Eric Chappell, creator of the classic sitcom Rising Damp and a host of other top-rated ITV comedies – obituary
Eric Chappell, the dramatist and screenwriter who has died aged 88, contributed to something of a golden age of ITV situation comedy in the 1970s and 1980s, enjoying his most enduring success with Rising Damp, starring Leonard Rossiter as the stingy, seedy, sneering, prying, cardigan-clad landlord Rigsby – along with a string of other hits, among them Only When I Laugh, Duty Free and Home to Roost.
Derived from Chappell’s first play The Banana Box, Rising Damp ran for four seasons from 1974 to 1978 and was set in a Leeds boarding-house populated by an outstanding ensemble cast as the tenants.
Chief among them was Frances de la Tour, already a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as “Miss (Ruth) Jones”, the object of Rigsby’s Uriah Heepish attempts at courtship who, in a deft subversion of sitcom expectations, is sometimes quiveringly receptive (“I don’t know if it’s the light, Mr Rigsby, but you look strangely fascinating this evening”). Eric Shorter in The Daily Telegraph was intrigued by Miss Jones’s “angular, gawky and toothy charms”.
Then there was Richard Beckinsale as the medical student Alan, an innocent, likeable Lefty; and Don Warrington’s cool, self-aware Philip, also a student (of town planning), who responds to Rigsby’s casual racial prejudice by claiming to be the son of an African prince.
All three are better educated and more socially sophisticated than Rigsby (though Miss Jones is riddled with self-doubt and suppressed desire) and this disparity fuels his insecurities, which he masks with sardonic barbs, little Englander attitudes, snobbishness, and self-aggrandising – as when he makes embellished reference, for example, to his wartime service.
It was said that Rossiter’s delivery of his lines was often so quickfire that Chappell had to write in additional dialogue to fill out the running time.
One of Rigsby’s most contentious aspects is his bigotry, which takes in students as well as “foreigners”: Rossiter himself said the character made “Alf Garnett look like a tolerant chairman of the Race Relations Board”.
Much of the prejudice was directed at Warrington’s Philip, and in an interview with the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish in 2013, when Warrington was directing a play written by Chappell based on the show, the Trinidad-born actor reflected on the way in which Rising Damp had held a critical light up to 1970s attitudes:
“I knew the world the show describes. I grew up being one black person among lots of white people… I think you have to confront the fact that Rigsby’s views were the views that were commonly held…
“He’s a racist, there’s no question about it – but that’s not the real issue… What helped was the dispelling of a myth, and the myth was about black people… I think that’s where Rising Damp helped. The difficulty for Rigsby lies in observing somebody who is exactly who he would like to be – apart from the fact that he is black – and that’s very confusing for him.”
More than any of Chappell’s other television comedies, Rising Damp transcended its period setting and became a classic, because of the quality of the writing and the rich comedy of the interactions between the characters, underpinned by a strain of melancholy concentrated in the person of Rigsby.
The film version released in 1980 – though it won the Evening Standard film award – suffered from the absence of Richard Beckinsale, who had died the year before at 31 (he had left the show before the final series).
At the end of the run in 1978 Rising Damp was awarded a Bafta for best situation comedy, and it has been shown in repeats more or less continuously since.
Chappell’s Only When I Laugh, set on a hospital ward, was centred on the trio of James Bolam, Christopher Strauli and Peter Bowles as patients whose banter played on their differences in class and politics, a consistent source of comedy for Chappell.
Bolam’s Figgis is a chippy hypochondriac lorry-driver; Norman Binns (Strauli) is a middle-class nervous Nellie, and Bowles the suave and moustachioed Archie Glover, immaculate in Noël Coward dressing gown. Occasionally Richard Wilson’s bow-tied consultant Thorpe, assisted by Gupta (Derrick Branche), whisks into the ward to snap orders at the inmates.
The patients of Only When I Laugh seem almost permanently bed-bound for the four series (and a special: Christmas on the ward) broadcast between 1979 and 1982. They are discharged only in the final episode.
Similarly, the comic capers of Duty Free (1984-86, with script associate Jean Warr) take place during a never-ending holiday on the Costa, the set-up being Keith Barron’s Midlands socialist developing a hand-holding attraction to the wife of a couple from Henley sharing the same hotel. At the show’s peak, 17 million tuned in.
Eric George Chappell was born in Grantham on September 25 1933 and educated at Grantham Boys’ Central School.
For 22 years from 1951 he worked as an auditor for the East Midlands Electricity Board, but while crunching numbers in the day, and scribbling ideas on bits of paper, he was increasingly spending his evenings typing at the dining room table. He tried novels (“really, truly awful”, he said), but settled on drama.
What emerged would become, in 1971, his first play The Banana Box, set in a Victorian house in “a university city in Leicestershire”, with a bad-tempered landlord called “Rooksby” and played by Wilfrid Brambell in the first staging at the Phoenix, Leicester.
By 1973 the play had arrived at the Apollo Theatre in the West End with a cast that included Rossiter, Frances de la Tour and Don Warrington. That year, at 40, Chappell turned to writing full-time.
Yorkshire TV commissioned a pilot based on the play the next year; the BBC, so it was rumoured, had rejected the script on the ground that it contained too many jokes.
Running through roughly the same period on ITV with Rising Damp, beginning a year earlier, was The Squirrels, an office-politics comedy with Bernard Hepton; the quality was uneven – possibly Chappell was overstretched – and the show was remade as Fiddlers Three in 1991 using exclusively Chappell scripts.
He worked with Peter Bowles again – they had first collaborated when Bowles played a camp playwright in Rising Damp – on the two series of The Bounder (1982-83). The Telegraph enthused that Bowles and his costar George Cole “could quickly establish themselves as television’s newest and brightest comedy duo”.
Later came Singles (1988-91), and Haggard (1990-92), based on Michael Green’s Squire Haggard’s Journal, which started out as an occasional contribution to the Telegraph’s Peter Simple column in the 1960s. Chappell’s comedy-mystery play Natural Causes was filmed for TV in 1988 starring George Cole, Prunella Scales and Leslie Ash.
Chappell’s numerous other stage plays over the years included Haywire (1998), about a married bookseller having an affair with his assistant; Summer End (2005), set in a retirement home; and a thriller called Dead Reckoning (2011).
The stage work cross-fertilised the television shows – Father’s Day (2012), for instance, like ITV’s Home to Roost (1985-90) with John Thaw and Reece Dinsdale, revolved around a divorced curmudgeon suddenly having to cope with sharing his home with his teenage son.
Pipe-smoking and affable, Eric Chappell lived at Barrowby, outside Grantham, where he liked the slower pace of life and played some golf and tennis. “I’d never live in London,” he told an interviewer. “Couldn’t stand all those parties.” Actors like Keith Barron and Peter Bowles would visit “for a rest and a chat”.
He married, in 1959, Muriel Elizabeth Taylor. They had two children.
Eric Chappell, born September 25 1933, died April 21 2022