Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) is a landlord of a boarding house afflicted with impoverished conditions and home to a collection of tenants who really cannot do any better, so have to put up with both the cramped surroundings and his intrusive, pontificating attitude where he thinks nothing of walking into their rooms and telling them what's on his mind. Those tenants are currently Miss Ruth Jones (Frances de la Tour) and Philip Smith (Don Warrington), the latter taking the damp-ridden top flat and the former being the unrequited object of Rigsby's affections, a spinster who had designs on medical student Philip. Into this atmosphere arrives John (Christopher Strauli), an art student who is unwittingly forced by the landlord to share with Philip...
The history of ITV sitcoms in Britain, when they were still making a substantial amount of them, is not generally regarded as impressively as the ones on their rival channels at the BBC, yet if you look back you will see they enjoyed many big hits with the public even if those efforts are largely forgotten today. One writer who remained loyal to the third channel was Eric Chappell, who concocted a run of successes from Rising Damp through to Only When I Laugh, Duty Free and Home to Roost, but it was the first of those which is seen as the real classic. One of the dingiest sitcoms ever made, taking place on pokey, cluttered sets in front of an appreciative studio audience, it looked cheap but the quality of Chappell's scripts and the performances which rose to the occasion generated the laughs.
Of course, it remains controversial for the bigoted attitudes of Rigsby who barely let an episode go by without some racist remark directed towards the elegant Philip, though crucially the show never took Rigsby's side: he was always a figure of ridicule and the butt of the jokes. Not that Rossiter got the lion's share of the laughs, as this was very much an ensemble piece, though it was he who would be remembered thanks to the star's dedicated playing. In all it ran for four series, also sustaining the celebrity of Richard Beckinsale who played the character more or less essayed by Strauli in this movie, and therein lay one of many problems this had. Although Beckinsale had bowed out of the last series on television, tragically he had died before the film was made.
Therefore what you had was Chappell warming over extracts of his old scripts for television in a sort of compilation of highlights, only with the specific mood of the original lost thanks to being shot on locations - now they seemed less like amusing characters and more like pale imitations, this even with three of the stars reappearing. And when Strauli was given lines well known from his late friend Beckinsale's delivery, the whole affair rang desperately false, that in spite of John not supposed to be the same character as the Alan one. Veteran comedy director Joseph McGrath was at the helm, but all he could do was try to corral the actors into replicating their past glories, something they conspicuously failed to do; it was a strange experience, you could see why it had been funny before but were acutely aware it wasn't funny now.
There were instances of fresh material, but when they were relegated to bits and pieces here and there such as two fantasy sequences where Rigsby imagines taking Miss Jones out for a meal, leading to embarrassing scenes of them dancing the tango (holding onto one another's arses because presumably arses=amusing) and Rigsby dressed up as a leather-clad fifties rocker in what is supposed to be a spoof of Saturday Night Fever, assuming you had never seen that blockbuster and only heard about it second hand. The dated modernisation even extended to replacing the rickety piano theme of the source with a disco tune ("Rising Damp's gonna get us all!" trill the singers), yet for a sitcom so fixed in the previous decade, the results were hopeless and crass. Strauli, one of the stars of Chappell's Only When I Laugh, for one counted this as one of the worst roles of his career, mostly because Rossiter was insistent he reproduce Beckinsale's performance, and there lay the issue, they were missing the seedy appeal of the original by miles since lightning couldn't strike twice. Music by David Lindup.