Christmas With Children's BBC: Rentasanta

Rentaghost - the Rentasanta logo.

Rentasanta, the little-seen Christmas Special of long-running Children's BBC slapstick mayhem-driven sitcom Rentaghost, is a little bit more than just a Christmas Special. Although this was really something that came about by accident rather than by design, it actually marks the end of the series in its original - and, many would contentiously contend, superior - incarnation.

Alright, so maybe it wasn't that different - after all, the show did still involve large amounts of spectral hi-jinks, comic misunderstandings and failures to transport antique vases with any degree of success - but the first three series of Rentaghost were built around an at least comparatively more structured and interesting format. The original central character was Fred Mumford (Anthony Jackson), a literal lifelong underachiever who had founded Rentaghost as an odd job agency with two Spirit World pals - medieval jester Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth) and Victoran gent Hubert Davenport (Michael Darbyshire) - in the hope of finally establishing a business venture that would impress his parents. However, he also wanted to prevent them from finding out he was now a ghost, which lent an extra element of escalating chaos to the already haphazard plots. The early escapades also involved a good deal of broad social satire on issues like Trade Union relations, airport delays and hoax 'mediums', which would be largely phased out as the show went on. Hardly Samuel Beckett, admittedly, but it does give you some idea of why a large percentage of erstwhile viewers still feel that it was never quite the same afterwards.

The reason why it was never quite the same, of course, indirectly involves Rentasanta. Not long after work on the special was completed, the hugely talented Michael Darbyshire joined the Spirit World himself, and Anthony Jackson felt unable to carry on with the series in his absence. This meant that the entire show had to be rebuilt around Mr. Claypole - always the anarchic loose cannon in script terms - and he was joined for markedly zanier plots by a new roster of equally eccentric characters. One of which actually makes their debut in this very episode, but more about that later. Instead, it's time to hold our noses and teleport back to... well, theoretically December 1978, though it appears that - for reasons that aren't exactly easy to pin down - Rentasanta didn't actually go out on its intended broadcast date and viewers had to wait until Christmas 1979 to see it. Quite why this original showing was cancelled (if indeed it was) is anyone's guess, and a quick look at the schedules and headlines reveals nothing that really seems likely to have caused it to be shunted for timing or taste reasons, so if anyone reading can shed any light on this, please do get in touch. [UPDATE! it turns out that there was industrial action at the BBC on the intended 1978 transmission date]

There's also a bit of a myth that Rentasanta was never repeated, when in fact it got a couple of airings at the time, and later still a couple more on the CBBC channel (as you might well have deduced from these screengrabs) at the instigation of Dick And Dom. But enough of this scribbling questions marks over transmission details, and let's just get down to... erm... how do you do that teleportation noise phonetically exactly??

Surprisingly, while Rentasanta opens with the traditional framed portraits of the ghosts (thoughtfully enhanced on this occasion with copious amounts of tinsel), it doesn't actually kick off with the familiar Staniforth-written-and-sung Rentaghost theme; instead, the lead trio descend from the ceiling with a brief tinsel-skipping rendition of Jingle Bells. Yes, in case you hadn't worked out yet, this is going to be a musical episode, and it's interesting to ponder on the possible reasons why. Rentaghost had an unintentional and entirely coincidental rival in ITV's The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, which employed a similar premise (even down to featuring a jester as a lead character) only with somewhat more dry witted and theatrical scripts; as Sir George Uproar and company had already featured in both an award-winning Christmas Special and a highly successful episode in which the ghosts all got to sing a song each, it's tempting to speculate that Rentaghost writer Bob Block might have felt compelled to rise to the indirect challenge. Added to this, a significant proportion of the Rentaghost regular cast had a background in musical theatre and weren't exactly backwards in coming forwards about that fact, and they may well have been pushing to get to do a touch more singing and dancing for a while by then.

