Eric Chappell worked for the East Midlands Electricity Board for 22 years before becoming a writer. “I was working for the electricity board in Hinckley and I wrote some truly awful novels,” he recalls, “Then one day, I was in my mid 30s and decided to write a play and it became The Banana Box…It took me until my 30s before anyone paid me anything,” he says. “After 20 years I decided to fulfil my true ambition.” And that was Eric’s motto, ‘Discover what you do best and do it’.
A comedy writer and playwright who would go onto pen some of the biggest sitcom hits over more than 25 years. He wrote over 200 television comedy scripts and more than 20 stage plays on his trusted Olympia typewriter, his plays are performed around the world to this day. Eric is up there with the greats of comedy writing, at their peak, his shows attracted more than 18 million viewers.
Born in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham in 1933, Eric came from a working-class background, the son of a printing plant worker. He was educated at Grantham boys’ central school, a tough school where having a. Skill or talent would prevent you from being the target of the school bullies. Thankfully Eric’s interest in writing and telling stories was noticed by one of his teachers in the 1940s which helped him develop a way of stringing together a story, appreciated so much by his classmates and teacher that Eric would stand up and present a weekly story. It would also give Eric a talent for warding off the school bullies, his gift of humorous storytelling was his armour. As many people in entertainment will confirm, if you entertain them or make them laugh, they will, eventually, stop hitting you.
When Eric went on to secondary school it was his love of sport that took over, Eric’s father was already sports mad, and it was at this time he put his love of writing on hold. It wasn’t until he went to college in his mid-twenties, that he returned to his stories. At college, Eric studied accountancy, although his ability to handle numbers was somewhat lacking, his report writing was good, but he would go on to fail his final exams.
It wasn’t until Eric got his first job in 1951, joining the East Midlands Electricity Board in Hinckley. He initially worked in Grantham at the Electricity Board as a junior clerk, straight from school at 16. He then put in for a job as an auditor, working in the area of Hinckley. It was a convenient location and he then went on to do audits in Leicester, Nottingham, Leamington Spa, and Northampton.
Always with an eye for conversation and dialogue with co-workers, Eric was surrounded by 30 something men, who had come back from the war, full of stories of battle and bloodshed. The inspiration for Rooksby/Rigsby, along with a newspaper article that caught Eric’s eye, was taken from these co-workers’ characters. As Eric noted “They were very traditional in their outlook and had returned to be suddenly confronted with socialism, nationalism and immigration. They weren’t reactionaries but they were very right-wing.” Eric’s political views were left leaning, so this led to some heavy debate, no doubt useful in securing dialogue for future stories.
In his twenties, Eric returned to his writing, thinking novels would open the door to fame and fortune, he soon came back down to earth with a bump as he amassed a mountain of “no thank you” letters. To his own admission they were bad novels and, looking back, he was ashamed of them, they weren’t good enough for publication. After receiving another rejection, Eric decided it was time to change course, novels took him too long to complete and with so much time invested the rejection letters were getting harder and harder to take, demoralising and depressing. And then, as so many eureka moments appear, lying in the bath Eric suddenly realised his time would be better spent writing a play. For one thing, they were only 20,000 words instead of 70,000, meaning he could be more experimental and save time and, more importantly, if it still got turned down, at least it was fewer words. Within a short time frame, he had typed his first play, now all he had to do was decide what to do with it. Inspiration came to Eric after reading the biography of the playwright R.C. Sherriff (Credits included Journey’s End, Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Dambusters). Sherriff had used a literary agency in London called Curtis Brown so he decided to follow in the same footsteps. His first play, A Long Felt Want – a coming of age play with two young boys and their awareness of girls, was read by John Bassett, who, to Eric’s surprise, enjoyed what he read. John gave Eric the confidence he needed, with the assurance from that he could write a good play and there was a depth to the characters and dialogue.
