Rigsby Online: The Authorised Rising Damp web site
A Biography and Filmography
|Eric talks extensively about the creation of Rising Damp and its cast...|
"We didn't know that Rising Damp would become a little part of TV history", writes Eric Chappell at the end of his Introduction to the complete Rising Damp scripts. But history it is. One of the most fondly-remembered, thankfully never-imitated, most often-repeated situation comedies on British television. What made it so successful? The actors, certainly. But the actors are only the puppets in a fictional performance. It is the writing - the character profiles, the storylines, the setting, the dialogue, the comedy, the timelessness, the believability - all of these things can come from only one source: the writer. As writers go, it can definitely be said that Eric Chappell 'got lucky' with Rising Damp. He wrote a play - only the second he'd ever written, it got accepted, it received rave reviews, it reached the West End, a TV company saw potential for a sitcom and, as that well-worn phrase goes "...the rest is history".
Sowing the seeds
Eric Chappell was born into a working-class family in the town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, in 1933. (The town's most famous child, however, is Baroness Thatcher). Even before he became a teenager, Eric seemed to have a talent for stories. A teacher nurtured his creativity and, when asked to relate a fictional story to the rest of the class, Eric spoke for over an hour! Getting his ideas from books he'd read at the local library, he established himself as one of the high spots of his classmates' lessons, and ended up storytelling every week. After moving on to his Secondary School, however, the emphasis was more on sport and less on English, and so his interest started to wane.
Eric went on to study accountancy at college, although he admits he didn't have much aptitude for figures. He failed his finals but nevertheless landed a job as an auditor with the East Midlands Electricity Board, checking cash and compiling reports at branches from Coventry to Leicester. But away from his day job, Eric had secretly returned to his love of storytelling. He penned rough drafts of several novels on his typewriter, but admits they were never good enough for publication: "They were bad novels, and looking back, I'm ashamed of them", he says. As all writers know, the returned manuscript with the accompanying rejection slip is extremely demoralising, and destroys motivation in a flash. At a low ebb after another such continued rejection, Eric decided to try another genre - a play. He remembers the idea came to him in the bath: "Why don't I write a play?!", he exclaimed, in an Archimedes-type Eureka! moment. "For one thing it's only 20,000 words instead of 70,000".
A biography of playwright and author Robert C. Sherriff inspired Eric to send his first play off to the same agency, Curtis Brown, as Sherriff had sent his first play (Sherriff went on to be a top Hollywood screenplay writer, penning Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Dambusters, among others). Entitled A Long Felt Want, the manuscript was read by John Bassett at Curtis Brown, who was impressed with it. It concerned two pubescent boys, and their emerging attraction to girls. John invited Eric to his London office and subsequently became his agent. The play was never produced, however, and Eric is not that surprised: "It was very much a beginner's piece of work. I hadn't written any comedy or dialogue like that before, and it showed." But Eric's realisation that someone 'in the business' had thought he was a good writer restored his motivation and enthusiasm, and Eric started to write another play. As he did so, he was still working at the EMEB, and should in fact have been studying for an accountancy exam. His writing now included half-hour radio plays, not all of which were produced. However, his increasing literary workload was still clandestine, known only to himself. But events soon forced a change.
From Bananas to
Eric Chappell's second attempt at being a successful playwright came in a full-length play entitled The Banana Box. This time his manuscript was accepted, and the first ever performance of what became Rising Damp took place on Sunday 29th November 1970 at the Hampstead Theatre Club (see The Play page for details). The first public performance was on 25th May 1971 at The Phoenix Theatre in Leicester (with Wilfrid Brambell as the landlord Rooksby), by which time Eric had had to come clean about his lack of exam revision, and the reason why. While walking down a Leicester street with his boss, a bus went by with an advertisement on the side stating 'The Banana Box - A new play by Eric Chappell'. Eric decided he couldn't keep it a secret any longer, and showed his boss a flyer for the show. Slowly, his family and friends got to know about his 'secret life'. By the Spring of 1973, The Banana Box had received such good reviews, among them: "It is certainly a fresh piece of writing and has a sense of style and wit not found in every potential playwright", that the play had travelled to East Grinstead, Oxford and even Newcastle. Eric, now married, took a gamble and left the Electricity Board. Despite his colleagues thinking he was mad, he decided to rely on his writing for income (plus his wife's job at Oxfam). He remembers: "I'd been planning this for years, but wasn't going to take such a big step until I knew I had enough skill as a writer". He gave himself two years to make a success. Then, in the summer of 1973, The Banana Box was performed at the pinnacle of any playwright's aspirations - London's West End. Of course, by this time, its previous performances gave Eric the chance to hone the play and improve certain scenes. Its gathering momentum in critics' circles also enabled more established actors to come on board. By the time it opened at the Apollo Theatre, Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour and Paul Jones were in the cast.
