Wednesday, 7 January 2015
Seventies TV: Rising Damp
Of course it is a commonplace that serious actors are always tortured souls (http://www.express.co.uk/expressyourself/96003/Rise-and-tragic-fall-of-a-genius), & in Rossiter's case the modern tendency for unrestrained biographies of former heroes has led to a biography (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Leonard-Rossiter-Character-Driven-untold/dp/1845135962), & in the cess pit that was allegedly the BBC in the 1970s he has also been accused of abuse (http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4624652/New-BBC-abuse-claims-name-screen-legend-Leonard-Rossiter-who-played-Reggie-Perrin.html). There is frankly almost no celebrity from my childhood who has not been shown up to be a monster - I'm glad Jimmy Savile never replied to the letter I wrote to him. & I seriously thought the career in TV I so badly wanted could be kicked off by being one of the men Rolf Harris would throw paint over to start off an art work.
There is a theme developing in these posts on 1970s TV: the 1970s were a frankly awful time. Economically, environmentally, racially, in every way this decade was awful. I think probably the reason I subjectively remember it as a happy time of bright colours was that we were off our heads on the additives in the food. These youngsters used only natural flavours & colourings don't understand how exciting a tube of Smarties used to be!
Rising Damp started as a stage play, & was Rossiter's big break. The play was essentially the same as the TV show:
' The Banana Box picked up on both of these themes - the place of blacks in society (and the opinions of those who were against it) and the attempt to answer the question of who exactly is British, and why. The character of the landlord of the bedsit Rooksby (he only became Rigsby in theTV series) was based on several people who Eric Chappell knew, and their cynical attitude to the influx of African and Afro-Caribbean citizens onto English shores. Philip was obviously based on the hotel guest already mentioned, with his tales of African culture being gleaned from many evenings for Eric at the local library. Miss Jones - Eric's first female character - was deliberately coy, but a gentle, forgiving soul, and the love interest for Rooksby. His frustrations at her coolness towards him are multiplied when it becomes clear she has eyes only for Philip. The play is based in a university town, so Philip is a student of Town and Country Planning, and there are two more scholarly tenants - Noel Parker and Lucy. At the end of the play, Noel and Lucy have become an item, and Philip has had to admit that his royal status is all pretence, and that he is in fact from Croydon. None of the cast who took part in the rehearsed reading were present when the play entered full production.' (http://www.leonardrossiter.com/risingdamp/StoryPlay.html)
The racial attitudes, stereotypes & conflicts demonstrated in other 1970s shows, such as It Ain't Half Hot Mum, are of course also present here. In case Rigsby's attitude to his African tenant may seem dated, let it be remembered that when I was lodging with a couple in Leeds in the mid-90s, she told a man wanting the other bedroom that it had been taken when it hadn't, on the basis that 'I don't mind them, but I don't want them living with me'. Rising Damp, in common with all of these 1970s shows, takes place against this background of tension - it was commonplace in Birmingham in the 1970s to see signs saying that 'coloureds' or Irish weren't welcome - & uses this tension as a source of entertainment.
This is somewhat redeemed by the character of Rigsby & the way his tenants unite against him & often win, but of course it is the reason Rising Damp seems so dated. It is also apparent that the African character - played by an actor born in the Caribbean - mediates African culture in a non-threatening way. His status as a god & multiple wives are not treated completely seriously. In this Rising Damp has a foot in both camps of traditional racial tensions & modern diversity approaches. There is a comfortableness with Smith's African culture that does not exist for a man wearing an ear-ring. The foot in both camps leads me torn between saying it's old-fashioned & bigoted, & saying that it may well have helped people to be comfortable with black people. For this reason Rising Damp leaves me uncomfortable & unsettled.