The Recusant wishes to pay brief tribute to novelist and television writer David Nobbs, who passed away on the 9th August 2015, aged 80. We can think of no better way of paying tribute to Nobbs’ sublime gifts at polemical black comedy fiction than reminiscing a while on perhaps his most acclaimed and certainly greatest achievement, the chronicles of nervously-exhausted middle-management, chalk-striped Surbiton commuter, Reginald Iolanthe Perrin (initials R.I.P.), played by the inimitable, raven-profiled comic character actor, Leonard Rossiter (to this writer’s mind, the Peter Sellers of the small screen).
This writer grew up on such brilliantly written, bittersweet television fare as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79), a series which, in his infant years, rather perplexed and even disturbed him. For Reginald Perrin was no ordinary Seventies sitcom (a la the initially satirical but later more routine and cosy The Good Life), but was, essentially, the chronicling of a middle-class, middle-aged man’s gradual descent into barely contained nervous breakdown and gradual disintegration -then reintegration- of identity, which leads up to a now legendary ‘faked suicide’ by drowning off the Dorset coast (in seeming homage to Thomas Hardy’s Sgt. Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd, who also faked his own suicide by drowning off the Dorset coast). The eponymous character also reminded him quite uncannily of his equally nervous father who was commuting from Worthing to London every day on British Rail, replete with trademark pinstriped suit.
Oddly, what used to disturb me the most as a child viewer of Reginald Perrin was the seemingly impenetrable, distant-eyed, almost Stepford Wives-insipidness of his suburban housewife Elizabeth (played by Pauline Yates, who passed away in January this year). Her insouciance strikes a formidable stumbling-block for authentic emotional contact with her husband “Reggie”, and the two continue to drift, almost dream-like, through a suburban existence of mind-numbing routine and ritual (a small glass of Sherry every evening after work before settling down with orange napkins for dinner). Even Reggie’s perpetual lateness arriving at the office every day due to train delays becomes something of an implicit ritual, always “fifteen minutes late” for such gloriously alliterative reasons as “juggernaut jack-knifed at Gerard’s Cross”.
But Elizabeth displays hidden depths of intuitiveness further into the series, particularly during the second, when she knowingly pretends to be mourning her apparently ‘late’ husband, while secretly realising that her new suitor, Martin Wellbourne, a hitherto un-talked about ‘old friend’ of Reggie’s who emigrated to Peru (which triggers an hilarious exchange at Reggie’s ‘wake’: “What’s it like in Venezuela in the winter?” “Peru” “Okay, so what’s it like in Peru in the winter?” “Chilly”) is in fact Reggie returned disguised in a wig, false beard and spray-on tan. Reggie morbidly revels in being a witness at both his own funeral and wake, even if it simply drums home how relatively little he is actually being ‘mourned’, since most of his relatives and old friends appear relatively sanguine, albeit still affectionately nostalgic about him.
The three series of Reginald Perrin are ingeniously thought out: the first, and probably the best in many respects, charts his gradual office-bound decline into mid-life crisis and suicide-faking anomie; the second charts his return, initially incognito, and the birth of his surprisingly successful anti-capitalist shop empire, Grot, which sells completely useless albeit distinctive products (a kind of satire on the built-in obsolescence of capitalist manufacturing); and the third, and perhaps most underrated, charts his last ditch attempt to circumnavigate materialistic existence through a suburban-based commune experiment for the “middle-class, middle-aged and middle-minded” seeking to get out of the ‘rat race’.
In an almost Hardyesque –even Sophoclean– temporal paradox, the circularity of Perrin’s destiny mirrors that of the daily mouse-wheel commute from which he struggles to extricate himself in the first series: his community, the self-effacingly named Perrin’s, is ultimately packed up after too many NIMBYish neighbourhood petitions, and Reggie ends up back in a dead-end office job and once again under the thumb of his original boss (at Sunshine Desserts) –and briefly his own employee at Grot– the dome-headed, gimlet-eyed ‘C.J.’ (revealed only in the original novel as initialling ‘Charles Jefferson’), played supremely by John Barron.
