2 October 2004 | Oct
An adequate distillation
"Rising Damp" is now generally regarded as the finest sitcom produced by ITV, the BBC's main commercial rival, during its 50 years on air. Granted, that is not a hard title to win. But the claustrophobic saga of a boarding house where a stingy, nervy, clumsily lecherous landlord, two students and a fluttery but oddly alluring spinster play out an endless round-dance of mutual attraction is one of the perennial, timeless joys of British TV.
Like most hit comedies of the 1970s, "Rising Damp" earned a big-screen adaptation. The main cast stayed intact, except that Christopher Strauli subbed for the late Richard Beckinsale. Unfortunately Joe McGrath, a comedy specialist used to altogether broader material (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, The Goons) directed. Farce is played up at the expense of quieter and subtler pleasures.
McGrath, who helmed "The Magic Christian" and "The Great McGonagall", goes for a quick fire approach which Eric Chappell's screenplay-- like so many of these filmed sitcoms, it smells of three TV episodes scrambled together-- does not inhibit. Feeling one must open up the action and exploit a marginally larger budget, Chappell lets the film slip away too much from the house. To aficionados, even seeing the back garden and the street are a little shocking. However, scenes in pubs and restaurants echo the original, and the chief pleasure, Leonard Rossiter as Rupert Rigsby, is undimmed. Some well-loved schticks, such as Rigsby blowing in Miss Jones's ear after being told it's an erogenous zone, are reprised.
Rossiter broke the rules of modern screen acting. He mugged, twitched, grimaced, muttered semi-audibly and shamelessly hogged the camera, instead of underplaying stone-facedly and letting his confreres share the work. Yet he gets away with it every time, simply because Rigsby is a towering character in the great tradition of British "downer" comedy: the frustrated middle-aged male fantasist who is not quite up to living in the real world. That line began with Will Hay and ran through Hancock, Harold Steptoe, Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty to Rigsby, with Derek Trotter and Victor Meldrew to come.
Guest star Denholm Elliott is a smooth ex-RAF conman after the gorgeous Miss Jones's modest savings. He may seem like another cinematic concession, but he is not unlike Peter Bowles's theatrical charmer of a lodger in the series. Elliott's underplaying is in fitting and masterful contrast to the spluttering sycophantic Rigsby. Don Warrington, the black student "chief's son with ten wives" patronised and envied by Rigsby, is gloriously suave, though victim of a disconcerting plot twist at the end.
This potted version is not the best of its breed, but for condensing Rossiter's tour de force it is worth catching.