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Eric Chappell - Interview 2

  by Adam Coxon

published: 27 / 5 / 2020

Eric Chappell - Interview 2


In the second part of a two part interview, Adam Coxon continues to talk to comedy writer Eric Chappell about his seminal '70s sitcom 'Rising Damp' and its huge success.

AC: You have said that you find often in TV or plays that the leading man feels a sort of ownership of the material. EC: It’s a metamorphosis. AC: I have read that Leonard Rossiter would request that certain guest cast members be fired if they weren’t up to scratch. How did you feel as the writer about him having that sort of input? EC: I didn’t mind, but I sympathised with the poor souls that had to put up with it. He was fiercely loyal to the show. He always was, and obviously to his own reputation too. We booked people we thought could do it. And sometimes they were at the end of their career and not really sure of what they were going to do. And if they showed any signs of weakness, Len would not be long suffering, whereas I would have been. He would say, “No, this is going to ruin the show. We don’t want this.” On two or three occasions we replaced people on the second day of the rehearsal, which was a pretty brutal thing to do. But obviously it was because those people were absolutely heading towards a nervous breakdown or were not well. We booked them on past reputations that no longer applied. I remember on one particular occasion we had this actor Henry McGee as a guest cast member. I had done a little show, a play that he was in, and I said to him, “I can write something for you if you are interested”. He said, “Well, very nice.” He was always a gentleman. “Do it!” So, I went away and a few months later I sent him a play. He was doing a play at Windsor at the time and he read it, and this is going back to the late 1960s, early 70s, and he loved it. It was a dry run for an office comedy like ‘The Squirrels’ and he sent me £100. Now that was a lot of money then. It was like sending £1000 now. He said, “I’ll do this if you can get it placed or I can get it placed. I’ll retain it. I had never had a cheque for £100 before. This was big money for me. I thought “I can’t keep this”. I said, “Henry, I really can’t keep this. I will send it back,” but he said, “Keep it in lieu of whatever.” And so I kept it and I thought, “I’m £100 better off and he’s given it to me for nothing really. And so when ‘Rising Damp’ came up I thought I could do him a favour in return. AC: He was so good in ‘Rising Damp’ though, wasn’t he? EC: I thought of Henry McGee, and so I mentioned it to Len. I said, “What about Henry McGee?” Henry and Len were both right wingers together in the union and were mates . So, he was delighted to have Henry McGee and Henry was nerve itself. He didn’t get thrown by anybody. He didn’t get thrown by Len. Len was so quick, so ferociously on the part that a lot of people coming in and learning how to do it were frightened to death. Not Henry! Henry could play it with coolness and sort of sangfroid. AC: And one of the great lines from that show is “Do you really think there’s oil in the Pennines?” EC: I loved that! AC: Your observations on society were always so perfect because you always showed the good side of people but the flawed natures of them as well. Here was Rigsby, full of prejudice and suspicion and delusions of grandeur, but he was constantly outwitted by one of the objects of his ridicule which was Philip. Were you consciously trying to hold a mirror up to society and to point out the ignorance of prejudice? EC: I wanted to make sure that no-one belittled Don - that he was his own man and that he wasn’t apologising for anything and was able to hold his own with Risgby or with anybody else. Both of them were fabricating their lives, pretending to be something they weren’t as a defence. Len was playing the soldier and Don was playing the warrior prince. They were both doing it because society was looking down on them in some way. So they did it to back themselves against everybody else. AC: That’s a fantastic way of putting it. I suppose it’s obvious now you’ve said it, but I never really thought that they were both playing characters, Rigsby the soldier and Philip the African prince. EC: They both lived a lie but only to give themselves that impetus, that backing. AC: The scene that immediately springs to mind from ‘Rising Damp’ is Miss Jones’ birthday and they’re going to take her out to The Grange. Rigsby walks in and says, “Charlie, what are you doing here?” Charlie tries to throw Rigbsy out and Philip walks in and says to Charlie, “Is there any trouble? “ EC: That was an easy show to write but it was interesting because they were all nervous about it. It was the first time we ever took them out of the studio. They were ever so nervous about it. They liked the claustrophobic feel of the set, but there was stress and nerves there as well. Working on the show was like doing your 11+ every week, walking up those stairs and thinking, “Are the studio audience going to hate me?” I remember that we had this lovely warm up man, Felix Bowness. I saw him sitting in front of me. I didn’t know him at the time and I heard him say, “This is good, isn’t it?” I realised that this was a pro and he liked it. He liked it from day one. When we did dress rehearsals, we would do a ‘dress’ at 6 for a 7:30/8 p.m. performance. I suddenly began to notice that the staff were coming in to watch. Then it was half full with people who worked there. All of a sudden I realised that we’d got something. Not just with the audience but with people, the staff. They didn’t go home. They came to see the show before it went out. AC: You’ve said that one of the reasons why you felt ‘Rising Damp’ worked on the TV was because the camera close-ups allowed you to see the mannerisms on Leonard’s face which you perhaps couldn’t properly see on the stage. EC: We had two directors. Ronnie was a close-up director. He was like that all the time and he didn’t allow the actors to move much. He was hard on actors in his direction. I don’t mean he was a difficult man to work with – he wasn’t – but he was so much into the close-ups so that Len got him off the show after the third series, although we had just won a BAFTA. AC: Len didn’t like close ups then? EC: Yes, he liked freedom of movement. He felt he was being restricted. Len wasn’t happy at the feeling of being disciplined. I don’t think he liked too much discipline. AC: Do you think those kind of nuances were lost in the stage play just because of the dynamic of theatre? You don’t have someone there with a camera with the close ups. EC: Yes, I always remember somebody saying that they went to see an Agatha Christie play where everybody was a suspect, everybody’s name was mentioned. Well, you couldn’t do a cut to camera then and say, “Then there’s Lord So and So.” So what did they do? They all turned and looked at Lord So and So. All our attention was directed where they were looking. They couldn’t do a close-up because there wasn’t such a thing. So, there are the limitations of stage. It’s how you do it, isn’t it? I mean you’ve got to find ways around of not doing a close-up. But you’re right. It was better for the show to be on television. AC: We’ve already touched on this but at the same time you were writing ‘Rising Damp’ for Yorkshire Television you were also writing ‘The Squirrels for Associated Television. You’d got two young children. How did you manage your schedule? I know that YTV offered to help with regards to getting other writers and Leonard Rossiter was absolutely against that. EC: I think it was the second series of ‘Rising Damp’. I’d written three episodes for it and they loved them, but I was running out of time because I’d done ‘The Squirrels’ first series when I should have been writing ‘Rising Damp’. No-one gives you any orders though, and I was doing two shows for the money. I needed the money and I didn’t think I could do it on one series. I probably could have done, but I didn’t know that then. So, I did a series of ‘The Squirrels’ which went well enough, and so I was stuck with trying to write four shows of ‘Rising Damp’ in three weeks which was ridiculous. I threw the pen down and I said, “I can’t do this. I’m doing too much.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t do them – I couldn’t do them in the time - and I said, “Get other writers in! I just don’t care any more.” So, my agent was called and had a wonderful time telling people “Eric’s not going to write the show.” And I remember they rang back and they said, “Eric, is it the money?” I said the slightly wrong thing, I said, “It’s not the money. I haven’t the time,” but of course it is the money because you’re doing it for the money. So, I said, “No, I just can’t do it in the time – get other writers in.” And I reckon they tried. There was a lot of mystery about all that. I don’t think there was loyalty to me, but Len was loyal to the show... AC: And to yourself as well... EC: Yes, he thought I could do it and he didn’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry there because people were lurking around who could come in and have a stab at it. We did that with ‘The Squirrels’ and made a mess of it. And so he said, “No, I said I’d do the show with Eric Chappell. I’ve done the three shows, and I’m not going to do anymore. I’ll drop out. I’m not working with other writers.” So, he took that attitude, and they gave them all money to go away and forget it for a few weeks, and bought the time. They didn’t pay a fortune, but they paid them. And Frances didn’t want to do anymore because time was more important to her. She went off to do other things. Don took what was going. I don’t know what Richard’s attitude was, but obviously he went along with it. It was Len who saved my career. There’s no question about that. I saw one or two writers lurking behind in the box watching the show. I thought, “That’s odd. What are they doing here?” I reckon they were being groomed, but I don’t know that for a fact. So, anyway, we had a six week break which gave me time to write another show and we went on from there. AC: ‘The Banana Box’/’Rising Damp’ is your creation. How would it have worked if they’d have tried to have used other writers to work on it? EC: I’m not sure even now how much right I had. It was a slightly different feature because I’d written a play that was mine and the script was from the play. I think it was because I’d said, “Get in someone else.” I don’t think they could have brought people in willy nilly. I’ve always owned the show. I don’t own the videos but I own the scripts. So, consequently there’s a lot they couldn’t have done. We didn’t ever get that far because they never came to me and said, “We’ll do it with someone else,” although I was threatened with that once or twice even before then when I asked for a little more money. I’m not talking about a fortune. I mean, £50 more or something like