❉ An appreciation of writer Eric Chappell’s classic sitcoms, which brought familiar tales of thwarted aspiration to the nation’s living rooms.
In the mid-1980s we did our ‘big’ family shop on a mid-week evening. When we returned home from the supermarket, I’d leave my mum to unpack the shopping in the kitchen and head into the living room to watch Duty Free. Too young to really understand the nuances of the plot, but old enough to know I was probably too young, it felt like a sneaky treat.
Duty Free, one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1980s, was written by Eric Chappell. In a screen writing career that spanned three decades, Chappell has given us some of comedy’s best loved shows. From Rising Damp to Duty Free and Home to Roost, each comedy is very clearly his work, with a signature style full of warmth and wit.
His work is popular but not populist. Far more than just situational farce, the deftness of the dialogue hints at layers of subplot and depth of character, and the intricate nuances of the circumstances themselves mean Chappell’s work is far from one dimensional slapstick.
Chappell’s talent lies in his ability to write sharp, clever scripts yet still achieve a feeling of warmth through characterisation that resonates. His work often features the socially aspirant but self-deluded, or those frustrated by their class or environment. But it also showcases the best in ensemble comedy. The interplay between characters is tightly scripted, the verbal sparring is scattergun and always hits the mark.
Eric Chappell had a working class upbringing in Grantham, Lincolnshire. After success writing stage plays, he eventually quit his day job as an office clerk to write full time. His time in a small, parochial office environment no doubt inspired his work. His first sitcom for ATV, The Squirrels (1974 – 1977) starring Bernard Hepton, Ken Jones and Patsy Rowlands, is a tale of office politics in a small firm set in the accounts department of a TV rental company. This set the tone for many of his subsequent sitcoms, with everyday people trapped by circumstance and a palpable feeling of frustration.
Adapted for television from his own stage play The Banana Box, his most famous work, Rising Damp (1974 – 1978), remains one of Britain’s most popular sitcoms. It stars Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby, the miserly and shifty landlord of a dilapidated Victorian terraced house in a Yorkshire town turned into scruffy bedsits. Full of self-regard and delusions of grandeur, Rigsby continuously fails to gain respect from his young student tenants, played by Richard Beckinsale and Don Warrington, or the affections of other resident Miss Jones, played by Frances de la Tour. A triumph of ensemble comic acting, Rossiter, de la Tour and Warrington had all appeared in the original stage play. There was also a successful film version of Rising Damp released in 1980.
Rising Damp captured the seedy feel of the 70s and the rise of the slum landlord, and mixed it with the cultural impact of women’s liberation, immigration and working class aspiration. Rigsby is old fashioned, prejudiced and suspicious of change. He romanticises the nation’s patriotic glories and his own military past. With unwavering delusions of grandeur, he tries to identify as middle class, yet is rejected by those with a loftier status than his own. Chappell’s writing gently ridicules him by simply allowing him to open his mouth.
It was produced by Yorkshire Television, after being rejected by the BBC, and marked the first of many successful sitcoms he would write for the channel. ITV comedy in the 1970s and 80s took risks, which is often forgotten. The output of the independent TV companies that made up the network produced a number of classics, and Yorkshire was amongst the strongest.
Chappell went on to write Only When I Laugh (1979 – 1982) which stars James Bolam, Peter Bowles, and Christopher Strauli as patients Roy Figgis, Archie Glover, and Norman Binns who share a long stint on an NHS surgical side ward. It’s a classic tale of people inadvertently trapped together in a situation beyond their control and generally getting on each other’s nerves. The three men are from different backgrounds, so again class differences drive the plot.
Richard Wilson plays their grumpy surgeon Gordon Thorpe, and is supported by his colleague, staff nurse Gupte (Derrick Branche) their relationship displaying the structural and cultural clash between NHS doctors and nurses. The politics of state-run services and the wearing down of the NHS through economic cuts is subtly hinted at in the background.
