In the Autumn issue of the excellent literary quarterly Slightly Foxed, our own Henry Jeffreys writes about the late David Nobbs’ novel The Death of Reginald Perrin…
It was eerie the first time I watched the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin because it all felt so familiar. I’d bought a DVD boxset on whim. Suddenly my parents’ baffling banter made sense. When I thought they were speaking gibberish they were in fact quoting Perrin. My mother would say ‘great’ and my father would say ‘super’. My father would say things like ‘I didn’t get where I am today’ and my mother would say ‘I’m not a committee person.’ If lunch was going to be late my father would say ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front.’ They’d been doing it so long that I doubt they even knew they speaking Perrinese. It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Perrin has seeped into popular culture and language.
The TV series starring Leonard Rossiter was based on a novel, The Death of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs published in 1975. The eponymous hero is Reginald Iolanthe (Iolanthe because his mother was meant to appear in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta but had to bow out when she became pregnant) Perrin. You’ll note the initials, RIP. Reggie’s inane job as middle manager at convenience pudding company, Sunshine Desserts, is sending him slowly mad. He lives on a neo-Georgian estate where all the roads are named after famous poets in the (fictional) South London suburb of Climthorpe. He’s married to Elizabeth with two children Mark, a failed or rather failing actor, and Linda who is married to Tom, an estate agent who Reggie dislikes. They have two children, Adam and Jocasta. He catches the same train with the same people every day. At work his boss is the overbearing CJ who says things like ‘I didn’t get where I am today without recognising a favourable report when I see one.’ His colleagues are Tony and David who say ‘great’ and super’ respectively after everything anyone senior says, and he fantasises about seducing his secretary Joan.
CJ thinks that Reggie is ‘losing your drive’ and indeed Reggie is temporarily impotent. Worse still, Reggie has anarchic urges that he finds impossible to control. This is the opening line of the book:
‘When Reginald Iolanthe Perrin set out for work on the Thursday morning, he has no intention of calling his mother-in-law a hippopotamus. Nothing could have been further from his thoughts.’
Random words such as ‘parsnips’ and ‘earwig’ pop out of his mouth at unexpected moments.
As the novel progresses his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic: he invites CJ and other colleagues to a dinner party but doesn’t serve any food, he gets out of his car amongst a pride of lions at a wildlife park and he get drunk at a conference where he’s meant to be giving a keynote speech. It’s not spoiling the plot too much to say that he then disappears, fakes his own suicide and adopts a series of increasingly outlandish assumed personas. The first series follows the plot of the book extremely closely but in some ways they are very different. The television program is held together by the madcap energy of Rossiter who positively twitches with frustrated passions. He looks like a man trying very hard but failing to be normal. The Reggie of the book is more of an everyman and so his outbursts and erratic behaviour surprise us. He reminds me of the baffled Englishman with a pipe from the Matt cartoons in the Daily Telegraph. He’s Pooter from Diary of a Nobody who has just realised that his life is pointless.
Nothing works properly in Reggie’s Britain: trains are always late, his car breaks down at the wildlife park, even Reggie’s zip gets stuck. It’s a very 70s kind of malaise. A running theme in the book is how bad the ‘tasteless chemical beer’ has become. It’s era of Watney’s Red Barrel and the big brewers were trying to phase out traditional beer. The pubs are being knocked through and now serve ‘eggs styled to your choice.’ The old ways are dying out and being replaced with modern imitations. It’s telling that he works for a company that makes ersatz puddings. Beyond the period references, however, there’s something timeless about Reggie’s dissatisfaction: David Nobbs taps into a peculiarly English kind of melancholy. When drunk, ‘Reggie expressed his regret for the passing of the steam engine, the brass bedstead and the pyjama cord.’ It’s that nostalgia for a lost England that one finds in Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks or more recently Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish. In fact that could be an alternative title.
The book has an elegiac quality that plays second fiddle in the series to the comedy. ‘A good comparison would be Coming Up For Air. Like George Bowling from George Orwell’s novel, Perrin is fighting fruitlessly against modernity. Orwell writes: ‘There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’ The Perrin equivalent is: ‘People are graded too. . . . They’re sorted out. The right ones are packed off to management training schemes. They’re standardized. . . .’ There’s a moment towards the end of the novel which is straight out of Coming up For Air where Reggie goes back to the village where he used to holiday and runs into his boyhood crush. She has grown old and coarse, and doesn’t recognise him. ‘It had all been a terrible mistake’ Reggie says at one point.