that. One of the contract people said, “You realise that we can get other people in to do this.” I thought, “You cheeky sod!” When we did that with ‘The Squirrels’, we found that other people couldn’t write it. We brought all sorts of writers in and I went along with that. but it’s not easy when you’ve got a show as personal as either ‘Rising Damp’ or ‘The Squirrels’. America can do it. They’ve got a lot of clever writers in America. They can have script conferences but we couldn’t do that. We never had enough good writers in this country to do sitcoms. AC: There was an American pilot for ‘Rising Damp’, wasn’t there? EC: Yes, we did that. I went to New York. Alan King was the producer. He bought the rights. They did it and it wasn’t very good. They asked me over to write for them and I didn’t. I couldn’t write American! They got the wrong idea about Philip’s character. So, it just didn’t work. I forget who played the lead but he was a good actor. AC: I wonder if the tape of that still exists. I’d love to see that! EC: I don’t think so. It was a flop. I don’t know if they even showed it on the box. It was just the pilot they did and they brought me in again. I went to New York for three weeks to write a script and that wasn’t very good either! It just didn’t work. They didn’t take the original show. They took ‘The Prowler’, the one where the crook broke instead. It just wasn’t really for them. It wasn’t an American show. I did better with ‘Home to Roost’ there. We did two series in America. It had a release and was well liked by some people. I think they did about twenty odd shows. Again, it was my stuff and they didn’t really have a feel for it. They took about ten of our shows and Americanised them. Jack Klugman played that lead. I don’t remember who else was in it. Jack was a nice enough guy. but he sacked the head writer on the day I was there! I was supposed to be working with that guy, and that was it. He’d gone! AC: ‘Rising Damp’ also started for you a partnership with the actor Peter Bowles. Eric Peter at the time did one ‘Rising Damp’ which he was very good in and he was also doing ‘To The Manor Born’. He was also doing, ‘Only When I Laugh’. After I had written the third series of ‘Only When I Laugh’, Peter told me that he wanted a show of his own. He was quite determined about that. He was looking after his career and quite rightly too. You’ve only got so long. He wanted to play the lead. So, I wrote a new show. It was the only show I’ve ever written where I made the whole thing up just to please an actor. I thought, “I’ll make you into a con man!” I wrote fourteen episodes of ‘The Bounder’. I was working like a dog at the time! AC: Peter plays that sophisticated cad type so well! EC: Absolutely! He was good in ‘The Bounder’. We did well, not well enough but we did well. AC: There is no question that the strength of your writing has been consistently phenomenal, but I think you’d also agree that you’ve been in the fortunate position where you’ve had such wonderful casts in all of your productions. EC: Well, you got them because you sent good scripts to them. A good actor knows a good script generally. They will do them if they are paid well enough. I don’t think we had any trouble getting ‘leads’. I always worked with very good people. I used to say in my innocent days that the script would do it for you. AC: At the end of the film version of ‘Rising Damp’, Philip confesses to Rigsby that he isn’t the son of a chief after all which is the original ending from the play. Was the reason that you chose to revert to the original ending because with Richard Beckinsale’s passing you felt that was going to be the end of ‘Rising Damp’ at that time? EC: Well, you never say never. I knew that once I’d blown the gaff that he wasn’t the son of a chief that took something away from it. That’s alright in a play. It’s different in a series that you’ve been watching for four or five years. It’s like pulling the carpet from under your feet. I always left in the air as I was never sure if we would go back to it. I didn’t really want to do it, but I’d realised that they’d loved him as he was and to suddenly say that he’d been telling you a lie didn’t really work for me. I think I put it in the film because I was desperate for a climax and a finish. I never watch the film because I didn’t get paid for it! I cannibalised some of the scripts and wrote some new material, and they paid very little for it. I was in between doing other things. I always remember them taking me to a flash restaurant and saying, “Eric, we’re not going to give you 3% but 5% of the profits!” Of course, what they’re really saying is that they won’t make any profits. If you’re going to get a percentage, always get it on the gross. You get the producer’s profit that he makes and that would be a lot of money. After that, there are all of these costs. By the time it comes to the writer, there’s no money left. So, I’ve never had a penny out of that. I was on 5% of nothing! So, it always hurt my feelings. AC: Thank you.

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Eric Chappell - Interview 2

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Interview 1 (2020)
Eric Chappell - Interview 1
In the first part of a two part interview, Adam Coxon talks to comedy writer Eric Chappell about his classic 70's TV series 'Rising Damp', and also 'The Banana Box', his earlier play which provided the inspiration for it.

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