Forty years ago this week, hapless newbie ghost Fred Mumford teleported himself into a dustbin, marking the start of Rentaghost. First broadcast on Tuesday 6 January 1976, it became a staple of '70s/80s UK children's TV.
Rentaghost centred on a group of misfit ghosts hiring out their skills to the living under the management of Harold Meaker - Mr Suburbia incarnate. It spanned two distinct eras - 1976-8 and 1980-4. The first starred a trio of sprites: contemporary ghost Fred Mumford (played by Anthony Jackson), who'd recently drowned aged 28; Victorian ghost Hubert Davenport; and Timothy Claypole, a jester from the court of Queen Matilda.
The death of actor Michael Darbyshire, who played Davenport, forced the series in a different direction. Mumford left, and Claypole was now joined by veteran Glaswegian actress Molly Weir (Hazel the McWitch) as a regular and, one series on, by Sue Nicholls as Nadia Popov. Plots now focussed on the ghosts coming up with crazy business ideas for Harold Meaker and his wife Ethel, as well as altercations with the Meakers' next door neighbours, Arthur and Rose Perkins.
I've enjoyed Rentaghost for different reasons in two eras of my life too.
In my childhood, I lapped up the energy and wordplay. Mumford, complaining about his over-intrusive parents wished they'd 'get lost'. Mischievous sprite Timothy Claypole cast a spell, ensuring they'd do just that - in a later scene we find a worried Mr and Mrs Mumford who can't find the way to the bathroom in their own home. This was sheer brilliance - common sayings given a concrete, literal meaning, watched by children at the stage of intellectual development when they can just about start thinking metaphorically. The fun was as much about knowing you could get the joke as the ridiculousness of the joke itself.
Rediscovering Rentaghost as an adult, it's the slap-stick pantomime quality and bonkers scripts of the later series that appeal:
- Department Store owner, Adam Painting (a young Christopher Biggins) seeks Claypole's help when several of his staff go off sick. They set on the idea of transferring illnesses to objects in the store - a shop dummy literally sneezes its head off, a phone gets laryngitis and Ethel Meaker's birthday present, a music centre (now there's a '70s/80s term) catches measles and blows up as she switches it on.
- The Meakers help Painting out again by arranging for the ghosts to transport furniture to his customers. This culminates in the Meakers unwittingly gliding down a residential street in South Ealing on a furniture-laden flying carpet, singing 'Make Believe' from Showboat to piano accompaniment. The carpet crashes into a lamppost.
- A gale in the Meakers' kitchen causes chaos. Instigated by Claypole to dry a pile of washing, it deftly lifts three custard pies which just so happen to be lined up on the kitchen counter, each hitting a face with superb accuracy.
Where else in '80s kids' TV could you find a magic talisman - a non-too-realistic piece of cardboard with a tiny lightbulb - which lights up to grant wishes? It had been surreptitiously given to placate the Meakers' next-door-neighbours. Trouble was, Rose and Arthur Perkins knew nothing of its wish-granting powers:
- Mrs Perkins expresses dislike at a pot geranium but nevertheless - 'Let's hope it grows on me'. After a faint flash of the talisman, the plant ends up growing out of her head.
- The Perkins, worried about Harold Meaker not getting any sleep - 'Let's hope he gets 40 winks'. Meaker, winking at fellow train passengers, causes such a commotion he gets thrown off.
- The Perkins, exasperated by the at the Meakers' erratic behaviour - 'Go away, hop it!' The Meakers, ghosts, and Dobbin the pantomime horse do just that, 'hop it' down the BBC set masquerading as a back garden. It's a good job the Perkins were so polite and hadn't just told them all to f- off!
Writer Bob Block's imagination was given free rein, a little too free. The actors were clearly given similar freedom to just have fun, as proved by the outrageous campery.
In a way, this was a show by outsiders for outsiders. The series' longest-standing actor, Michael Staniforth who appeared in every episode as Timothy Claypole, was gay in those dark days when this typically meant being ostracised. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, the year before the UK government passed the infamous Section 28. And Fred Mumford, desperately hiding the fact that he was now a ghost from his parents, trying to pass as 'alive', seemed very familiar to gay men in the closet never plucking up the courage to tell their parents.
Rentaghost was much more though - every oddball had a place. This was inclusivity without even trying. In fact the entire production had a feel of easy spontaneity, something to be treasured.
The show was introduced to new young audiences as part of Saturday morning kids' telly The 815 from Manchester in the early '90s, and Dick and Dom in da Bungalow in the '00s, not to mention '90s satellite TV repeats. It's as if it never really went away, sporadically haunting YouTube and bootleg copies turning up for sale online. Sadly though, only the first series has been released on DVD.
So happy 40th birthday Rentaghost. I raise a glass to the actors still alive - here's to hoping all nine series will be released on DVD some day.