Anyway, whatever the reason, it starts off looking as though it's going to be anything but a regular episode of Rentaghost, but once they've finished with all of the one horse open sleigh shenanigans it's very quickly back to business as usual. Fred has arranged for the trio to hire themselves out as Department Store Santas to help the real ones out during a busy period - a perfect example of the sort of escalating collapse of logic that Bob Block never really gets enough credit for - though is still wary of ruining his parents' Christmas by letting them find out that he's a ghost. As Davenport struggles with the concept of blinking fairy lights and Claypole prepares to send out playing cards to friends and wellwishers, Rentaghost's landlord Harold Meaker calls and informs them that they're double-booked; the ghosts are expected to help him and wife Ethel out with their Christmas Panto. Confident that they can pull their demanding joint duties off without a hitch - you can see the plot details mapping themselves out ahead of you - the trio launch into their 'Rentasanta' jingle, which only serves to make the average viewer wonder just how closely Bob Block had been watching The Goodies.

At the rehearsals for Aladdin - where Ethel is indulging in her usual love of overblown theatrics, and Claypole inevitably falls in love at first sight with co-star Marjorie ("she loves me!" - "oh no she doesn't") - the ghosts are unhappy with the idea of limiting their contributions to 'special effects' and start squabbling over which one of them should get to play the genie. When Claypole spitefully traps the other two inside a prop lamp "seeing as you find it so interesting", Harold lays down the law and insists that Mumford and Davenport have to play the pantomime horse. They are then visited by Adam Painting, the hapless department store manager who continually hires Rentaghost despite the shop-wrecking trail of destruction they invariably leave in their wake, who wants to employ their Santa-themed services for his grotto. Adam then reveals himself to be a huge fan of The Meaker Dramatic Society: "I believe this is the third production they've done this year!" - "Did you see their last one?" - "I hope so..."

Meanwhile, Harold is expressing concerns that Ethel's portrayal of Aladdin lacks sincerity, conviction and credibility. Claypole offers to help out with this by casting a spell to make her 'live the part', which, inevitably, leads to her adopting a thigh-slapping panto persona offstage and getting into an 'oh no he isn't' argument with The Mumfords when they turn up looking for Fred. Eventually she concedes defeat and agrees to tell them the department store's address, which she of course does by singing whilst pointing at a cue card with a big stick.

Over at the store, the ghosts are finding their grotto duties a bit too much like hard work - "a pity Christmas has to come when all of the shops become busy" - when Mr. Painting joins them for an impromptu rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town on a big showbizzy set that quite possibly wasn't a permanent installation in his retail space. No sooner are they done than Harold phones, demanding both that Claypole reverses the spell he's put on Ethel, and that Mumford and Davenport turn up immediately for rehearsals. Realising that his colleagues are too busy to perform both tasks at once, Claypole helpfully uses a bit of magic to bring the pantomime horse costume to clumsy, over-affectionate life. And there you have the first appearance of Dobbin, who would remain with the show for the remainder of its existence, and whose origins and purpose would forever prove a mystery to anyone who hadn't actually seen Rentasanta.

While the rehearsal horseplay continues without them, and with the aid of a weak pun about getting 'Santa Claustraphobia', the ghosts set about delivering some presents on behalf of Mr. Painting. This is about as much of a success as viewers might be expecting, as Mumford is floored by a sweep's brush, and Davenport makes it all the way down a chimney only to land on an open fire. For some reason, Claypole uses this as his cue to launch into a clipped and angular all-singing-all-dancing-all-jumping-at-alarming-gradients rendition of Swinging On A Star. At this point, it's probably worth saying a few words about Michael Staniforth; one of the most recognisable yet at the same time most mysterious figures of children's television of this era, it's clear he was both a born showman and a highly individual performer - the fact that his other credits include such diverse and prominent engagements as appearing in the original West End production of Starlight Express and in Rowan Atkinson's bizarre cerebral one-off sketch show Canned Laughter is testament to that - and that his promising career was cut tragically short when he became terminally ill shortly after Rentaghost came to its conclusion in the mid-eighties. Where that career might have gone next is anyone's guess. However, it has to be said that this somewhat idiosyncratic and way over-energetic performance of a song almost entirely unrelated to the narrative probably just left the majority of its intended audience feeling slightly baffled.

