Television: It Was 25 Years Ago Today 'Rising Damp', a landmark of TV comedy

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
On 2 September 1974, ITV launched a sitcom showcase series. It bore a marked resemblance to the BBC's fruitful Comedy Playhouse, in which Steptoe and Son had first appeared. And ITV's first half-hour pilot was to become as well loved.

Rising Damp was set in a rundown boarding house, lorded over by Leonard Rossiter as the lecherous, cantankerous, cat-kicking Rigsby. His lodgers were Frances de la Tour as Miss Jones, the victim of Rigsby's slavering advances; Don Warrington as Phillip, the son of an African chief, and the victim of Miss Jones's slavering advances; and Richard Beckinsale as Alan, a long-haired student. To complete the claustrophobic circle, Alan was also sex-starved. The show had been developed from Eric Chappell's stage play The Banana Box, which had starred the same cast apart from Beckinsale. Before the pilot was even aired, a series had been commissioned by ITV.

The critics were certain that this commitment was justified: "One of the best comedy shows to come off the commercial screen for some time," said the Express. The proposed series was "very welcome if it keeps up to the same standards of hard work and quiet inventiveness" (Guardian).

Although judgements on Chappell's writing varied - "wavered between sharp wit and bedsitter farce" (Telegraph); "uneven" with "a lot of mediocre padding" (Observer); "precious stuff" (Mirror) - there was no doubt as to his comic legacy. Rigsby was "established at once as a memorable personality ... His voice had the oiliness of Uriah Heep and his lop-sided leer suggested a life spent peering through keyholes" (Telegraph); the "mucus landlord" would have "felt at home in a Jacobean comedy" (Sunday Telegraph). Rossiter gave a "bravura performance'" (Times); de la Tour was praised for her "dexterous gaucheness" (Guardian).

Four series of Rising Damp were produced between 1975 and 1978, though Beckinsale left after three and Rossiter alternated between Rigsby and his other alter ego, Reginald Perrin. Ronnie Baxter, who directed many of the episodes, compares his job to "sitting in a Rolls-Royce": "When you get a good team like that and it clicks in the way that it did, it's a joy. The writing was beautiful. Eric Chappell deserves all the praise, because it all starts with the writer".

Leonard Rossiter died in 1984, five years after Richard Beckinsale. Baxter says it's "anybody's guess" whether the show might have otherwise returned: "With the quality of sitcoms today, it would be nice to see it on screen again. It was unique".