‘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!’
In January 1976 Fred Mumford (Anthony Jackson) opened the doors to his Rentaghost agency in a bid to find work for ghosts. Yes, you heard it right - for ghosts. Mumford’s reasons for this had plenty to do with his own life; or rather lack of it, as he was himself recently deceased. An unfulfilling time on earth implanted in him the altruistic wish to provide employment for spectres with similarly bad experiences when they were alive. This premise gave the series its original title of Second Chance, which probably wouldn’t have grabbed the imagination of the children it was aimed at, so thankfully the more fun Rentaghost was decided on before it aired.
Mumford managed to get only two ghosts on his books to begin with; a medieval mischief maker called Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth) and Hubert Davenport (Michael Darbyshire), a gentleman from the Victorian era. Claypole was a jester in his previous life, and his entire time within Rentaghost was spent living up to this, with jokes and tricks being his raison d’ être. He spoke in a comedy medieval language (‘Gadzooks!’), wore a variety of brightly coloured outfits with matching tri-corn hats and had no clue about modern life or any of its technology. Mr Davenport was a dignified soul who found life in this strange new world difficult, coming up as he did against an uncomfortable lack of morals compared to his past existence.
In further series Mumford expanded Rentaghost by hiring some new life (well, death). Hazel McWitch (Molly Weir) was perhaps the most sensible (if sensible is really a word you can use in any description of this programme) sorcerer associated with Rentaghost, and the only one who seemed to have any interest in the agency ever actually being successful.
After four series the Rentaghost agency got new owners; Darbyshire passed away in 1979, and Jackson decided not to take part in any further storylines. Block wrote their parts out by finding them employment at a stately home (in a haunting role obviously), and the agency’s landlords Harold and Ethel Meaker (Edward Brayshaw and Ann Emery) became the new owners of Rentaghost. What prompted them to take this on is anybody’s guess; they’d discovered the spooky events going on in their building early on in the first series, so were presumably well aware what chaos the staff were capable of creating.
More characters arrived; these included Dobbin, a tatty, whinnying pantomime horse brought to life by Claypole in the first instance for the special Christmas episode (RentaSanta). When the sprite was incapable of reversing the spell afterwards Dobbin remained with the agency; causing confusion, dressing up in ridiculous costumes and generally getting in the way. Nadia Popov (better known as Sue Nicholls, who also played Reggie’s love interest Joan in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and went on to greater fame as Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street) arrived from the Netherlands with hay fever and a disconcerting habit of disappearing when she sneezed, unwittingly ending up in all sorts of ‘hilarious’ situations. Point of interest: Miss Popov was introduced to Rentaghost through her cousin Tamara Novak, who was played by crime writer Lynda La Plante.
Christopher Biggins popped up occasionally as Adam Painting, a local businessman who often tried to get the ghosts to help out with his latest venture, and Carry On legend Kenneth Connor played the very forgettable spook Whatsisname Smith from 1983-84. All added their own brand of disruption to what was already a fair degree of pandemonium.
Long-suffering neighbours Arthur and Rose Meaker stayed just this side of sane; with no idea that spectres were working on the other side of their wall they struggled to comprehend some of the bizarre goings on. Getting caught up in wayward spells was a hazard of living next door to the incompetent agency; they often displayed some very erratic behaviour which left them traumatised and heading swiftly home to their chintz-covered living room.
Originally intended as a five part series, the childish jokes, appalling puns and cheeky asides to the camera proved so popular with its young audience that the writer Bob Block was commissioned to keep Rentaghost going. 58 episodes went out over 9 series between 1975 and 1984, with viewing numbers peaking at almost ten million. It was positioned 12th in Channel 4’s ‘100 Greatest Kids’ TV Shows’ in 2001. The spookily catchy theme song was written and performed by Staniforth, although his original offering was rejected on the grounds it sounded vaguely reminiscent of the theme from The Exorcist…
The original series looks pretty dated now, but for the last few years the idea of a film adaptation has been thrown around, with Ben Stiller in talks for the role of Mumford. Perhaps they could use Michael Staniforth’s original theme tune?