C.J. has a fetish for giant cigars and farting chairs for his employees to squirm in as he bears down on them with inscrutable screwed eyes and stentorian voice from his raised altar-like desk, and has passed into popular legend for his indefatigable catchphrase, “I didn’t get where I am today….” (also later used by Nobbs as the title of his own autobiography), which precedes practically every single sentence he utters throughout the three series. He is flanked by his two younger executives, Reggie's deputies, the neurotic David and smug Tony, who punctuate conversations with “Super” and “Great" respectively. The comedy chemistry between Rossiter and Barron as they frequently exchange razor-shop dialogic jousts throughout the three series is among the most accomplished of any comedy pairing in television history.
But by the end of the series, ‘C.J.’ is himself subordinate to a higher boss, his own older brother, the even gruffer ‘F.J.’, while Reggie is in an inferior managerial position to his days at Sunshine Desserts, and similarly shackled with two excruciating younger executives whose catchphrases are “Smashing”/ “Terrific”.
Reggie ends up, on a particularly sour note to the conclusion of the series, apparently arranging his own more certain suicide on the phone to his new secretary, his last lines –and those of the series– asking for the train times to the Dorset coast before mournfully placing the receiver back on the phone (though Nobbs’ brief revival of the series, the posthumous The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, revealed that Reggie had survived through the 80s and into the early 90s, only to be suddenly struck down by accident when a hoarding advertising the insurance company he was signed up to fell on his head).
It’s not only the three-dimensional characterisation of the eponymous ‘hero’ which distinguishes Reginald Perrin from any other ‘comedy’ series before or since (it was briefly ‘revived’ with Martin Clunes as a more lugubrious Reggie, and actually was fairly witty in its way, but not a match with the original), or, indeed, the multi-layered ‘journey’ of the narrative, but it’s also the almost neo-Dickensian ‘caricature’-style of the numerous incidental characters (indeed, the likes of C.J. might not have been completely out of place alongside such capitalistic parasites as Pecksniff and Montague Tigg in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit).
Nobbs had an undeniable genius for blackly comical creations, each with their quirks and personality-type-denoting catchphrases. Elizabeth’s hapless ex-military brother Jimmy (played superbly by dog-jowled Geoffrey Palmer) always starts his empty-larder monologues with “Frankly, bit of a cock up on the catering front…”; Reggie's drop-out amateur actor son, Mark, exasperates him with his lapsed-middle-class attempts at a very convoluted at-two-removes Cockney rhyming slang ("Dustbins... dustbin lids... kids!"); suburban-boho son-in-law Tom (the "bearded prig") always talks of how he's not a such-n-such "....person"; and grossly incompetent Doc Morrissey ends his symptom-listing apparent diagnoses with "Yes... I wonder what it is!".
Even the more incidental-incidental characters, such as the verbose Irish drifter Seamus, unlikely business genius employed for his perceived unsuitability to an executive role by Reggie, frequently alludes to his origins as being “from the land of the bogs and the little people”; while lard-faced curmudgeonly self-made Yorkshireman, Thruxton Appleby, constantly harps “If there’s one thing I admire it’s bare-faced cheek”; and psychopathically prickly, incomprehensible Scots Chef, McBlane, periodically complains about “Scrunges”! (Reggie: “How very distressing for you”). But these ‘Nobbsian’ caricatures are more than mere ciphers, just as Dickens’s were: they personify certain social types.
At this juncture the reader may be aware that this writer is genuine fan of Reginald Perrin: on its repeats he caught the series again as an adult, taped it, and since watched the series several times over, in fact, almost ritually every other year, a ‘tradition’ rendered even more enjoyable by the DVD releases, which restored some of the slightly less ‘politically correct’ scenes to one or two later episodes. Ironically, as an adult, he appreciated the wit of the scripting and laughed far more than when he’d detected in it something almost subliminally unsettling as a child viewer.