The huge success of The Banana Box in the West End brought it to the attention of Yorkshire Television, who commissioned the play as a thirty minute sitcom pilot, one of six to be shown in the Autumn of 1974. Entitled Rising Damp, the pilot was one of two which made it into a full series. This was not Eric's first credit for television, however. He had written numerous scripts which had been turned down, until HTV accepted one called The Spanish Dancers. Starring Henry McGee, it was a comedy drama broadcast in Wales in 1971, but not networked nationwide. A pilot comedy about office politics called The Squirrels was broadcast on ITV eight weeks before Rising Damp. Both series were commissioned as full series, and Eric found himself under great strain writing scripts for both series, and having to meet deadlines for the first time: "You sign the contract, you get a portion of your money, you agree to deliver by a certain date and suddenly you're on a treadmill. At that point in my career I had two contracts, two delivery dates - an even bigger treadmill". But the hard work had its rewards. The Squirrels won Eric the Pye TV Award in 1975 for Most Promising New Writer, and after the phenomenal success of Rising Damp, Eric was awarded a BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy for Rising Damp in 1978.
Now with a growing family, and with Jean Warr as his assistant, Eric Chappell was a successful writer, both on TV and in the theatre. A 1976 play We're Strangers Here became the sitcom smash Duty Free, and Eric's other contributions to great British comedy include Only When I Laugh, Home To Roost, The Bounder, Singles and Fiddler's Three. "I always write the play first, or try to", says Eric. "It imposes all sorts of disciplines on you which are good when it comes to writing the sitcom". Besides writing the screenplay for a movie version of Rising Damp (which won a whole host of awards, including the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy Film), Eric continued writing for the theatre and television throughout the 1990s and continues to this day. One of his plays is always being performed somewhere in the UK, and have been produced as far afield as Kenya, South Africa and Australia. American and European versions of his sitcoms have also been produced. Eric's new play, Summer End, premiered at The Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall (of which he is an honorary patron) on 13th August 2002. As he approaches his 70th year, Eric Chappell shows no signs of slowing down.
Read the transcript of an interview Eric gave to BBC Radio Cornwall in early September.
Visit Eric Chappell's web site.
Eric Chappell Credits
(playbooks available here). Synopses courtesy of Arts-archive.
The Banana Box,
The play from which Rising Damp evolved. The story of a miserly, mean landlord, Rooksby, and his long-suffering tenants: Noel Parker, black girl Lucy, object of Rooksby's affection Ruth Jones, and black man Philip, who is the son of an African chief - or is he? A story of bigotry, prejudice, changing attitudes and sexual frustration in a dingy working-class boarding house.
We're Strangers Here,
Two British couples make acquaintance on holiday in Spain. The husband of one couple is soon chasing after the wife of the other couple. A comedy, which was subsequently turned into the sitcom Duty Free (see below).
Acclaimed by national press at its premiere as a 'highly original comedy thriller, full of mistaken identities, hilarious consequences and some great laughs'. So, who will actually drink the poison? Will it be the wife or the mistress, or even the errant husband? Innocent bystanders are not entirely safe, and even the poor rubber plant gets involved! Natural Causes will keep you in suspense until the hilarious conclusion.
Up And Running/Up
A political comedy. Philip Conway is attending a party conference where he intends to make his thrust for power. On the night in question his position is compromised by various visitors including Vicky, whose love promises to be a permanent embarrassment.
A double bill of plays dealing with office life and the struggles of three accounts clerks Rex, Harry and Osborne to address the twin problems of dismissal and promotion watched over by the steely J.F.
A wry comedy centred on Nell, an attractive if acerbic woman who has been deserted by her husband and now feels at the crossroads of her life. Her affair with George Rush, a local teacher and poet, is going nowhere until the arrival of an older man. He provides the spark which causes the dying affair to erupt suddenly into flame.
