Rising Damp (1974-78) is considered by many the best sitcom that ITV has ever produced. Traditionally the BBC made the British classics, largely because a structure was in place to encourage script development, there were regular repeats to build audiences and commercial pressures were less intense. However Rising Damp is as good as the Corporation's best shows of the 1970s and reruns on Channel 4 have introduced the programme to new audiences.
The pleasure of Rising Damp is not so much in its plot or its jokes but in the interaction of the four main protagonists living in Rigsby's down-at-heel boarding house and the performances of the cast.
Miss Jones (Frances de la Tour), is one of British sitcom's greatest female characters. What could have been just a set of sexist spinster clichés is instead both hilarious and touching. Miss Jones masks intense passions with a resolute veneer of respectable modesty and lives a life of bedsit drudgery with determined refinement.
Student Alan is a middle-class variation on Richard Beckinsale's other great role, Godber in Porridge (BBC, 1974-76), ever likeable and ever naive. His roommate Philip (Don Warrington), a would-be African prince slumming it while at college, is both interesting in himself and a great foil for Rigsby. Unusually for the period, a black character is put in a position of social and intellectual superiority; Philip effortlessly defuses Rigsby's pathetic racist barbs with a mere raised eyebrow or exasperated sigh.
But it is Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) who dominates Rising Damp. In his bigotry, wheedling, hopeless delusions of grandeur and endless excuses, he epitomises the worst aspects of Englishness. This is best illustrated by his characteristic pose: standing hand on hip in moth-eaten cardigan - having failed yet again to win the heart of Miss Jones, or make his fortune - still proclaiming his brilliance and pondering what, if it hadn't been for the war, he might have achieved.
Rising Damp retains its appeal nearly 30 years later because it encapsulates a certain kind of shabby, deluded, but doggedly cheerful Englishness, with characters trapped in a purgatory of their own making. It is funny because it affectionately tells us the truth about ourselves, especially how ridiculous we make ourselves if we are as selfish and mean-minded as Rigsby.