Later in life Eric would look back on this play as very much a ‘beginners’ piece, which wasn’t very good, but it was the start of a new journey, and he now had a literary agent. The play didn’t get produced but that was no surprise to Eric, and it was nothing compared to the number of times he’d received rejection letters or his novels. There was promise here, and with the support from John Bassett, Eric’s motivation and confidence grew, he would now try to limit his writing and focus on a different style.
Conscious of the reader’s attention span, Eric started concentrating on writing half-hour plays. Eric had written numerous scripts which had been turned down, until HTV accepted one called The Spanish Dancers, this was a 30minute comedy drama starring Henry McGee, broadcast in Wales in 1971, but the show was not networked nationwide.
He turned his second attempt as a playwright to a full-length play entitled, The Banana Box, which became the precursor to the highly successful sitcom Rising Damp. Eric had read about a black student who had visited a hotel, pretending to be a prince. It was noted that the student was very well treated, even though the landlord of the establishment would come across in the article of someone who may have been classed as a bigot. Eric thought this was a great idea for a farce, so he wrote The Banana Box comedy based partly on reading this encounter, his experience of living in lodgings, and the characters he’d worked with at the electricity board.
Eric’s hesitancy and doubt in the play’s content was short lived. Whilst returning form a holiday in Cromer, he received a letter from his agent John Bassett saying that the highly respected theatrical producer Michael Codron liked the script and was looking to find a place for it to be performed. This was the start Eric had been waiting for, he was now a playwright, the play was accepted and the future, though uncertain, was taking a very positive turn,
The play first received a rehearsed reading at the Hampstead Theatre Club, London, on November 29th 1970, before its first public performance at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre on 25th May 1971 (with Wilfred Brambell (Steptoe & Son) playing the role of Rooksby). It was performed at a further five venues, finishing off with a month at the Apollo in London, by then the cast that would go on to appear in Rising Damp were assembled, Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour and Don Warrington.
With a new play now fully formed, marketing started to appear around Leicester’s town centre. As Eric was walking along the street with his boss, a bus passed them, featuring on the side the promotional advertising for the play ‘The Banana Box – A new play by Eric Chappell’. Up until then, Eric had kept his writing close to his chest, he had dedicated more time to this than his exam revision, so he knew his boss may not take too well to the time he spent doing more ‘artsy’ work. Eric was conscious of his friends and colleagues’ attitudes to writing, he was the only real creative force in the family, his father got all the drama he needed from the sports fields. After showing his boss a flyer for the Banana Box, his boss was intrigued that the name on the flyer was the same as Eric’s! Colleagues soon became intrigued by their co-worked, now coming clean as a secret playwright.
By the Spring of 1973, The Banana Box had received positive reviews and began to tour, travelling to East Grinstead, Oxford and even Newcastle. It transferred to the Hampstead Theatre Club in London in May 1973, with Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour (replacing Rosemary Leach, who had played Miss Jones), Don Warrington and Paul Jones (Manfred Mann).
With momentum gathering, and London’s West End on the horizon, thanks to the interest of the West End producer Leon Gluckman and Eric’s new agent, Bryan Drew, Eric decided it was the right time to leave his job at the Electricity Board and move back to Grantham. Eric described this as exchanging one lonely job for another – ‘not being one of the actor’s is rather like not being one of thew clerks’. He was now married, in his mid thirties, with two kids to support, and he and his wife were bringing in an income on which to survive, though his parents were more concerned about the decision he had just made, citing his responsibility to support the family. He had a small pension of which to pull on, and with his wife working and fully supportive of this new venture, he could see a future for a few years at least. He gave himself two years to succeed in the industry and if it didn’t work out, he would consider returning to auditing.
