FROM ROOKSBY to RIGSBY, from THE BANANA BOX to RISING DAMP
It’s all in the name.
Choosing a title of a show, a character or a band name doesn’t come easy. Shortlists are drawn up, concerns over how people could react, could the name be used as a pun to damage the brand, or will it just not stick in people’s consciousness. So, it’s not surprising that when you’re launching a new television show, you’d be wracked with self-doubt over the decision(s) you made. It’s made even more gruelling if the central character is somewhat opinionated and open to criticism. I’m sure John Sullivan (creator of Only Fools & Horses) would have less worry if, for example, Del Boy was called Tony, compared to Eric changing the bigoted Rooksby too Rigsby.
In 1974 Leonard Rossiter was interviewed for a national paper shortly before the pilot episode ‘Rooksby’ was about to air. Leonard commented on his character….“If you didn’t like Hitler you certainly aren’t going to like Rooksby.” He went on to describe the landlord in ways that would end up antagonising and affecting a real-life landlord called Rooksby! The real life Rooksby complained to the company and Duncan Wood was forced to call Eric to come up with a new name, ‘So I had a last-minute phone call from Duncan Wood at Yorkshire telling me I had to change the name. Once this man had objected, we couldn’t run with it.’
At this late stage, desperate for an alternative name, Eric turned to the local telephone directory and thumbed through the pages hunting for a name that had a similar sound and ring to it. The end result being, of course, Rigsby but the speed in which it was found caused serious doubts for Eric, ‘It seemed a bit of a poor substitute…but now no one would think Rooksby was a good idea because Rigsby is ﬁrmly implanted in the mind.’
With thoughts about the lead characters name, attention was drawn to the title, would The Banana Box work in this format, so Eric began to rethink the title. Whilst the title could clearly have been just Rigsby, Eric wanted something to reflect the overall feel of the show, typical with a squalid bedsit or rooming house, thinsg that would typically be neglected by landlords in order to continue renting rooms. On re-reading his script the term ‘rising damp’ struck Chappell, a phrase used early on by Alan and one that encapsulated a typical problem with older, run down, or poorly constructed homes which just led to a miserable existent in a damp room. As Eric notes, ‘Because the house was supposed to be heavy and run-down, I tried coming up with the most depressing phrase in the English language and decided on Rising Damp.’
Still unsure if the title would work, Eric decided to send it to Leonard, “…I sent my choice of name to Len Rossiter and he liked it; he loved anything of the macabre or sombre that was funny. He never played soft comedy, so he thought the name was ideal – and I stuck with it, although, I must admit, I remained unsure about it for some time. I thought: “My God, I know What the critics are going to do with this title.” But Len kept saying: “Let’s keep it, it’s so funny.”
Always aware of what critics can glee from a title, Eric was still concerned that it was something the critics could throw back at the team, if they didn’t like the show. Of the many reviews praising the pilot episode, only a few negative reviews came back, one noting that it was a ‘little wet’, and from his own father who mentioned that it didn’t sound very good to him!
Once confirmed, it was case of getting used to the title as show director, Ian MacNaughton, confirmed everything was in place from the graphics department so they were running with it, regardless. Moreso, in hindsight, to try and alleviate the stress and pressure for Eric. As it turned out, it was perfect and it couldn’t have suited the show any better.
The newly named Pilot was now Rising Damp, and was scheduled alongside five other Pilots, hoping for a possible series:
You’ll Never Walk Alone (written by Hancock and Steptoe writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson)
Badger’s Set (By Barry Took)
Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt! (Starring Bill Maynard, the only other show to be commissioned as a full series).
The pilot episode of Rising Damp, ‘The New Tenant’ (also known as ‘Rooksby’), was broadcast on 2 September 1974, Rising Damp achieved a respectable audience of 6.1 million viewers, and the rest is comedy gold.