Americans unfamiliar with the British sitcom Rising Damp (1974-78) might want to check out this frequently funny series, notable for its tightly-packed acerbic humor, amusing characterizations, and especially the performance of its star, longtime character actor Leonard Rossiter. The comparatively pricey DVD (just seven half-hour episodes for $24.99 retail) offers the first of the show's four series/seasons, which was subsequently followed by a successful if basically unexportable same-named feature film in 1980. Rising Damp might have continued for years were it not for the sudden death of one of its stars, and Rossiter's untimely demise not long after.
The series adapts a play by Eric Chappell, Banana Box, about a reactionary, cheapskate landlord named Rupert Rigsby (Rossiter), and the endless conflicts he has with his younger, hipper generation of put-upon tenants, especially medical student Alan Moore (Richard Beckinsale, father of Kate Beckinsale), suave and articulate African student Philip Smith (Don Warrington), and free-spirit single woman Ruth Jones (Frances de la Tour).
An interesting variation of the Archie Bunker / Alf Garnet bigot, Rigsby is not so much a counterpoint to the changing times that Carroll O'Connor's cabbie had been on All in the Family. Rather, he's more a Scrooge-like grotesque caricature of Britain's aging working class, the generation that lacked much in the way of an education but had fought the Germans in World War II, only to see Britain transformed by a bunch of flower children and seemingly lazy college students they couldn't begin to understand. Despite the frequent racial humor, the series then is really more of generational conflict than anything else, a battle between the 50-ish Rigsby and his 20-something tenants.
The show was enormously successful in its day, though like many British shows only a small number of episodes ultimately were produced (27 in all, far below minimum requirements for syndication in America). It became ITV's highest-rated sitcom ever and won numerous awards. Sadly, Richard Beckinsale, an immensely popular television actor on this and other shows, died of a heart attack in 1979 when he was just 31 years old, and had to be replaced for Rising Damp's film version.
Leonard Rossiter will be familiar to American audiences for his work in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Oliver! (both 1968), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). In Britain, however, Rossiter is remembered for his role as Rigsby more than any other, and with good reason. He's nervous and paranoid, lovesick and insulting, foolish and a social cripple. Rossiter plays him with an intensity and surprising vulnerable humanity that must have been fiendishly difficult to maintain over the run of the show, and which constantly seems on the verge of bursting beyond the (purposely) crammed interior sets. Beckinsale is immediately likable as Alan, while de la Tour is a delight as Ruth.
Video & Audio
Rising Damp was shot on video in the British manner, and the full-frame transfers appear to be getting as much life out of the outdated video technology as is possible. The sound is likewise a bit thin, but perfectly acceptable. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The only extras come in the form of useful text offering helpful background on the series.
For most Americans, Rising Damp's appeal is gradual; it's very much a situation comedy that grows on you as you become familiar with the characters and the basic set-up. Acorn Media's set is therefore something of a disappointment in that a set of the first 14 shows might more likely have left viewers anxious for more, rather than work up a mild interest over seven brief if funny shows.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.