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Rigsby Online: The Authorised Rising Damp web site

An interview with Eric Chappell

Recorded for and broadcast by BBC Radio Cornwall
(Thanks to Roger from the Lane Theatre, Newquay for a copy of the programme)

From the Lane Theatre August newsletter:

We are honoured that Eric Chappell attended the dress rehearsal, opening and second nights of the World Premiere of his new play "Summer End" and was delighted with the professional quality of the production which is being so well received by our audiences. It is a wonderful experience to be involved with the very first production of what is, surely, a play that will "run & run". Eric admits that it is perhaps a little long. He had not realised that old ladies move so slowly - neither had he allowed for the many laughs but that is part of the joy of creative live theatre.

BBC Radio Cornwall came along to the dress rehearsal and transmitted a feature during the Chris Blount afternoon show (Jane Friggins standing in for Chris Blount).  BBC afternoon show producer Ben is obviously a great fan of Rising Damp / Leonard Rossiter and his interview with Eric was most interesting.

'Summer End' producer Mary Downie gives her views on Eric Chappell:

"He's just a wonderful writer. He has a play going on the professional circuit at the moment called 'Snakes and Ladders', which is wonderful. For the last two years I have directed one of Eric's plays. The first year we did 'Theft', a very successful play of his (which he came down to see), then last year Idirected 'Haywire'. These were comedies, whereas this play is built as a mystery, but has a lot of beautiful comic moments in it... According to the audience last night they were entranced by it, and I'm thrilled to bits it came over in that way... I'm very honoured to be able to put this play on for the first time... The audiences who come here to see it are the first people anywhere in the world to see this play. It is literally 'hot off the pen' of Eric Chappell. Even he only saw it being performed on stage for the first time this week... He sent me a copy of 'Summer End' last year when he came to see 'Haywire', and I explained the difficulty we have here at Lane, especially in the summer season, is a lack of men because they're all involved in the hotel business. He said "Well there's only one man in this new play. How about having the world premiere here in Newquay?" and I said that would be wonderful.

Ben: How did you happen to become involved with The Lane Theatre?

Eric: About three years ago, Samuel French the publishers of plays, wrote to me and said: 'It's not often - but it sometimes happens - that a company in a resort like Newquay run your play for a couple of months, and it's happening to you', and I said 'Well that's nice. It's nice of them to run my play from, say, August to October. I must write to them and thank them'. So I wrote them a letter, and they were very sweet. They said come and see one, next time we do it. So I went down when they were doing 'Theft' - which won some awards: Best Actor, Best Actress for the county - and I joined in, they made me very welcome, and I've been coming ever since. And eventually they made me a patron! They've done four of my plays, and this one [Summer End] is an entirely new one. I said to Mary [Downie] the director 'Would you like to try a new one?' So they're trying it out, while I'm tinkering with it, and I'm very happy with it. It runs for about two and a half hours actually, I might have to cut it!

Ben: They seem to be doing a very good job.

Eric: Those two old ladies, they really are a comedy act. They're brilliant. But this is my first thriller, so I'm not sure if I've got the plot right!

Ben: Are you pleased with the results so far?

Eric: I'm very pleased. The audience seem pleased. The audience will tell you eventually if you've got it right.

Ben: Moving away from your more recent work, [on considering] so many pieces of work, one piece that seems to stand out is Rising Damp. What was it like creating what is now a classic comedy series?

Eric: Well, we didn't realise it was at the time! It was just a show. I was learning, I hadn't written a sitcom before. I wanted to leave the electricity board desperately (I wasn't getting much money anyway!), so I thought I'd try and write a situation comedy. So I wrote a pilot and sent it off, and they took it up. Len wanted to do it, and he was superb, as you know, and as I knew he would be - and the rest is history. But we just thought we were making a show. Suddenly we began to feel it was more than just a one-off series. I'll tell you how I knew - when we did the dress [rehearsal] on the Friday night, I noticed all these people started to trickle in to see the show - technicians, eletricians, all those people - and they started to bring their families in. So we had as many people watching the dress as there was watching the recording! So I realised we'd got something special.

Ben: When casting Leonard Rossiter for the part... He just WAS that character wasn't he?

Eric: He was. When I started, I just wrote a character, based on people I knew from years before. But when Len came into it, after about two or three years you're writing for Len as well, because he's become the character. Sometimes Len would turn to me and say 'No, he [Rigsby] wouldn't say that, Eric'. And I'd think, wait a minute - I wrote this character! Len would say how he would do it and, eventually, the actor takes over the part.

Ben: Did it make it any easier having that connetion?

Eric: It was tough. People would ask me what it was like to work with him, and Id say'It was tough!', but I learned from him. He never accepted anything but the best. Sometimes he would be ruthless at the rehearsal. He would say things like 'I don't know what you've written this for, it's terrible!' But that's the kind of person he was. He would not suffer fools gladly. But when you get a guy like that you accept the toughness and the demands that he makes because you nkow he's making you a better writer, and the show better.

Ben: Out of all the things you've done, does Rising Damp stand out as one of the high points of your career?

Eric: I think so, yes. But, you know, I did Only When I Laugh, I did Duty Free, Home To Roost, all of which to me were good. But eventually the audience will tell you which is the best. But I don't like to think I've peaked too early. Rising Damp was, say, 1976. I don't like to think that's my best work. I wrote sitcoms so that I could write in theatre. I made a decision over the last ten years not to write in television but to write plays. I could do a sitcom for sixteen million people and not get one phone call, whereas in there [the theatre auditorium] tonight I get a buzz from their reaction, you know? It's immediate. It's personal.

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See Also: Eric Chappell Biography