In the summer of 1973, The Banana Box opened at the Apollo Theatre for a six-week run, with Leonard Rossiter, Frances, Don and Paul Jones all in the cast. It wasn’t long until The Banana Box’s run in the West End brought attention from the television companies. Eric had already received a rejection letter from ATV for his first play so he was understandably cautious. The Banana Box caught the attention of Yorkshire Television, who commissioned the play as a thirty-minute sitcom pilot, one of six to be shown in the Autumn of 1974. The cast would only have one change, replacing Paul Jones with newcomer Richard Beckinsale. Initially the show was titled Rooksby, then changed at the last minute to Rising Damp, the pilot was one of two which made it into a full series. The BBC had allegedly declined to take up an option because Chappell’s script contained “too many jokes”. In reflection, it was ITV comedy in the 1970s and 80s that took risks, Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language, Man About The House. It was fitting then that Rising Damp took residence at Yorkshire Television, one of the strongest independent companies at that time, and would lead to many successful sitcoms he would write for the station.
Surprisingly, Eric would receive little interest from producers or television companies after the airing of Rising Damp but there was the option of moving the show to the big screen with the release of the highly praised movie version in 1980.
Eric had also written a pilot comedy about office politics called The Squirrels for ITV (1974 – 1977), broadcast eight weeks before Rising Damp aired in 1974. Much to Eric’s delight, both series were commissioned as full series, and Eric found himself having to deliver scripts for two new comedies, meeting tight script deadlines before getting paid.
But the hard work had its rewards. The Squirrels won Eric the Pye TV Award in 1975 for Most Promising New Writer, and after the success of Rising Damp, the sitcom won the Best Sitcom at the 1978 Bafta awards, beating Porridge (with Richard Beckinsale), The Good Life and Leonard Rossiter’s other big hit, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
With his skills and discipline in playwrighting now honed, a makeshift new office and writing partner Jean Warr, he would try and craft his future sitcoms as a play first, before transferring the show to TV. For example, his 1976 play We’re Strangers Here became the BAFTA nominated sitcom smash, Duty Free (1984-86) and would later re-appear touring on stage as Last of the Duty Free (shortened to Duty Free). In later years he would reverse this tactic, for example the classic TV sitcom Only When I Laugh (1979-82) became It Can Damage Your Health, on stage.
Eric’s other credits include, Home To Roost (1985-1990), The Bounder (1982-83), Duty Free – with his working partner Jean Warr (1984-86), Singles (1988-1991) and Fiddler’s Three (1991).
As with many comedies around this time, if you missed it live, you missed it. There were no video recorders and no on-demand catch up options. As with all classic sitcoms, Rising Damp and Only When I Laugh benefited greatly from repeats in the 80s and, anyone fortunate enough to have a video recorder could tape them or rent a copy of Rising Damp. The shows benefited again from repeats in early 90s with re-runs shown on CH4.
Eric’s comedy was very much character-driven, there was a depth and warmth to them, you empathised with them and understood their daily trials and tribulations. The pathos evoked, challenged social attitudes of the time, covering subjects such as sex, religion, culture, politics and climate change. Eric had a gift for writing about everyday people who were trapped in their circumstance and you could taste their frustration. There was always a story to tell in his work, and nobody ever tires of hearing a good story.
As Eric continually noted in many interviews, and his driving force for continuing to write, was the enjoyment came from watching an audience thoroughly enjoy his play, that gave him a huge thrill, as much enjoyment as seeing his work on television. Eric’s biggest thrill was always standing alongside the cast on stage, breathlessly sharing the applause of the audience.
Eric created one of TVs greatest comedic characters in Rigsby, the likes of which we will not see again. I think he said it best when he noted, “When I wrote it, I thought it was just another show but now it has become part of our national heritage.”
He continued to live near his roots in Grantham, living in the small village of Barrowby. In the early 90s Eric was a member of the Grantham Writers Group, and he was also the patron of the Robin Hood Theatre Company, Averham.
Eric enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, mainly contemplating human behaviour, smoking his pipe, playing golf and tennis, where I’m sure he considered writing a line or two about the behavioural antics of golfers and tennis players. And what characters he would have created…full of aspiration, delusion and false grandeur…Eric’s speciality.
Thanks for all the laughs Eric, I really appreciated your support and encouragement.