Monday, 12 March 2012

Rising Damp - first run audience figures

A quick look at the ratings for Eric Chappell's sublime ensemble comedy Rising Damp, originally shown on ITV between 1974 and 1978.

Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) and Miss Jones (Frances de la Tour).  Sitcom poetry.
The series started life as 'The Banana Box', a stage play which Yorkshire Television head of light entertainment John Duncan saw and commissioned as a pilot when it flopped in the West End in 1973.

"[I]n a big Shaftesbury Avenue house like the Apollo it seems painfully thin, as if a television Comedy Playhouse had been stretched on the rack to go the requisite two hour distance."
Michael Billington, The Guardian (26 June 1973)

Newspaper ad for 'The Banana Box's pre-West End run at the Hampstead Theatre.  Leonard Rossiter played not Rigsby, but Rooksby in the stage play.
A series was developed before the pilot had been shown but, like Only Fools and Horses...., it was not an immediate success.

Remember that until August 1977, Audits of Great Britain, whose JICTAR system recorded weekly ratings, measured audiences in terms of millions of homes rather than viewers.  The BFI suggests multiplying by 2.2 to arrive at a figure approximating viewers.

Chart positions are probably as good a method of comparison as any.

Pilot (2nd September 1974)
Monday at 8pm, opposite on BBC1 European Athletics Championships.

'The New Tenant' - 6.15m (11th for the week)

"[O]ne of those exercises in which the parts added up to even more than the whole ... If Rossiter in particular can keep this up, and is given the scripts, we should have a gentle treat to look forward to."
Peter Fiddick, The Guardian (3 September 1974)

This was the first in a series of six pilots intiated by incoming YTV Head of Comedy Duncan Wood.  One other series resulted - Oh No - It's Selwyn Froggitt! with Bill Maynard.

Series 1 (13th December 1974-17th January 1975)
Fridays at 8.30pm, opposite Ken Dodd's World of Laughter (episodes 1-2 and 4), 1961 feature film El Cid (ep 3) and sitcom Second Time Around starring Michael Craig (eps 5 and 6)

1. 'Black Magic' - not in Top 20
2. 'A Night Out' - not in Top 20
3. 'Charisma' - not in Top 20
4. 'All Our Yesterdays' - 6.50 (15th)
5. 'The Prowler' - 7.10 (15th=)
6. 'Stand Up and Be Counted' - 6.95m (17th=)

"There are so many factors that make it a paragon of funnies.  Firmly based in a human situation, garlanded with topical pokes and timeless ones, it is fully exploited by a marvellous cast."
Tom Holt, The Stage and Television Today (23 January 1975)

Labour MP Tom Pendry sued Yorkshire Television over series 1 finale "Stand Up And Be Counted", which originally featured a Labour candidate with the same surname.  All references to the character's name are removed in the extant version.

Series 2 (7th November - 19th December 1975)
Fridays at 7.30pm, opposite US imports The Invisible Man, starring David McCallum (episodes 1-4) and repeats of The Wonderful World of Disney (eps 5-7)

1. 'The Permissive Society' - not in Top 20
2. 'Food Glorious Food' - not in Top 20
3. 'A Body Like Mine' - not in Top 20
4. 'Moonlight and Roses' - not in Top 20
5. 'A Perfect Gentleman' - 7.05m (15th)
6. 'The Last of the Big Spenders' - 7.30m (13th=)
7. 'Things That Go Bump in the Night' - 7.25m (16th)

The Invisible Man seems to have been stronger competition than The Wonderful World of Disney, though he never appeared in the Top 20.

"...Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby, the passionately inquisitive landlord, forever hovering on the fringe of his tenants' lives like an avaricious crow..."
Sylvia Clayton, The Daily Telegraph (8 November 1975)

Philip (Don Warrington) and Rigsby fight in 'A Body Like Mine'.
To the victor - a date with Miss Jones!

Christmas Special (26th December 1975)
Boxing Day at 7.45pm, opposite 1970 film The Railway Children

'For The Man Who Has Everything' - not in Top 20

Stage commitments prevented Frances de la Tour appearing in the latter half of Series 2.  Gay Rose stepped in as new tenant Brenda.

