Eric Chappell was a master of comedy writing and a long-standing WGGB member, best remembered for his iconic ITV situation comedy series Rising Damp.
Chappell was born in 1933 in Grantham, Lincolnshire into a working-class family. He showed a flair for writing at school and began writing stories. His mother disapproved of putting pen to paper “in case it’s held against you at a later date”.
Chappell studied accountancy but, instead of studying for his exams, spent his evenings writing a novel. After many rejections, he changed tack. “I had a eureka moment one night in the bath – why don’t I write a play? For one thing it’s only 20,000 words instead of 70,000.”
Chappell’s plan worked. While working as an auditor for the East Midlands Electricity Board and writing in secret, his play The Banana Box had its first performance at the Hampstead Theatre Club in November 1970.
The Banana Box was set in a seedy boarding house featuring an equally seedy and miserly landlord named Rooksby, played by Wilfred Brambell. A real-life landlord named Rooksby threatened to sue, the character was renamed and so Rigsby was born.
The Banana Box transferred to the Apollo Theatre in London’s West End in 1973, with a cast which included Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour, Don Warrington and the former Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones. The play looked at unrequited love, immigration and Rigsby’s often racist opinions of what it means to be British.
Chappell finally resigned from the East Midlands Electricity Board. He wrote a television pilot of The Banana Box, which the BBC rejected because Chappell’s script contained “too many jokes”. ITV’s Yorkshire TV commissioned the series which became Rising Damp, one of the most successful sitcoms in television history.
Writing the play before the telly series became Chappell’s modus operandi. Amongst other sitcoms, he also created Only When I Laugh, a sitcom about hospital patients which starred James Bolam, Richard Wilson and Peter Bowles, and Duty Free, set in a hotel in Marbella on a never-ending package holiday, and starring Keith Barron and Gwen Taylor.
Chappell’s other series include The Squirrels, The Bounder and Home To Roost, a sitcom about a middle-aged divorced man, happy in his solitude until his teenage son, thrown out by his mother, moves in. It starred John Thaw and Reece Dinsdale.
Dinsdale remembers Chappell fondly: “Eric sat with us for much of our rehearsals. I was never quite sure if he was there to amend things or if he just wanted to be there for the laughter. He loved laughing, often at his own words… but especially at what his actors were doing with them. I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face. I think laughter was his raison d’être.”
Chappell wrote over 200 TV comedy scripts and 20 plays, which are still performed by am drams worldwide.
Chappell leaves behind his wife Muriel and their two children Richard and Paula. Our condolences to them all.