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Chappell, Eric (1933-)


Main image of Chappell, Eric (1933-)

Eric Chappell will forever be associated with Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78), a classic example of ensemble comedy capped by Leonard Rossiter's performance as the archetypal grasping landlord, Rupert Rigsby. However, the show's enduring popularity sometimes eclipses Chappell's other achievements in the field of sitcom, in addition to a string of successful stage plays. His experiences growing up in working-class Grantham, allied with a 22-year stint as an auditor for East Midlands Electricity Board, provided material for many of his best comic creations, who were typically socially aspirant fantasists or frustrated office workers, trapped by class and environment.

Although Chappell displayed a childhood bent for storytelling, it was not until he embarked on his clerical career that he made his first serious attempts at screenwriting. A series of rejection slips for first draft novels prompted a switch to playwriting, and his second effort, 'The Banana Box', opened at Hampstead Theatre Club in November 1970. Set in a shabby tenement owned by landlord Rooksby (originally played by Wilfrid Brambell), it provided the basis for Rising Damp. By the time the play transferred to the West End in 1973 its cast included Rossiter and Frances de la Tour, whose on-screen chemistry - alongside Richard Beckinsale and Don Warrington - ensured the success of a television pilot, 'Rooksby', commissioned by Yorkshire TV the following year (the BBC had rejected the script, claiming it contained too many jokes). With a new title and a revised surname for its protagonist, Rising Damp went on to run for four series, eventually spawning a big-screen spin-off (d. Joseph McGrath, 1980). Chappell was surprised to win an Evening Standard Award for his screenplay, admitting that it was little more than a compilation of television scripts.

Having quit his day job, he found himself overwhelmed with commissions, and Rising Damp was beaten to the screen by office comedy The Squirrels (ITV, 1974-77). Although early episodes showed promise, the quality dropped when he abdicated writing duties after the first two series. Two decades later the programme was re-made as Fiddlers Three (ITV, 1991) using only the scripts penned by Chappell, who in the interim had created many of independent television's better sitcoms, including Only When I Laugh (ITV, 1979-82) - based, like Rising Damp, on a Chappell play - The Bounder (ITV, 1982-83), Duty Free (ITV, 1984-86), Home to Roost (ITV, 1986-1990) and Singles (ITV, 1988-91).

Richard Hewett

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Thumbnail image of Rising Damp (1974-78)Rising Damp (1974-78)

Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

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