Series 3 (12th April - 24th May 1977)
Tuesdays at 8.30pm, opposite the penultimate series of long-running police drama Z Cars.  With a midweek slot, suddenly everything clicked.

1. 'That's My Boy' - 7.85m (5th)
2. 'Stage Struck' - 8.40m (5th)
3. 'Clunk Click' - 8.45m (5th)
4. 'The Good Samaritans' - 8.25m (3rd)
5. 'Fawcett's Python' - 8.40m (3rd)
6. 'The Cocktail Hour' - 8.05m (2nd)
7. 'Suddenly at Home' - 8.20m (1st)

"[N]ot since the association of Tony Hancock with Galton and Simpson has such a comic-tragic figure emerged.  Rigsby is a delightful fool and the characters spread around him by producer Ronnie Baxter add so well and unobtrusively to the humour."
James Thomas, Daily Express (13 April 1977)

Peter Bowles guest starred as resting actor Hilary in 'Stage Struck', which won Series 3 the BAFTA for Situation Comedy of 1977

Series 4 (4th April - 9th May 1978)
Tuesdays at 8.00pm, opposite new BBC Scotland drama serial The Standard starring Colette O'Neil and Patrick Malahide.  No Richard Beckinsale in this last run - he was busy with West End musical comedy "I Love My Wife" and Porridge sequel Going Straight.

1. 'Hello Young Lovers' - 18.20m (2nd)
2. 'Fire and Brimstone' - 18.55m (1st)
3. 'Great Expectations' - 18.25m (1st)
4. Pink Carnations' - 17.80m (1st)
5. 'Under The Influence' - 16.90m (2nd)
6. 'Come On In, The Water's Lovely' - 15.10m (6th)

"The series has been a personal triumph for Leonard Rossiter.  He plays it so frantically that at times it seems he'll spoil everything by going right over the top.  But he knows just what he is doing and always stops short by a hairsbreadth."
Peter Knight, The Daily Telegraph (11 May 1978)

Just the three regulars in Series 4, but it moves so fast no one would notice.
So Rising Damp came to an end after four series, its reputation forever intact.  Eric Chappell moved on to hospital comedy Only When I Laugh starring James Bolam, which proved almost as popular.

The Movie (UK release: 14 February 1980)

UK quad poster for the modestly budgeted film version, directed by Joe McGrath.  Christopher Strauli played art student John, standing in for Richard Beckinsale, who passed away on 19th March 1979.
"It feels like three telly segments gummed back to back and confirms that the most dreaded words associated with a TV series today are 'The Movie'."
Alexander Walker, Evening Standard (14 February 1980)

The inevitable feature film version premiered on ITV on Thursday 3rd March 1983, 7.45-9.30pm. Shown opposite Top of the Pops, The Kenny Everett Television Show, the first episode of documentary series The Paras and the Nine O'Clock News, 12.20m tuned in (12th for the week).

Saturday, 3 March 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history (part 4): 1988-89

What many consider the very pinnacle of Only Fools was just around the corner but to backtrack a little, Series 5 was repeated 10th Sept to 15th Oct 1987, Thursdays at 8.30pm.  Aside from a blip caused by being up against ITV's premiere of Romancing the Stone (14.2m, 3rd for the week against "From Prussia With Love" with 6.5m, 57th for the week), the usual 13m or so tuned in.

These repeats didn't make BBC1 Northern Ireland - we got them on Fridays at 8pm, on BBC2.  Presumably some regional programme took precedence.  The gall!

And as mentioned the first series finally got a repeat, six years down the line, when following on from the single showing of "Big Brother" in April, the other five episodes were shown mid-October 1987 - albeit during daytime.

BBC One's daytime schedule had launched a year earlier, in late October 1986, a development which brought Australian soap Neighbours into the zeitgeist.  So why throw the show away in such a slot, when repeats were a guaranteed smash?  Was it felt by everyone that Series 1 wasn't up to the usual standards?  Or that the theme tune would be too jarring?  One can only speculate, but I think I only watched one in this run.  I've no idea why - I absolutely loved the show, and we certainly had a VCR.  I have a feeling I thought it was substandard.  Or perhaps I was particularly busy at school at the time (hey, anything's possible).