Nigel Burke, aspiring playwright, is neurotic and agoraphobic and hasn't written a word for three months, to the chagrin of his wife, agent and friends. He is visited by the mysterious Potter, who knows of Nigel's interest in Byron and gives him a goblet used by the poet. Drinking from the goblet brings about subtle changes in Nigel's confidence and manner - and then, out of nowhere, Byron himself appears!
A comic thriller. John Mills is successful, determined and wealthy. When he returns from an evening out with wife Barbara and best friends Trevor and Jenny, he finds his house has been burgled. He is furious, particularly as the burglar may still be in the house. When the local copper appears from nowhere, John assumes they have found their bumbling burglar, Spriggs. But as Spriggs starts to expertly manipulate, cajole and corrupt them, we begin to wonder just how clever he is. With a hidden safe, childhood rivalries, guilty secrets and everything to lose, five very different people play an escalating and hilarious game of cat and mouse.
It Can Damage Your
Based on the TV series "Only When I Laugh" (see below) this comedy looks at three mis-matched men sharing a small surgical ward.
Sam and Fay Spencer arrive for a peaceful holiday in a luxurious Spanish villa, closely followed by actor Howard Booth and his girlfriend, Dodie. Unfortunately, Sam and Howard have matching holdalls which become mixed up. Yet a third identical holdall containing a large sum of money, brings the sinister Raynor to the villa - assumed identities, breakneck pace and hilarious mishaps of farce combine with the tension and startling plot reversals of a thriller in this comedy.
Alec Firth is having an affair with his assistant, Liz, and has organized his domestic life so that they can go to Spain on holiday without making Alec's wife Maggie remotely suspicious. What could possibly go wrong'? The answer: plenty. On the doorstep, in dizzyingly rapid succession, are: Phoebe, Alec's mother, who has discharged herself from her old people's home; Alec's son Jamie, with a broken ankle; and his daughter Mandy, heavily pregnant and not planning to marry the child's father...
Myopic ex-boxer Spinks, impecunious resident of a tower block, let it be known that he has won the Lottery. In cahoots with his reluctant alcoholic friend Kingsley, he attempts to woo twin sisters who come after him for his alleged fortune. A tale in the classical tradition of duped tricksters and mistaken identity.
When Gerry and Judith, a long married couple, rescue Mo from an assault by her aggressive partner Ashley one evening at a pub it triggers off a chain of events that even Judith - trained in counselling - could not have predicted.
Snakes and Ladders,
A reworking of Heatstroke (see above).
Summer End, 2002
Murder-mystery. Premiered on 13th August at The Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall.
Emily Baines is a defiant, embattled old lady who resides in the Summer End retirement home. She believes that her previous companion has been murdered but no-one will listen to her, especially her new fellow tenant May Brewer. Emily points the finger of suspicion at everyone until it finally turns on herself.
We're Strangers Here
and Haunted are to be revised for a new production in the
summer of 2003.
The Spanish Dancers
Broadcast on HTV, 1971.
1 x 30-minute comedy-drama, starring Henry McGee.
Broadcast on ITV, 1974 to 1978.
28 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour, Richard Beckinsale, Don Warrington.
Directed and Produced by Ronnie Baxter, Vernon Lawrence, Len Lurcuck, Ian MacNaughton.
The goings-on at a seedy bedsit, with a mean landlord and his long-suffering tenants.
See the present web site for details.
Broadcast on ITV, 1974 to 1977.
28 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Bernard Hepton, Ken Jones, Patsy Rowlands, Alan David.
Directed and Produced by Shaun O'Riordan.
The politics, misunderstandings and romances of the office workers at TV hire company International Rentals.
Only When I Laugh
Broadcast on ITV, 1979 to 1982.
29 x 30-minute sitcom, starring James Bolam, Peter Bowles, Christopher Strauli, Richard Wilson, Derrick Branche.
Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence.
The pranks and scrapes of three long-term patients of an NHS hospital, and the futile efforts of doctors and nurses to control them. No.1 in the TV ratings for May 1980 (17 million viewers, above even Coronation Street), and consistently in the Top 10 for its entire run.
Broadcast on ITV, June to July 1981.
