There’s a Ghost in My Horse

TJ Worthington on Rentaghost

First published June 2003

During the course of a contrived special edition of Radio 4′s Front Row in 2002 that dealt with the curiously undefined genre of “sit-trag”, Mark Lawson voiced the opinion that shows like The Book Group, The Office and The League of Gentlemen were revolutionising television comedy by dealing with “dark” themes of failure, humiliation and ill fortune.

Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of the history of television comedy could come up with dozens of examples of shows that dealt with similar themes without having to resort to self-consciously “dark” stylings, and it’s perhaps telling that while Lawson and his interviewees were suggesting that this current vogue was in some way making comedy more “adult”, one of the most immediately obvious examples could not be further removed from the adventures of David Brent and company. Most of the central characters in Rentaghost had been dead for centuries, which is something of a shade more unfortunate than merely being humiliated in the workplace by “Finchy”, and yet the series was one of the most upbeat, cheerful and delightfully whimsical comedies ever seen on television. More to the point, it was actually aimed at a child audience.

Rentaghost was created and written by Bob Block, an experienced writer of children’s comedy whose previous credits included work on Crackerjack! and Broaden Your Mind (a late 1960s BBC2 sketch show that featured Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie) for the BBC, and creating and writing the sitcoms Pardon My Genie and Robert’s Robots for Thames. The latter two series have much in common with Rentaghost, trading in the same sort of slapstick humour and employing similar sci-fi/fantasy plot devices, but it is the subsequent offering for which the phenomenally prolific Block is most commonly remembered.

Rentaghost was originally pitched to BBC Birmingham in 1975 under the title Second Chance. The proposal was quickly accepted, albeit with the title amended to the familiar (and far less obscure) alternative. The series initially centred around Fred Mumford (Anthony Jackson), a recent entrant to the spirit world who enlisted the help of his still-living parents to set up an agency to hire out the services of himself and his spectral friends. Said friends – distinguished Edwardian gentleman Hubert Davenport (Michael Darbyshire) and medieval court jester Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth) – were not quite the élite team of supernaturally gifted operatives that one might have hoped for. In fact, it is safe to assume that they were the only phantoms who were mentally unhinged enough to be convinced by Mumford’s outlandish scheme, as they were seemingly totally unable to fully comprehend the modern world that surrounded them, let alone simple instructions from their employers. Somewhat inevitably, this mismatched trio managed to make a shambolic, hamfisted mess of even the most menial task that they were asked to perform. The Rentaghost agency (shades of The Goodies here) would try their hand at activities that ranged from providing a taxi service and running a restaurant to organising a highbrow music concert, and managed to succeed at absolutely none of them.

However, the comedic appeal of the series was not merely limited to the same sort of occupational slapstick that had been a staple feature of BBC children’s television since the days of Mr Pastry, and many of the gags and absurd plot twists were brought about by the ghosts’ permanently ill-timed use of their supernatural powers. In addition to the ability to teleport by grabbing their noses between thumb and forefinger, the ghosts were also able to perform many other feats of telekinetic power, but such was their bewilderment, naïveté and general hopelessness that these powers were normally more of a hindrance than a help. Rentaghost did in fact have some precedents in popular culture. The underrated Topper series of films made by MGM in the 1930s had used the concept of meddlesome phantoms to great comic effect, as had the classic 1969 ITC series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), whilst the idea of a period figure rudely introduced to a modern world had been a comic staple since the publication of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and in fact had recently featured in such television series as Adam Adamant Lives! and Catweazle. However, Rentaghost was individual enough to outshine all of these clear influences and precedents. Bob Block’s scripts crackled with invention, imagination and wit, and the characters featured in the series were well rounded, likeable and believable creations.

Of the original trio, it was Mr Claypole who would emerge as the undisputed star of the show. Played to perfection by stage musical veteran Michael Staniforth (whose other credits included the original West End production of Starlight Express), Claypole liked to think of himself as a gifted inventor, a talented conjurer and the general brains behind the outfit. Unfortunately for him, he was quite possibly the only person who actually believed this. His ramshackle inventions, which included a constantly malfunctioning robot helper named Jeremy, a mechanical parrot for phone answering duties, and all manner of worryingly flimsy-looking gadgets for speeding up the process of housework, had a habit of never doing anything resembling what they were supposed to do (or, failing that, simply blowing up). His conjuring skills were, on face value, impressive, but were somewhat compromised by the fact that he was far too dense to figure out exactly what he was supposed to be doing (anyone in the vicinity of Claypole when they were asked to “put the kettle on” would most likely find themselves wearing a kettle before long).

In addition to his expertly judged portrayal of Timothy Claypole, Michael Staniforth also provided Rentaghost with its sublime theme song. This came about when Staniforth, who had a background in musical theatre, suggested to the production team that he’d quite like to have a try at writing the theme , and turned in an outstanding, charming and insanely catchy number that perfectly complemented the feel of the series. Backed by a spectral harpsichord and melodic piano accompaniment, Staniforth’s virtuoso theatrical vocals and clever, wordplay-festooned lyrics (“hear the phantom of the opera sing a haunting melody, remember what you see is not a mystery but … Rentaghost“) opened and closed each episode in fine style, with an equally effective and genuinely chilling “haunting” laugh tacked on to the end for added impact. More impressive still, the familiar lyrics were written in a hurry to replace an earlier set, which made more direct and less jovial references to paranormal phenomena and were reputedly decided against in the wake of press outrage at the release of The Exorcist(!), although they can still be heard on a couple of first series episodes. Living in perpetual fear of visitations from his erstwhile employer Queen Matilda (whom, like all of the ghosts in the series, ascended and descended from the “Spirit World” with the aid of an elevator), Claypole – and Staniforth – provided Rentaghost with a manic energy that delighted viewers of all ages.