Bafflement is also the order of the day at the Meakers' house, where Harold's attempts to steal a kiss from Ethel under the mistletoe ("I wouldn't kiss you under chloroform!") are thwarted by the arrival of Dobbin, who proceeds to knock over furniture, fling flowers in the air, and consume Mrs. Mumford's hat when she turns up still in search of Fred. Exhausted, Harold and Ethel head for bed, where they are woken up by the ghosts launching into a toe-tapping Broadway-style rendition of Sleigh Ride on the roof. They are somewhat less than pleased to find Dobbin lying across the bottom of the bed like a cat.

Dobbin does, however, prove to be a worthwhile addition to the repertory company and throws himself into rehearsals with aplomb, joining in with a choreographed rendition of Me And My Shadow with worryingly limb-flailing abandon. This is followed by Ethel and the ghosts tearing through the breakbeat-festooned funk-out I've Got A Genial Genie - which appears to be the only entirely original musical number in the whole programme - and Claypole trying out his 'levitation' effect on Marjorie (though he has to be quickly talked out of similarly demonstrating an effect that will 'bring the house down'), before Harold is called to the phone to be given the possibly not exactly bad news that their props have been damaged in storage and the show will have to be cancelled.

Luckily for them - although perhaps not quite so luckily for the panto audience - the Meakers are able to call in a furniture-loaning favour from Adam Painting, although there's a catch; he demands to be allowed to join the cast as Widow Twankey and sing Keep Young And Beautiful. It's hard to shake the suspicion that this was as much at Christopher Biggins' insistence as that of his fictional counterpart. By this stage, the various stresses are causing The Meakers to lose their voices, although Claypole promises to remedy this and make them sing 'unbelievably'; and sure enough, when they reach their solo parts in It's A Lovely Day Today, they find themselves singing with each other's voice.

Meanwhile, at Fred's misunderstood request,Claypole has also cast a spell on The Mumfords to make them 'believe' what they are seeing, causing the hapless couple to rush the stage and remonstrate with the Sultan, and then report a threat to 'The Princess' to a policeman, who duly arranges for squad cars to be sent haring round to Buckingham Palace. As proceedings degenerate into total chaos, it's down to Claypole to restore order, which he does by summoning a real genie, thereby stopping everyone open-mouthed in their tracks. The cast - with the ghosts now apparently sporting leftover costumes from Doctor Who And The Robots Of Death - take their bows in true panto fashion to the full-length Rentaghost theme song... and that's Rentasanta.

For what is in some ways a pivotal episode of Rentaghost - possibly not a phrase that many people were expecting ever to read - Rentasanta isn't a particularly strong or coherent one. With a slightly longer running time and a series of heavily choreographed setpieces to string together, it lacks the tightly-scripted and frantically-performed mayhem of the regular episodes, and consequently seems a bit disjointed. At the same time, part of what gave the show its energy was that the cast's backgrounds in variety and stage comedy were allowed to inform their performances rather than drive proceedings, and giving them an opportunity to fully indulge their leanings just comes across as a bit, well, indulgent.

What can't be argued with, however, is that Rentasanta is a textbook example of the end-of-term attitude that was once allowed to dominate the BBC's - and, to be fair, ITV's - children's programming when Christmas rolled around, with everything from Animal Magic to All-Star Record Breakers (and even, to an extent, Blue Peter) dispensing with the need to play by their usual rules and instead giving cast, crew and audience the chance to have a bit of fun before seeing each other again in the New Year. Though how exactly you judge one episode of Rentaghost against another in terms of the capacity for 'having fun' is a logical conundrum best left for another time. And then, of course, there were the shows that were able to tackle the subject of Christmas entirely within their own 'in-universe' house style...

To find out how Bod tackled the subject of Christmas entirely within its own 'in-universe' house style, head here. Or for a more academic (with added paper puppets) take on The Nativity courtesy of BBC Schools show Watch, try here.

You can find an expanded version of this feature, along with previously unseen features on the Christmas episodes of Chorlton And The Wheelies and The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, in Can't Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle store here.