The tone of the book is darker than the television series. In the book Elizabeth’s brother, Jimmy, has an affair with his niece, Linda, whereas in the series they only flirt. We’re explicitly told that the reason that Jimmy keeps popping over so amusingly to borrow food – ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front – is because his wife is an alcoholic and she’s spent every penny on drink. There’s even a hint of suburban anti-Semitism: Reggie’s neighbours, the Wisemans, were informed that there were no vacancies at the golf club. Towards the end of the book, we learn that Joan’s husband who keeps nearly being cuckolded by Reggie is in a vegetative state in a hospital following, we assume, an accident. After another failed attempt to have sex with Joan, Reggie is described ‘as shaking with humiliation and anger and frustration.’
The darkness doesn’t detract from the humour, however. The book is built on a number of comic set pieces to rival PG Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh: Reggie’s drunken speech to the British Fruit Society, Reggie’s flight across England in a lorry shaped like fruit flan and funniest of all when Reggie attends his own wake disguised as Martin Wellborne. It’s packed with some of the most memorable characters in English literature: there’s CJ of course, Elizabeth’s brother Jimmy a buttoned-up ex-Army man who can’t get the hang of civvy street, Doc. Morrissey the incompetent doctor at Sunshine Desserts and Tom, Reggie’s politically correct son-in-law. There are surreal one liners to rival the best of Chris Morris (of Brasseye and Day Today fame) such as this newspaper headline: ‘Council house armadillo ban protest march row.’ Or Jimmy telling a story about an army man who went insane and thought he was a deckchair: ‘No can do. I’m a deck chair.’ After his ‘suicide’ Reggie ponders changing his name to Colin: ‘he felt an incipient colinishness.’
It’s the men who get the best lines and in its treatment of the female characters the book does betray its age. It’s a very different England where executives were almost expected to try to seduce their secretaries. Reggie is losing his drive but what about his poor long-suffering wife, Elizabeth? Sunshine Desserts may be a nightmare for Reggie but with its company doctor, canteen and long holidays would nowadays look like a model employer.
But in other ways Nobb’s book is uncannily up-to-date. Reggie is baffled by his son’s cockney accent. Tom and Linda’s children, Adam and Jocasta, are allowed to run riot as they are practising non-disciplinarian parenting. We also derive much humour from Tom’s pious interest in organic food and home brewing. The preoccupation with Europe could be my father at Sunday lunch: ‘by 1977 the whole of Europe will have achieved standardization of draught beer, pork pies and envelope sizes.’ Reggie is baffled into silence at work by meaningless jargon and spurious statistics.
The book has a wisdom about it that makes repeated readings worthwhile. Doc Morrissey says to Reggie: ‘Characters in books are always over-sexed. Authors hope it’ll be taken as autobiographical.’ At one point Reggie thinks ‘our children remind us of our enormous capacity for folly.’ Despite all the sadness and darkness, the book ends on a warm note as Reggie realises how much he loves and misses Elizabeth. The finale sees him back in the bosom of his family. He’s even happy to see Tom who has almost the last word: ‘That’s what life’s all about. People. We’re people people’
The television series appeared the year after the book appeared. It was an instant hit and the novel was then republished as the Fall and Rise and Reginald Perrin. The BBC wanted to make another series. Leonard Rossiter, however, insisted David Nobbs write two more novels that Nobbs then adapted for television. The second series is wonderful, perhaps as good as the first, but the third is patchy. The most jarring bit is where Reggie and CJ black up in order to frighten their snobbish neighbours away. The barrel still hadn’t been scraped dry as after Rossiter’s death they then made a Legacy of Reggie Perrin with Jimmy, played by Geoffrey Palmer, as the lead. The absolute nadir, however, was the recent remake starring Martin Clunes about which the less said the better.
Ignore the television if you can because the first Reggie Perrin novel deserves to be considered a classic in its own right. It’s not only extremely funny but it provides a guide to moving gracefully into middle age. The age I am now, much closer to forty than thirty, is perhaps the best time to read it. In fact I think I feel an incipient Reggieness coming on. Parsnips.
This originally appeared in Slightly Foxed Magazine. I wrote it before the recent death of David Nobbs.