Leonard Rossiter was one of the funniest modern comics on British television. He was an underrated staple of British humor for many years and almost totally ignored by Americans, which should be much to their regret. I liken Rossiter to Benny Hill, with whom many Americans are familiar, since they both seemed to have that razor-sharp, acidic, sarcastic wit with the entendres, double and single, flying through the dialogue.
Between the accents, the pace, and the often intelligent and frenetic humor, viewers had to be quick-witted to follow the action and not be left out of the humor. When two or more characters banter back and forth rapidly, they may as well be speaking Urdu.
Rossitor is the obvious star of Rising Damp — not that the other four main characters are slouches — but just as Benny Hill needed straight men and women as foils for his brand of humor, so does Rossitor. His sneering, odious, prejudiced, miserly character, Rigsby, whose first name we learn only late in this movie, could be described as the English Archie Bunker.
He’s supported by Don Warrington as Philip, a black medical student who claims to be an African prince with ten wives; Frances de la Tour as Miss Jones, an oversexed spinster who falls in love several times during the movie, while at the same time trying to avoid Rigsby’s clumsy, lecherous passes; Christopher Strauli as John, a gullible art student; and Denholm Elliott as Seymour, an oily conman who completely takes in both Rigsby and Miss Jones with his public school manners and speech.
Rising Damp was a long-running television series in England before the movie was made, winning several prestigious awards and earning high praise. The plots were mostly thin, and more used to bind together Rigsby’s insulting, looking-down-his-nose-at-everybody bluster, which he uses to hide his own shortcomings – mainly his lack of confidence and his feelings of inferiority.
Rigsby lets out rooms in his house. It’s run down, with water stains on the walls, hence the title for both the movie and the series. At times his humor incorporates the poor state of the house — mainly when a tenant complains or questions something — making it sound as if the tenant didn’t deserve better and should consider himself lucky to get what he’s getting.
John’s naiveté is shown early on when he inquires about a room Rigsby has to let. The first room he is shown by Rigsby is tiny and looks like it was cobbled into a room by using odd parts of other rooms, making it strangely-shaped, cramped, and inconveniently laid out. John is trying to politely talk the place down, and when Rigsby quotes him the rent figure, he immediately declines.
Rigsby pulls the “Oh, well, there is another room that might be better for you, and I could let you have it for half the rent of this” ploy. It’s only after John agrees to take the other larger, far more attractive room at half the rent, and has paid Rigsby, that he learns he’ll be sharing the room with another student, Philip.
Some viewers may recall Dehnolm Elliott from the many roles he played in movies coming out of both England and Hollywood. His role as Seymour is played extremely well and to the hilt in dress, speech, and mannerisms, and he has Rigsby even shining his shoes for him. He comes in during the second half of the movie and Miss Jones falls for him immediately. Seymour is only trying to get her money. John and Phillip try to convince Rigsby of this, but he refuses to believe them.
There are several hilarious scenes in which Rossitor shows off his superb talent, playing to the hilt the buffoon, the narrow-minded, pompous ass who sees himself as on par with Superman and Albert Einstein both. During one scene he does an impeccable Keith Richards-like character impression. He hams it up, over-emoting and over-dramatizing, which makes it all the funnier.
In another scene the characters are talking about Rigsby’s lack of experience with women, and John remarks sotto voce to Philip that Rigsby doesn’t know where the erogenous zones are. Rigsby overhears, and retorts, “Of course I do – somewhere near the equator aren't they?”
The ending takes a surprisingly compassionate twist, showing that despite all the arguing and bickering among Rigsby, Miss Jones, Philip, and John, there’s a common bond after all, when they stick together while facing off against Seymour.
The series was so popular in England that at one time a parody song was made about it, and the song got enough airplay to become a short-lived major hit. It’s sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun."