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Rising Damp

Sphere, London, 1977
(price: 65p)

The blurb on the back:

Remember Rigsby, the meanest landlord on earth? And his unrequited passion for Miss Jones, the faded English rose? She, unfortunately, was hung up on Philip, the dashingly handsome African who shared the boarding house attic with medical student Alan - and a skeleton! Between whiles, Rigsby's tenants included Spooner, an all-in wrestler with very natty tastes in the clothes line, Brenda who removed her clothes and bared her chest to art students, and a con-man called Seymour!
All these improbable characters, their antics under the roof of their 'home-sweet-home' and a hilarious lot more is here in RISING DAMP.

GodHaving been rude elsewhere about Citizen Smith and Steptoe & Son, let me point out straight away that Rising Damp is still a fantastic bit of comedy writing.

You know the TV show, of course: the great Leonard Rossiter playing Rigsby, one of the finest comic creations of the modern world, a man for whom achieving entry to the lower middle-class was a life well spent, a man who will always believe that nature's NCOs should run society. He lets out rooms in his house to people he either despises, fears or fancies, anxious above all else that they should all be assigned a place on the social ladder so he knows where he stands - very near the bottom rung, as it happens.

The only bit that hasn't survived the passage of time is the character of Philip, the Nigerian-born medical student who shares a room with Alan (played by Richard Beckinsale). Unfortunately the show ran from 1974-78 when casual racism was a feature of British TV, and Philip bears the traces of the period. That's badly phrased and needs clarification. It's not that Eric Chappell - the genius who created the series - was casually racist. Race was certainly a key element in the class-obsessions of the show, but Rigsby's racism was a much more subtle, carefully observed trait than that of Alf Garnett - his key concern was not to appear racist, even when he was being. Rigsby knew where the line was drawn in terms of social acceptance and he was anxious not to overstep it. The problem was actually the direction given to Don Warrington, who played Philip, and brought to the role the full noble, stoic, dignified Sidney Poitier treatment, but still couldn't avoid being an object of action rather than an actor.

The fact that this was a TV issue is demonstrated by this novelisation of the series, which shows Philip in a much stronger light.

Am I over-agonizing about this, in a white liberal kind of way? If so, it's only because everything else is so perfect. This book is one of the few of its kind that is an absolute joy. Whether it works if you've never seen the TV series, I don't know (if you haven't seen it, shame on you - buy the videos), but if you can visualize Rossiter then try Rigsby's reflexions on the RAF in the Battle of Britain:

'Most of them were public school, born to it, born leaders. All that rugby and flicking each other with wet towels. Mind you, we didn't let that foppish manner fool us. Underneath they had nerves of steel; even if they did get into their Spitfires with Teddy-bears under their arms. Don't underestimate them - the Luftwaffe made that mistake.' (p.56)

Or him explaining why the workers won't want to unite with students, if Alan's a typical example of studenthood:

'You've never had a pair of overalls on in your life. You won't get anyone linking arms with you. Not in those trousers. I can just see you linking arms with a six foot steel worker. Swopping your cucumber sandwiches for his three inch jam butties. Offering him a glass of red wine and a whiff of your after shave. He wouldn't know what to make of you.' (p.136)

This is the true inheritor of the legacy of Tony Hancock, higher praise than which is impossible.

Curiously this paperback treatment is written by Tony Warren, better known as the creator of Coronation Street. What he's doing here, I have no idea, but he's too good a writer to obscure Chappell & Rossiter.

Rising Damp trivia: The series started as a stage play titled The Banana Box which featured Wilfred Brambell as the landlord, and Paul Jones (Paul Jones!) in the Richard Beckinsale role. It really wouldn't have worked...

Hats off, it's Tony Warren
Tony Warren


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