Rigsby Online: The Authorised Rising Damp web site
The Story of Rising Damp
The Play - 'The Banana Box'
by Eric Chappell
Directed by David Scace
(except as noted below).
29 November 1970, Hampstead
25 May - 12 June 1971,
Phoenix Theatre, Leicester
March 1973, Adeline Genee Theatre, East Grinstead
20-31 March 1973, Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
9-16 April 1973, Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Rooksby: Leonard Rossiter
Noel Parker: Paul Jones
Philip Smith: Don Warrington
Ruth Jones: Rosemary Leach
Lucy: Elizabeth Adare
17 May - 16 June 1973,
Hampstead Theatre Club, London
The first public performance of the play which was to become Rising Damp took place on Sunday, 29th November 1970. It was only a rehearsed reading, with no sets and similar to 'televised' radio shows. At the time, its author Eric Chappell was an auditor for an electricity board, with an ever-increasing pile of rejection slips for his attempts at fiction and a consequent disillusionment of his potential as a writer. This was his second play. His first was a short script called A Long Felt Want, but it was never produced. It did, however, gain him an agent, John Bassett of Curtis Brown. It also helped him to regain his confidence as a writer, and he started to create another play, this time a full-length one. The idea came from a newspaper article which concerned a black man who had stayed as a hotel guest for twelve months pretending to be an African prince, and therefore commanding respect - and getting it. The title - The Banana Box - was derived from a comment made in a debate about the entitlement of non-British born residents to call themselves 'British': "If a cat has kittens in a banana box, what do you get - kittens or bananas?".
The Banana Box picked up on both of these themes - the place of blacks in society (and the opinions of those who were against it) and the attempt to answer the question of who exactly is British, and why. The character of the landlord of the bedsit Rooksby (he only became Rigsby in theTV series) was based on several people who Eric Chappell knew, and their cynical attitude to the influx of African and Afro-Caribbean citizens onto English shores. Philip was obviously based on the hotel guest already mentioned, with his tales of African culture being gleaned from many evenings for Eric at the local library. Miss Jones - Eric's first female character - was deliberately coy, but a gentle, forgiving soul, and the love interest for Rooksby. His frustrations at her coolness towards him are multiplied when it becomes clear she has eyes only for Philip. The play is based in a university town, so Philip is a student of Town and Country Planning, and there are two more scholarly tenants - Noel Parker and Lucy. At the end of the play, Noel and Lucy have become an item, and Philip has had to admit that his royal status is all pretence, and that he is in fact from Croydon. None of the cast who took part in the rehearsed reading were present when the play entered full production.
The rehearsed reading was very well received, by audience and critics alike. The rights to stage the play were bought by a management company (headed by Michael Codron), and it was decided that the play should premiere 'in the provinces', ie. outside of London. It was offered to The Phoenix Theatre in Leicester who, with knowledge that its author was a local lad, willingly agreed to stage it. Also new to The Phoenix was its director, Stephen McDonald. He worked with Eric to hone the script into a well-developed and constantly-interesting and absorbing storyline. Stephen's original plans for the actors to play Rooksby and Miss Jones were married couple Leonard Rossiter and Gillian Raine, but Leonard was committed to another play and couldn't be released. Instead, the theatre obtained a coup by landing Wilfrid Brambell. With Steptoe and Son still a massive audience-puller on TV, Wilfrid assured the play's success. He also achieved good publicity for the theatre, and soon other big stars of the day were happy about working there. The play recouped its costs, although it wasn't a runaway success, and Michael Codron decided against taking it to London's West End. "I wasn't convinced by Wilfrid Brambell's performance", Michael says. "Overall I thought it was best not to pursue the play any further."
After the final Leicester performance on 12th June 1971, it was nearly two years before the play was performed again, this time in London at the Adeline Genee Theatre in East Grinstead. By this time a lot had changed. There were new South African backers, a new director (David Scace), a completely new cast (now including Leonard Rossiter and Don Warrington), and Eric also had a new agent, Bryan Drew. After a week of shows at East Grinstead, the play moved to Oxford for the second half of March 1973, and then to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the first half of April. It then returned to London, with a month's run at The Hampstead Theatre Club (where the original rehearsed reading had taken place three years earlier), and then to the prestigious Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue from 25th June to 24th July. The critics warmed to the play immediately, and only certain weaknesses of the plot let it down. However, the long-running production of Alan Bennett's Habeas Corpus in the theatre next door sapped The Banana Box's audience, and it closed after only one month.
Ironically it was not, after all, the move to London which started the transformation of The Banana Box into the sitcom we know today. It was in fact a performance of the play while on its short tour to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in April 1973. One of the audience for a performance there was John Duncan, then Head of Light Entertainment at Yorkshire Television. He thought the storyline didn't quite fit the medium of a stage play, but thought it perfect sitcom material...
On To Rising Damp Story: The TV Series
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Text (c) Paul Fisher
Pictures (c) their respective owners.