Largely, we’re in the realm of the frustrated and belligerent male, with a clash of personalities on the surface, but hinting that we’re all very similar underneath the bluster.
Duty Free (1984 – 1986) which Chappell co-wrote with Jean Warr, stars Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor as working class couple David and Amy Pearce on holiday in Marbella, and Joanna Van Gyseghem and Neil Stacy as Linda and Robert Cochran, a more affluent couple staying in the same hotel. David and Linda begin an affair, their illicit trysts often interrupted and almost discovered.
David is presented as an aspirational fool, willing to sacrifice everything to chase a woman he might never win. But he’s played by Barron with such charm and twinkle-eyed humour that he’s a sympathetic character, even though we’re really hoping his wife will call him out. That’s also down to the brilliant casting that was always at the heart of his shows.
Although it relies heavily on flirtatious misdemeanour, it never strays into formulaic bedroom farce. The writing draws on the social politics and cultural confusion of the mid-80s to bring depth beyond the thwarted acts of seduction, and it never feels sleazy. Duty Free delighted audiences, setting viewing records for a sitcom at the time and enjoying BAFTA nominations.
Home to Roost (1985 – 1990) stars John Thaw as Henry Willows, a forty-something divorcee, and Reece Dinsdale as his teenage son Matthew. After falling out with his mum and stepdad, 17-year-old Matthew suddenly arrives on Henry’s doorstep one evening asking to move in. The plot mainly revolves around Henry’s curmudgeonly annoyance at having his solitude disturbed, and the generational gap between father and son.
It might have a traditional domestic setting, but Home to Roost presents us with a rare theme in British sitcom, the cultural shift in family relationships after divorce, but with the focus on a troubled father and son relationship. Henry is often more concerned with what the neighbours might think than trying to build bridges with his son, but there is genuine affection between them which builds throughout the series. There’s a poignant late 80s aesthetic of masculine identity and of course class aspiration comes up again.
Other work by Chappell included The Bounder (1982 – 1983) starring Peter Bowles as an ex-convict forced to live with his sister and brother-in-law (played by George Cole), and Singles (1988 – 1991) set in a singles bar with an ensemble cast including Roger Rees, Susie Blake, and Judy Loe.
His last work for the screen was Fiddlers Three (1991). Set in again in a small office and starring Peter Davison, Paula Wilcox and Peter Blake, it was a revisiting of the themes of his first sitcom The Squirrels.
Chappell’s comedy feels synonymous with ITV, yet some of his shows had a further lease of life later on through repeats on other channels. Notably, Only When I Laugh enjoyed an additional run on Channel 4 in the 1990s, which introduced it to a new audience.
His experience of writing for the theatre can be seen on screen, Chappell’s sitcoms are largely studio-based and filmed in front of a live audience, with simple sets and longer scenes. The plot is driven by the clever interactions between the characters and the beautifully scripted dialogue. There’s no faffing about with comical mishaps and over the top farcical set pieces. The characters move around each other like they’re dancing a tango, with a satisfying payoff in each half and the advert break serving as a theatrical intermission.
Even though we don’t always like them, difficult characters like Rising Damp’s Rigsby or David in Duty Free are still written sympathetically, so we understand and root for them as they bury themselves under yet another self-inflicted disaster caused by their own sharp tongue. The warmth of the supporting characters, and the generosity of spirit of those trapped alongside those hapless protagonists, means there’s little hint of resentment.
His shows capture the zeitgeist of the moment and the cultural changes of the times, yet they don’t ram an overtly political message down the audience’s throat. Through writing characters with genuine charm and framing them in familiar settings, he subtly prompts us to laugh at ourselves.
❉ Anna Cale is a UK-based arts and culture writer with ideas above her station. She specialises in film and television, often focussing on the things you might have overlooked. When she isn’t writing, she spends far too much time on Twitter (@real_meaning) asking people to read her film blog: http://restispropaganda.