This writer really could bang on for pages about the multifarious aspects to Reginald Perrin which he’s grown up to admire so much for sheer genius of comic invention and comical polemic (the only comedy series which, in his opinion, comes close to the sheer comic majesty of Perrin, but for completely different qualities, is John Cleese’s frequently hysterical sit-com farce, Fawlty Towers). And he’s no doubt that David Nobbs truly was a writer of ‘genius’ –largely observational genius, but genius nonetheless. Hectic narratives apart, it’s the sheer dialogical gold of the lines and poetically descriptive monologues in Perrin that stand the test of time and greatness (most notably of all perhaps, Reggie’s drunken/drug-induced soliloquy on nihilism at a fruit dessert conference, and his and Jimmy’s relay-race monologues on the social types likely to be alternately attracted to or baited by the latter’s newly conceived “secret army”; “long-haired layabouts… criminals… rapists… papists… papist rapists…” etc.).
This writer uses the term ‘polemical’ very deliberately: for Perrin is nothing if not a gorgeously imaginative comedy polemic on the propensity of so many human beings to live completely in neglect of the imagination. Reggie is an example of a man whose imagination simply cannot be labelled, compartmentalised (excuse the semi-paraphrase from The Prisoner) and put away in a drawer for the daily grind –it has to have its belated vent, and when that begins, there’s no stopping it. The only single example this writer can think of anything presaging Regginald Perrin's take on soul-destroying conformity as depicted through commuting and office work is the beginning of Tony Hancock's brilliant and sometimes sublime 1960 film The Rebel. Office-bound polemic on suited futility has been attempted since Perrin, but in more conventional sit-com guise –perhaps most notably in It Takes A Worried Man (1981-83), written by and starring the talented Peter Tilbury– but none of these have ever bettered Nobbs’ supreme invention.
Reginald Perrin the TV series was of course adapted from David Nobbs’s original –and blacker– novels, The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975, later reissued as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), The Return of Reginald Perrin (1977) and The Better World of Reginald Perrin (1978), all of which this writer read years ago, genuinely laughing out loud throughout all three.
In many ways, in my opinion, Nobbs’s Perrin novels are strongly reminiscent in clipped aphorismic prose style, polemical tone and sublimely figurative depiction of the suburban and mundane, of George Orwell’s early novels, particularly the blackly comical Keep the Aspidistra Flying! (1936), and the more serious Coming Up For Air (1939), in which the middle-aged protagonist, George Bowling, revisits childhood haunts in the village he grew up in, only to find it completely changed; interestingly, there’s a scene in the book when Bowling meets an old girlfriend ‘ravaged by time’, who doesn’t recognise him, while during the second series of Reginald Perrin, Reggie-in-disguise visits an old haunt of his childhood where he meets an old girlfriend serving behind the bar whom he doesn’t recognise).
Had Orwell not lived in such momentous times and been thus diverted into weightier polemical material, one cannot help thinking that he might well have eventually churned out something even more similar to Nobbs’s Seventies creation. What is certainly clear today is just how prescient, even visionary, Reginald Perrin was, anticipating as it did the rise in bargain-basement and thrift stores selling essentially useless, or at least, worthless, products (Poundland, Poundshop, Poundworld et al), and in its' irrepressibly anti-capitalist spirit.
It only remains to say that Nobbs also wrote a number of other significant novels, most of which also became television series and spin-offs: A Bit of a Do (1986), Pratt of the Argus (1988), and his last book, The Second Life of Sally Mottram (2014), as well as the non-novelised Perrin spin-off (‘Jimmy’’s solo outing), the very blackly comical, Fairly Secret Army (1984-86).
David Gordon Nobbs, born on 13 March 1935, died 9 August 2015
Educated: Marlborough College and Cambridge University
Alan Morrison © 2015