You never know what to expect from the great Rigsby –
but it’s bound to be something incredibly sophisticated.
Rising Damp The Movie!
As with many situation comedies from the 1970s, the television series was adapted into a film version for the big screen, On the Buses (1971), Bless This House (1972), Steptoe & Son (1972), Love Thy Neighbour (1973, Man About the House (1974), The Likely Lads (1976), Are you Being Served? (1977) and Porridge (1979). Some were successful and others were easily forgotten. With the majority of the 70s sitcoms making their way to the big screen before Rising Damp was released in 1980, the Rising Damp film had its challenges being made three years after the television series had ended and a main cast member had passed away. But, on the whole, it made for a great ride through some familiar storylines with familiar characters from the television series.
Roy Skeggs, the film’s producer, had initially provided the idea of making a film version of the television series to Eric, having worked on adapting other sitcom movie spin-offs for On the Buses, Love Thy Neighbour and Man About the House.
In 1979, Roy began working on putting together a small crew to bring the sitcom to the big screen. Whilst the crew would be smaller than a usual big budget film, the budget would also be small in comparison, financed for approximately £400,000. The extra money would allow some room for development, allowing the cast and crew to move outside of the boarding-house and shoot on location. Whilst Roy wanted to see an original script for Rising Damp, Eric and Leonard Rossiter both agreed the film should be made using select scenes from the TV show. With a new script from Eric Chappell, essentially a Best of compilation of sketches from the TV series, and some additional location shoots – now that they had the extra budget, Eric also replaced Richard Beckinsale’s character ‘Alan’, who had died in 1979, by writing in a new character ‘John’, played by Christopher Strauli, and a small storyline that required another character, Sandra, for some additional, new, scenes.
Christopher was born in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. After attending teacher training college and qualifying as a teacher in maths and science, he joined RADA at the age of twenty-one. He credits much of his success in acting to the agent Bryan Drew (also Eric Chappell’s agent) who mentored him from RADA, guiding him in a direction that would lead him successfully into a number of successful roles. He appeared in numerous television shows including the gentleman thief in Raffles (1975-77), Bergerac and Toby Lush in the 1987 TV series Fortunes of War, Angels, Dempsey and Makepeace and Harriet’s Back in Town. He also played the lead character, Paul Hatfield, in Thames TV’s sitcom Full House (1985-86), and as Norman Binns in the Eric Chappell scripted hospital comedy, Only When I Laugh, for four series. Christopher continues to work primarily in the theatre.
The distinguished actor, Denholm Elliott, would also be brought in to play the role of Seymour, the role previously played by Henry McGee in the episode A Perfect Gentleman from the TV series. Denholm was born in London and trained at RADA before serving in the RAF during the Second World War, spending three years in a POW camp. His acting debut came on 1945 and he went on to appear in numerous roles for stage and television. He appeared in over sixty film appearances, including The Cruel Sea, A Bridge Too Far, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Missionary, Trading Places, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Denholm died in 1992 at the age of 70.
With a new screenplay in place, Roy was tasked with asking Leonard Rossiter to return to the role of Rigsby, two years on from the end of the television series. It wasn’t an easy task as Eric and Leonard had both moved on, Richard had died, and although Roy was looking for an original script from Eric that didn’t pull from the television series, Eric and Leonard agreed that the material from the television series was best and, in order to keep Leonard on board for the role, agreed that this would be the direction of the script and they were all agreed it was a good one.
Roy brought experienced filmmaker Joe McGrath in to direct the film. Joe had previously worked with Leonard on a recent sitcom, ATVs ‘The Losers’ in 1978. Having worked on a number of films prior to Rising Damp which included Casino Royale, with Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, A Hard Day’s Night and The Magic Christian, he had creative opinions on how the film should be shot which, again, leaned towards Roy’s idea that having a brand-new script from Eric would work best. With this change not possible, Joe was keen to see some ad-libbing and improvisation with the dialogue on set. Denholm Elliott was on board to bring some changes to the scenes with Leonard ultimately controlling the direction so it stayed within Rigsby’s character. With Joe’s experience behind the camera, and with two real professionals of the acting world working together, along with Frances, these scenes really climbed to another level on set.
With Don Warrington and Frances de la Tour being familiar with their roles and storylines, it was down to newcomer Christopher Strauli to join the team, playing ‘John’, who’s an art student who comes to find a room at Rigsby’s. Christopher was put forward to Roy as a replacement for Richard Beckinsale’s ‘Alan’ by Eric. Eric had already worked with him in his hospital sitcom, ‘Only When I Laugh’, casting Christopher in the role of Norman Binns, and Christopher was flattered. He had trained at RADA alongside Richard Beckinsale so he knew it was a difficult decision accepting the role both professionally and personally. Knowing Richard personally would connect him back to his old chum, but it was a difficult decision for Christopher. It also took into consideration the comparisons that would be continually made with Richard’s character ‘Alan’, and that Leonard would find it hard to accept Christopher without Richard in the role. Leonard wanted Christopher to play the role as Richard would have done but Christopher was adamant that not only could he not play it as Richard, he didn’t want to. He wanted make the character his own and with that came the friction on set between them. As such, Christopher would go onto note that working on the film with Leonard was a challenge and most unpleasant, but his time with the other cast and crew was enjoyable. They all knew the role, though named differently, would be big shoes to fill.