Rentaghost was written and played strictly for laughs, performed in a broad pantomime slapstick style but benefiting from the absence of studio laughter, which prevented it from seeming too silly or frivolous. In many respects, the series resembled a stage farce, with many of the comic setups deriving from mishearings and the elaborate mispositioning of messy or unwieldy objects. However, Rentaghost was a step up from the average slapstick children’s comedy, benefiting enormously from Block’s close attention to plot structure (the big jokes towards the end of episodes were often triggered by minor and seemingly inconsequential events earlier on – a clever device that has frequently been utilised in such sitcoms as Father Ted) and the enthusiasm and expert performance of the cast.

As the series went on, the main cast would in fact change regularly (with the notable exception of Michael Staniforth, who appeared in every episode). Wild West gal Catastrophe Kate (Jane Sheldon) and Caledonian conjurer Hazel The McWitch (Molly Weir), who was not necessarily any more adept at her art than Mr Claypole, were added to the line-up of ghosts in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, Rentaghost changed management from The Mumfords to the world-weary husband and wife team Harold and Ethel Meaker (Edward Brayshaw and Ann Emery). Various friends and associates of the long-suffering Meakers were subsequently added to the cast, including their next door neighbours Arthur and Rose Perkins (Jeffrey Segal and Hal Dyer) – who were unaware of the truth about the phantoms but maintained an unhealthy interest and suspicion in the goings on at the Meakers’ house, and department store manager Adam Painting (Christopher Biggins), a glutton for punishment who persisted in employing the services of Rentaghost time and time again.

While both Mumford and Davenport eventually moved on from the agency, Claypole was joined by a procession of ghostly blunderers. In the days before she started writing “award winning” television thrillers, Lynda La Plante (under her stage name Lynda Marchal) appeared as Nadia Popov, a phantom of Eastern European extraction who suffered from an unfortunate and uncontrollable affliction that caused her to teleport at random whenever she sneezed. When La Plante left, Sue Nicholls (now better known as Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street) replaced her as Nadia Popov, a cousin who shared with Nadia what was clearly a familial trait. Other later agency members included the hopeless Whatsisname Smith (Kenneth Connor) who spent most of his time unsuccessfully attempting to spook the Perkins, dizzy former showgirl Susie Starlight (Aimi MacDonald), and Bernie St John, a fire-breathing dragon who took up uninvited residence in the Meakers’ cellar (“don’t-go-into-the-cellar!!!”). More manic, lunatic and inspired than any of these however was Dobbin, a haunted pantomime horse costume that insisted on lending a hand, despite never comprehending what it was supposed to be lending a hand with. Dobbin never appeared to display a single thought within its cloth head, but Claypole nonetheless relied ceaselessly and loyally on his mock-equine friend for assistance, with predictably ridiculous consequences.

Although it appeared at the same time as Richard Carpenter’s similarly inclined (and sorely underrated) LWT series The Ghosts of Motley Hall, which centred around a group of ancient phantoms who were determined to protect the stately home that they haunted from the attentions of redevelopers, Rentaghost would in fact outlast its contemporary by many years, finally coming to an end in 1984 after a grand total of 57 25-minute episodes and a 40 minute special, Rentasanta. It’s fair to say that the series, while still entertaining, had run its course by this point, and that prolonging it (especially in light of the severe cost-cutting that would affect the BBC children’s department a couple of years later) would probably have led to a dip in quality.

Bob Block followed Rentaghost with a similar series set in outer space, Galloping Galaxies!, which ran in the same slot on the BBC during 1985 and 1986. However, despite the presence of Kenneth Williams as the voice of the computer S.I.D., the series never quite managed to recapture the magic that had infused Rentaghost.

Sadly, there have been very few repeats of the series – the later episodes were transmitted as part of the Saturday morning show The 8:15 From Manchester in 1991, and also later on the now defunct digital channel BBC Choice. The series had in fact been repeated in full (barring Rentasanta) on UK Gold in the early 1990s, but later in the decade a rumour circulated (courtesy of an erroneous and speculative report in TV Zone magazine) that the 1970s episodes had recently been wiped along with editions of Vision On, Take Hart and Jackanory Playhouse. Thankfully, this rumour turned out to have been just that, and the first series has in fact since been released on video and DVD by Network (with the remaining series hopefully to follow). This release remains the only item of Rentaghost merchandise barring the four tie-in novelisations written by Bob Block when the series was airing (Rentaghost, Rentaghost Unlimited, Rentaghost Enterprises and Rentaghost Rules), and a lone annual published in 1982. Somewhat frustratingly the full theme song has yet to be given an official release.

Although its appearance in the poll was marked only by the usual bunch of sneering celebrities laughing at the fact that it featured “Audrey off of Coronation Street“, Rentaghost reached number 12 in Channel 4′s The 100 Greatest Kids TV Shows, which underlines how much genuine affection and respect is still felt for a series that, in many ways, belongs to a different age of children’s television. Echoes of Rentaghost can be seen in many of the comedic BBC shows aimed at children that followed, from The Boot Street Band and The Queen’s Nose up to the recent Richard Blackwood vehicle Ed Stone is Dead (a series with a similar premise to Rentaghost but with a more sophisticated feel in the vein of American teen sitcoms, which only serves to underline how much children’s television has changed in recent times), but few have managed to recapture even a fraction of the style and wit that still resonates through Rentaghost. It resonates, in fact, rather like a certain echo-drenched laugh…