7 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Anne Stallybrass, Enn Reitel, Kevin Lloyd, Marcia Ashton.
Directed and Produced by Ronnie Baxter.
A middle-class landlady takes a couple of strange misfits under her wing as lodgers. In the Top 10 TV ratings for June 1981 (12.2 million viewers).
Broadcast on ITV, 1982 to 1983.
14 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Peter Bowles, George Cole, Rosalind Ayres, Isla Blair.
Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence.
A smooth criminal conman, fresh out of jail, has learned nothing from his time 'inside'. He moves in with brother-in-law Trevor and his wife soon falls for his suave ways. No.5 in TV ratings for May 1982 (13.3 million viewers).
We're Strangers Here
Broadcast on ITV, 1984.
1 x 60-minute play.
Based on author's 1976 theatre production.
Broadcast on ITV, 19th June 1984.
1 x 60-minute comedy-drama, starring Robin Nedwell, Angela Richard, John Kavanagh, Jane Carr, Patricia Brake.
Co-written with Jean Warr. Directed and Produced by Robert Reed.
The developing relationships of four unattached, divorced, single-parent or unemployed people. Was commissioned, albeit three years later, into sitcom Singles (see below).
Broadcast on ITV, 1984 to 1986.
21 x 30-minute and 1 x 60-minute sitcom, starring Keith Barron, Gwen Taylor, Joanna Van Gyseghem, Neil Stacy, Carlos Douglas.
Co-written with Jean Warr. Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence (except Series 3 & Special, which were directed by Les Chatfield).
Two couples befriend each other on holiday in Marbella. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other soon try to have a fling, and endeavour to meet incognito, despite their partners' efforts to stop it. Consistently in Top 6 TV ratings, peaking with 17.3 million viewers in January 1986.
Broadcast on ITV, 1988.
1 x 120-minute comedy-thriller play, starring George Cole, Prunella Scales, Benjamin Whitrow, Leslie Ash.
Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence.
A man hires an assassin to relieve him of his wife in order for him to marry his secretary.
Home To Roost
Broadcast on ITV, 1985 to 1990.
28 x 30-minute and 1 x 60-minute sitcom, starring John Thaw, Reece Dinsdale, Elizabeth Bennett, Joan Blackham.
Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence and David Reynolds.
A father loses his solitude when his son turns up, after his ex-wife has turned him out. The ups-and-downs of a typical father-son relationship is played out. Final series in January 1990 peaked with 13.6 million viewers.
Broadcast on ITV, 1988 to 1991.
22 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Roger Rees, Simon Cadell, Judy Loe, Susie Blake.
Co-written with Jean Warr. Directed and produced by Vernon Lawrence, Nic Phillips, Graham Wetherell.
The developing relationships of four unattached, divorced, single-parent or unemployed people, evolving into a double-wedding by Series Three.
Broadcast on ITV, 1990 and 1992.
14 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Keith Barron, Reece Dinsdale, Sam Kelly, Sara Crowe.
Created by Michael Green, from his Daily Telegraph column. Directed and Produced by Vernon Lawrence and Catherine Morshead.
Set in 1777-78, the adventures of three men - a squire, his son and their menial - as they drank, stole and gambled their way around Olde Englande.
Broadcast on ITV, 1991.
14 x 30-minute sitcom, starring Peter Davison, Paula Wilcox, Charles Kay, Peter Blake, Tyler Butterworth.
Directed by Graham Wetherell, Produced by Vernon Lawrence.
The conspiracies, schemes and paranoia suffered by three office workers.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 6th March 1974.
1 x 30-minute play.
A comedy-drama of office politics. A fore-runner of The Squirrels.
Rising Damp: The
Released in 1980
See the present web site for details.
(Remembering the filming of or discussing the legacy of Rising Damp, or paying tribute to Leonard Rossiter and the rest of the cast).
'Oh, Miss Jones!': The Very Best Of Leonard Rossiter (VHS, 1996)
Laughter In The House: The Story Of British Sitcom (BBC, 1999)
The 100 Greatest TV Moments (Channel 4,1999)
The Unforgettable Leonard Rossiter (ITV, 2000)
Heroes Of Comedy: Leonard Rossiter (Channel 4, 2001)
When Were We Funniest?
(c) Paul Fisher
Pictures (c) their respective owners