Scotsman Obituaries: Eric Chappell, creator of classic sitcom Rising Damp
For 22 years Eric Chappell beavered away in the offices of the local electricity board in the East Midlands, while spending his spare time writing the novels he would might open the door to fame and fortune only to amass a mountain of “no thank you” letters.
Ground down by the effort that goes into writing a 100,000-word novel only to see his work rejected time and again, Chappell decided to have a go at writing a play. It might still get turned down, but at least it was fewer words.
He was inspired by a newspaper article about a black man who stayed at a hotel for a year without paying after telling them he was a prince.
But in his play The Banana Box the venue evolved from a hotel to a seedy lodging house and the focus switched from the black guest to the miserly landlord, played on stage by Wilfrid Brambell.
And The Banana Box itself evolved into one of great British sitcom classics with Leonard Rossiter as the landlord Rigsby, Don Warrington as Philip Smith, who claims to be an African prince, Frances de la Tour as Miss Jones, who is the object of Rigsby’s desires, but who lusts after Philip, and Richard Beckinsale as the medical student Alan Moore, a role previously played in the theatre by Paul Jones from the pop group Manfred Mann.
The comedy was very much character-driven and challenged social attitudes of the time.
Although Rossiter was notoriously difficult to work with and often dismissive of the scripts, he was brilliant as the pompous, lecherous, rather ignorant Rupert Rigsby, totally unprepossessing in his holey cardigan, fantasising about past military glories and at one point thinking Miss Jones calling him a Philistine is a compliment. Philip, meanwhile, floats above it all, more erudite and a lot more sophisticated than anyone else in the household.
A bit like Steptoe and Son, which also starred Wilfrid Brambell, there is a pathos about the whole exercise that is more than a little reminiscent of Beckett.
Rising Damp ran for four series in the 1970s, pipping Porridge, The Good Life and Rossiter’s other big hit The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to the award for Best Sitcom at the 1978 Baftas.
There was a spin-off feature film in 1980, by which time Rising Damp had opened the door to a career in television for Chappell, who went on to write a string of other sitcoms, including Only When I Laugh, The Bounder, Duty Free and Home to Roost.
Chappell showed early promise as a writer, but joined the East Midlands Electricity Board after leaving school, working his way up through the ranks of office workers. His spare time was supposedly spent studying for accountancy qualifications, but really he was pursuing the dream of becoming a novelist.
The Banana Box was originally staged in Leicester before it made it to the London West End in 1973, with a cast that now included Rossiter and de la Tour.
Chappell took the plunge of handing in his notice with the electricity board, calculating that he could support himself on his initial earnings as a writer and then live on his wife’s pay from her job at Oxfam while he attempted to make a go of it.
But The Banana Box had attracted the attention of Yorkshire Television executives, who wanted a series, though the landlord’s name had to be changed to Rigsby from the original Rooksby after a landlord called Rooksby threatened legal action.
They also gave him the go-ahead for another sitcom, entitled The Squirrels, drawing on Chappell’s own experience of working in an accounts department and starring Bernard Hepton and Patsy Rowlands.
It was also based on a one-off play and launched just two months ahead of Rising Damp in 1974. Although now overshadowed by the comedy behemoth that is Rising Damp, The Squirrels ran to 28 episodes between 1974 and 1977.
Suddenly Chappell found himself working to deadline on not one, but two hit series and began to feel the strain. However, such was the success of Rising Damp that he was able to hand over writing duties on The Squirrels to Kenneth Cope and Phil Redmond.
After Rising Damp Chappell went on to write two successful sitcoms starring Peter Bowles, who died just last month – Only When I Laugh, which was set in a hospital and also starred James Bolam and Richard Wilson, and The Bounder, with Bowles as a charming fraudster. The Bounder was inspired by a character that Bowles had played in an episode of Rising Damp.
Duty Free, set in Spain, and Home to Roost, with John Thaw as a divorced man and Reece Dinsdale as the teenage son who comes to live with him after being thrown out by his mother, were both hits that ran to several series in the 1980s. They were followed by Singles, Haggard and Fiddlers Three, though nothing quite matched the enduring quality and appeal of Rising Damp.
Although he sought fame and fortune as a writer, Chappell never much fancied the celebrity lifestyle that London might have offered and continued to live in the Grantham area, in the village of Barrowby, enjoying games of tennis and rounds of golf.
He is survived by his wife Muriel, to whom he was married for 63 years, and two children.
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