is nothing close to another manifestation of Rentaghost. The nearest we have got to a revival or remake is the BBC’s adult sitcom Ghosts, which launched in 2019.  

With its fun-filled 30-minute episodes of good-natured slapstick comedy and groan-inducing puns, Rentaghost, whilst not being a prime example of the best of children’s television, delightfully filled a slot in the children’s television schedules that sadly seems to be long forgotten these days. Can we expect to see a revival of decent kids’ TV on our screens again in future? Not a ghost of a chance.

Published on September 12th, 2023. Written by Malcolm Alexander for Television Heaven.

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