The principal location of filming was an empty three-storey terrace house in London’s Notting Hill, at 82, Chesterton Road, quite the departure from the television series, rented by the film company for six weeks. Comparisons could be made to Tony Hancock’s character when he moved from East Cheam to the fashionable area of Earls Court. This new boardinghouse was actually due for renovation so the unfinished rooms were perfect for filming and albeit very small and cramped within the three-storey house, the setting worked well. Stairwells and hallways were narrow, allowing for a similar claustrophobic setting to the television show. Whilst the interior was sparse, Joe was given approval to decorate the interior as they wished, so the crew repainted some of the walls and used some old wallpaper to try and mirror some of Colin Pigott’s excellent sets from the television series. With the house already needing repair, they were able to install a number of false roofs into the room occupied by Ruth Jones for a later scene in the film in which Phil and John fall through the ceiling whilst watching Ruth and Rigsby.
Shooting on a film set also allowed Joe a much wider range of angles to shoot from, not as easy when shooting in the confinements of a television studio. Whilst the intimacy of scenes within the house worked well, Joe saw great opportunity to expand Rigsby’s world with an increase in location shoots which would allow the show to broaden its characters’ lives outside of the house. However, the production crew were aware that this may detract too much from the appeal of the small screen version. All credit to Joe, with the scenes he added – with the newsagent, rugby field, the restaurant, and a particular favourite being the pub scene with Rigsby at rock bottom after Miss Jones falls for the slippery charm of Seymour. The new scenes all played out well and kept the characters and situations real. Unfortunately, this can’t be said for the two dreamlike sequences which seem an unnecessary distraction from the characters but you can certainly appreciate the angle the scene wanted to go in, showing a somewhat diluted view of ‘what could have been’.
The Movie also contained the storyline relating to Philip’s background. Already disclosed in the stage show, The Banana Box, the real identity of Philip worked well as a play but when it came to Rising Damp, Eric Chappell purposefully did not reveal the story of Philip, citing that as part of the mystery and allure of the character. Not only that, it would certainly bookend the character’s storyline and not give Eric a possibility of returning to the storyline if the truth was out. When it came to the Movie, Eric wrote in the fact that Philip was not the son of an African Chief, but in fact he grew up in Croydon. Eric wrote this part for the character Seymour, he would expose his origins by conning Philip that he spoke Swahili and, although Philip said he recognised the language, it was in fact it made-up by Seymour to trick him and expose him as a fraud. Rigsby overhears the conversation and Philip confesses to him, also mentioning the scars were given to him at the local arcade and no, he didn’t have ten wives!
The most poignant line is delivered by Rigsby to Philip after hearing his painfully honest confession. Everyone is pretending to be someone else, to be accepted, to get on in life, and Rigsby’s no different, or Ruth or John.
Rigsby: “How do we know you’re not the son of a chief?
Rigsby: “You look like the son of a chief.”
Philip: “Rigsby I come from Croydon!”
Even though Eric was not particularly proud of the movie, mainly because he didn’t make any money for it having signed a contract for the screenplay at 5% of the profits, once everyone else had taken their share. Meaning, when it came to Eric’s share, there was nothing left of the profit so he really made next to nothing but was still paid his fee for the screenplay. Eric was always hard on himself and, although he may not have committed everything to this script – he was busy with other projects at the time, his body of work from the television series meant that staying close to the roots of Rising Damp kept the film engaging for the audience. Whilst the odd scene distracted the viewer, they always knew that a classic scene was coming next. It’s a bit like going to see your favourite musician play live in their twilight years, wanting to hear them celebrate their back catalogue but being subjected to new material which is of a different time for a different audience. Rising Damp played to its strengths and even though it may be criticized for cannibalising the scenes from the television series, why risk writing new material for a show that ended three years earlier when you have the greatest hits (scripts) already banked. And for this alone, the film succeeds as one of the best spin-offs from a sitcom.
In the same year that Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back held the #1 spot at the box office, Rising Damp’s jam packed 86-minute movie went on to win the Evening Standard award in 1980 for Best Comedy Film, Leonard Rossiter was given the Peter Sellers Award, Denholm Elliott won the Best Actor Actor Award from the Evening Standard, Frances de la Tour won Best Actress and Joe McGrath won Best Director.