Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Farewell, David Nobbs

I didn’t get where I am today without appreciating the talents of the man who imagined Reggie Perrin

Mon, Aug 10, 2015, 20:34

   

There was more to David Nobbs, who has died at the age of 80, than The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin. Raised in Petts Wood, Kent, he attended Marlborough School and Cambridge. In the 1960s, he wrote for such talents as Frankie Howerd and The Two Ronnies. In 1989, following the winding down of Perrin, he wrote a brilliant series for David Jason entitled A Bit of a Do. The Henry Pratt novels should be sought out by those who enjoy serious comedy. All this work reflected a mind that railed against the absurdity of conventional life while rather enjoying its eccentricities.

The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, the initial incarnation of which ran in three series between 1976 and 1979, remains the work for which he will be best known. It is often referred to as a situation comedy and, in the current climate, that makes a kind of sense. But it was not at all common for such shows to be continuing series with season-long plot arcs in the 1970s. This was just one way in which it broke new ground.

The story began as a novel — much admired by fellow writer Jonathan Coe — that eerily echoed incidents in the strange story of Labour MP John Stonehouse. That politician, like Reggie, also faked his own death by leaving his clothes on a beach, but the timeline confirms Nobbs’s denial that his comedies were unconnected with the incident. I have been to Petts Wood and I can confirm that the place of Nobbs’s upbringing could not be more like the bland suburb that — along with awful employment in Sunshine Deserts — sends the titular hero to the point of madness. I have a theory here. The British sitcom is swollen with frustrated middle-aged men trapped by the demands of work, family and vanishing youth: Captain Mainwaring, David Brent, Alan Partridge, Victor Meldrew, Basil Fawlty. Reggie Perrin is a series about the one sit-com Pooter who decided to try and do something about his, well, situation. The ultimate result is exactly as Beckett might have imagined it. Reggie ends up right back where he started under an assumed name and a fake beard. Martin Wellbourne, the man he becomes, is, if anything, less happy than Reggie.

There is not a thing wrong with the first two series of Reggie Perrin (the worrying comedy Irishman, played by Derry Power in the second part, turns out to be the smartest man in the room). It shouldn’t need to be said that the casting is immaculate. Geoffrey Palmer is superb as the military brother-in-law whose mad schemes to overthrow the government echoed real-life right-wing paranoid conspiracies of the era. Sue Nicholls (later a Coronation Street stalwart) is hilarious as the object of Reggie’s pathetic sexual desires. John Barron is bananas as the terrifying CJ.

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 And then there is Leonard Rossiter. No character actor had better timing. Nobody else was better at — it’s a strange little thing this — using the other characters name to such reliable comic effect. I assume that, after this technique became known, writers ended up accommodating him. Maybe he just punctuated the script himself. “No, CJ. Sorry, CJ.” That sort of thing. He did something similar with the words “Miss Jones” in Rising Damp.

I didn’t get where I am today without mentioning the importance of catchphrases. Great! Super! There’s been a bit of a cock up on the catering front. I’m not a catchphrase sort of person. British comedy has long relied on this sort of rhythmic insistence: the beat that triggers the laugh. But Nobbs took the tradition to such a level of knowing absurdity that it began to eat itself. One ended up laughing at Nobbs’s nerve in forcing through so many variations. “I didn’t get where you are today…” C J begins when, in season two, Reggie ends up usurping him.

It would be nice to say that, like Fawlty Towers, Reggie Perrin ended exactly where it should. This was not the case. The later specials are easy to avoid, but one might easily slip into the trap of watching the puzzling third series. There are more than a few bum notes in the attempt to address (already long dead) counter cultures, but one scene in particular renders this season unwatchable. Shiver as C J dons blackface to scare away the neighbours. Yes, the joke is at the expense of racists, but, well… Let’s just leave it at seasons one and two. Shall we?

The best of Reggie Perrin is not just original; it actually invented its own peculiar genre. Dig out the DVDs and learn this masterpiece by heart. “Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn’t know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein.”