Episode 3 of Series 1, 'Cash & Curry' - I think this is the one and only episode I watched from the 1987 afternoon repeats.  Why isn't Lennard Pearce in it?  Was it originally planned that Grandad wouldn't always feature?  If so, thankfully they changed their minds.
Controversial Christmas '86 episode "A Royal Flush" was reshown Sunday 6th December, winning 13.2m, 10th for the week.  In its original 76 minute form, I believe this was seen on terrestrial telly only once more, in 1992.

Into 1988, and apparently it was possible the show was over.  This was presumably John Sullivan's decision as David Jason was particularly keen for the programme to return; a reversal of a couple of years before when it was Jason who had considered calling it a day.

But with Dear John.... and Just Good Friends no longer in production, it would be 1992 before Sullivan created a new show.  Instead, he concentrated on Fools exclusively for the next few years - other than adapting some of his scripts for the US version of Dear John, starring Judd Hirsch of Taxi fame (and which ran to four seasons).  Funnily enough, as I write this, another Taxi alum has been cast in the new US version of Only Fools - Christopher Lloyd is playing Grandad.

Anyway, back to 1988 and the UK and a fairly swift repeat of Christmas '87 special "The Frog's Legacy" on Tuesday 28th June garnered 9.4m (15th for the week).

Tessa Peake Jones as Raquel in 'Dates': "I don't think John Sullivan had any intention of making her a regular character... I only ever saw it as a one-off appearance" [quoted in The Complete A-Z of Only Fools and Horses by Richard Webber, Orion 2002]
The decision to recommission the show was a late one on the BBC's part, for whatever reason.  Production on Series 6 began on Sunday 6th November with the scenes at Waterloo Station where Del meets Raquel for the first time, in Christmas Day episode "Dates".  This was a little later than planned, thanks to David Jason working on A Bit of a Do for Yorkshire Television - the beginning of his long-term association with the ITV franchise holder and one which eventually did not suffer Fools gladly.

Here is where the sitcom format was revolutionized: the schedule had been locked in to the usual, three or four weeks filming followed by weekly rehearsal/recording of 30 minute episodes.  But John Sullivan was turning in very long scripts...  To cut a long story short, the BBC were happy to promote Fools to a 50 minute format in view of its huge success; actors' fees were renegotiated accordingly, but nothing could be done about the schedule.

And so over the next couple of months, cast and crew produced an 80 minute special and six 50 minute episodes and by all accounts nearly killed themselves doing so.  With transmission of the seven week run beginning at Christmas, they ended up only one week ahead in recording.

But the results were glorious.  Maybe all studio audience sitcom should be made thus.

"Dates" introduced Raquel, a winning performance by Tessa Peake Jones, a serious girlfriend for Del and a welcome stab at moving the series on.  The episode has been cited by John Sullivan as his very favourite, everything paying off beautifully.  I won't demur, it's wonderful.  Shown on Christmas Day 1988 at 5.05pm opposite the too-late premiere of The Empire Strikes Back on ITV, it got 16.6m (7th for the week).

The series proper started a couple of weeks later with "Yuppy Love" on Sunday 8th January at 7.15pm.  Competition was Roy Walker quiz Catchphrase and LWT wartime drama Wish Me Luck.  Meanwhile on BBC1, Del boy was giving us his own catchphrase - and falling through a bar.

"Breakfast is for wimps" - Del-boy in his Gordon Gekko phase.  Wall Street was released in the UK in late April 1988.  The genius of John Sullivan to react accordingly.
Yes, would you believe me if I told you it was with this episode that Del's most recognisable catchphrase originated?  Eight years, six series and 41 episodes in, he said "lovely jubbly" for the first time.  He had also, hilariously, become a yuppy, having watched Michael Douglas in Wall Street.  Such fresh and promising schick from such a well established character is one reason why the show, after all this time, was still winning converts.

I've got nothing much to say on the subject of Del falling through the bar.  It was funny, and has certainly played its part in the programme's placement in the popular culture.  But it's been recycled so often as to attract ridicule.  And the chandelier gag is funnier.

"Yuppy Love" also introduced Gwyneth Strong as a love interest for Rodney, Cassandra Parry.  Nicely underplayed by the actress, the comic business involving the pair of them - Rodney pretending to live in the exclusive King's Avenue since she's dropping him off and he wants to make an impression - is every bit as inspired as the bar scene.

Cassandra: "You've taken my coat.  This one's yours"/ Rodney: "How'd you know it was mine?"/ Cassandra: "It's got your name written in it".  Del-boy embarrasses Rodney at his first meeting with Cassie and he's not even there!
Their romance developed over the six weeks, bringing a serialised element to the show for the first time, more akin to Just Good Friends than Fools and Horses.  I'm sure this played its part in the immense popularity of this series.  Had we been served up another 6 individual half-hours, I doubt the impact wouldn't have been the same.

And the impact was considerable.  Everyone was watching the show at this time.  In addition to the whole falling through the bar thing, who can forget "Danger UXD" (great title) about 'Lusty Linda' and 'Erotic Estelle', the blow-up dolls filled with propane; or "The Unlucky Winner Is..." with Rodney winning a Mega-Flakes competition, an all-expenses paid holiday to Spain - except, the organisers think he's 14; and finally, "Little Problems" when in a bittersweet ending Rodney ties the knot with Cassandra, finally leaving Nelson Mandela House, and Del-boy, for the life he's always wanted.

Ultimately, I still think the half-hours are the ones which shine brightest as comic jewels, but no one can question the marvellous second wind these longer episodes generated just when the show would almost certainly have started to flag.

Ratings were through the roof - an average of 16¾m, with the last episode reaching 18.9m.  Reviews couldn't be anything but positive.  If this was intended to be the end, reaction put paid to that.

A deserved BAFTA for "Comedy Series of 1988".  One of five wins for the programme, out of 17 nominations between 1983 and 1996.  Still not enough.
The show won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Series that March, officially for "Dates" as being shown in 1988 it was the only one eligible.  As a result it got a very fast repeat, Sunday 2nd April at 7.15pm - 15.1m tuned in, 8th for the week.

Series 6 got its first repeat 8th September to 13th October 1989, Fridays around 8pm.  An average of almost 13m, and never out of the Top Ten.  For the first time, I have little or no recollection of this, probably because the concept of video tape was so firmly entrenched that I had already watched the episodes a gazillion times.  In fact I still have the off-airs now.  Also, this straddles my going to University so I may have been otherwise occupied.

Albert, Del and Rodney on "The Jolly Boys' Outing" to Margate.  It doesn't really get any better than this.  Go watch.
A glorious year for the show was rounded off with Christmas Day special "The Jolly Boys' Outing", actually recorded in May on the heels of the series.  A much-loved episode, this tale of the Peckham regulars' disastrous beano to Margate was a showcase for the entire ensemble, many of whom I don't think I've mentioned here: Roger Lloyd Pack as slow-witted Trigger; John Challis as supercilious car salesman Boycie; Paul Barber as the luckless - any time Del is around - Denzil; Roy Heather as unhygienic cafe owner Sid; Kenneth McDonald as downtrodden Nag's Head manager Mike; Patrick Murray as Rodney's untrustworthy mate Mickey Pearce; and Denis Lill as Cassandra's dad, Alan.  It's about as much fun as actually going out for the day with these guys.

Shown at 4.05pm, the special cracked the twenty million mark for the first time - 20.12m viewers, opposite a new animated version of Roald Dahl's The B.F.G. (voiced by David Jason) on ITV.  A fitting end to the decade which had introduced us to the Trotters.

John Sullivan's work on these eight episodes is a textbook example of refreshing an ageing brand.  Indeed, he had put nary a foot wrong with the show yet.  47 episodes, almost all of them brilliant.

The next decade brought quite a bit more Fools, and most of its biggest audiences, but unfortunately not to the same very high standards we had so far enjoyed.

Next time: 1990-1993, the last years of regular production, and still plenty of high points but the superlatives will be less plentiful.