At last, the BBC are repeating David Nobbs’s classic comedy series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (Tuesday nights, BBC4, 8.30 pm). As I’m sure you know, this show was adapted by David himself from his own novel (originally entitled The Death of Reginald Perrin). This is my introduction to the Italian edition of the novel, published by Astoria editions in 2011.
“In Fumo di Londra, his debut as a film director, Alberto Sordi plays an Italian businessman visiting London for the first time. The year is 1966, and Sordi’s character – Mr Dante Fontana – has very specific ideas about how an Englishman should dress. In a rapid montage sequence near the beginning of the film, to the accompaniment of Piero Piccioni’s zestful, joky music, Mr Fontana goes from one Piccadilly clothing shop to another, picking up all the essential accoutrements of the respectable London gentleman: pin-striped suit, umbrella and – of course – bowler hat.
Viewed today, this sequence is a charming nostalgia-piece. Because of course, nobody in London dresses like this any more. But we should not accuse Sordi of indulging in stereotypes. Forty-five years ago, this was a realistic portrayal, and if you had stood on Waterloo Bridge at eight o’clock in the morning on any working day, you would have seen literally thousands of figures wearing exactly this uniform, battling their way towards the day’s toil in obscure, faceless offices in the Strand, Fleet Street and the City of London. In film and on television, these men became a kind of comedy shorthand: if you wanted to suggest that your hero was a little bit dull, conformist and conservative, this was how you would dress him. Monty Python, in particular, returned to this figure again and again, usually making him an accountant, and mercilessly portraying him as a little insignificant suburban man with no imagination and no poetry in his soul.
In 1974, therefore, when a novel called The Death of Reginald Perrin quietly made its appearance in the British bookshops, readers would have been able to recognise its hero instantly: they would already have seen someone just like him every night on countless television comedy shows. But of course a novel is something bigger, more profound than a TV show, and the author, David Nobbs, aimed to do more than simply poke fun at his protagonist. Far from implying that this man had no poetry in his soul, in fact, he set out to do the very opposite: he proposed to tell the story of a middle-aged man whose soul may have been crushed, obliterated, by twenty years of working life, but was nonetheless very much alive. He proposed to tell the story of a man for whom it was still not too late to rebel against the routine, the monotony, the conformity to which his career had so far condemned him. The story, if you will, of a suburban revolutionary.
It is not inappropriate, all the same, to invoke television comedy when discussing this novel, because David Nobbs himself was, at this stage in his career, leading a curious double life. He had published three novels in the 1960s, written in a vein of dark absurdism which recalled Flann O’Brien, and the early novels of Samuel Beckett. These novels were excellent, but they had not reached a wide public: most people knew of David Nobbs – if they knew of him at all – as a scriptwriter for some of the most popular comedy shows on British television at the time. In the early 1960s, Britain had gone through what became known as the ‘satire boom’: an upsurge in highly intelligent, topical comedy which was largely the creation of very bright, and very young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. The first manifestation of this boom was the long-running stage revue Beyond the Fringe; and in a few years’ time, even younger members of the same circle of talented iconoclasts would create Monty Python’s Flying Circus for BBC television. David Nobbs – a graduate of St John’s College, Cambridge – was on the fringes of this group, contributing sketches and one-line jokes to such programmes as That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report. At the same time, he was also working as a writer for some of the best-known older and more traditional comedians. Comedy seemed to be in his blood. There is no other example, as far as I know, of a writer achieving such success in the mainstream of popular entertainment while also writing serious literary novels.
The Death of Reginald Perrin followed five years after Nobbs’s previous novel, A Piece of the Sky is Missing, and was a development of the same theme: the tedium of office life leading to a kind of mental breakdown. But this time, the novel did not go unnoticed. Indeed, it attracted the attention of the BBC comedy department, who proposed that Nobbs himself should adapt it as a seven-part serial for television. Two years later, in 1976, this serial burst upon the screen and became a massive popular hit. Re-titled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (in order to make it sound slightly more light-hearted) it turned its eponymous hero from a literary figure into a franchise: television sequels followed, further TV tie-in novels were written, and only in the last few years the original serial has been remade by the BBC. Through the medium of television, David Nobbs has achieved (in Britain) what few writers have ever been able to do: the central character of one of his novels has become a household name.
He has paid a price for this achievement, all the same. In all the praise and attention that has been lavished on the television version, over the years, the original novel – which is a very different, darker and more complex work – has been somewhat overlooked. Thirty-five years after publication, it deserves to be considered separately from its screen incarnation, and reassessed as a modern classic.
Summarised briefly, the plot of this novel sounds gloomy, almost Kierkegaardian in its sense of melancholy and impending tragedy: a middle-aged sales executive, driven to the brink of madness by the monotony and triviality of his job, resolves to fake his own suicide and abandon the wife he loves in order to escape to a better life. The backdrop of the story is London and its southern suburbs (the ‘commuter belt’) painted in all the grey, cheerless colours that we now associate with the 1970s. This is Great Britain before Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair set about transforming it (for better or worse). The economy is stagnant. Nothing works properly. A recurring joke has Reginald Perrin’s morning train delivering him to work eleven minutes late with tedious regularity, and for increasingly bizarre reasons. The sexual revolution of the swinging sixties has been and gone, without having much impact on households like the Perrins’. Reggie himself is a boiling cauldron of repressed physical desires, which he can only express by fantasising about his secretary.
Put like this, one can imagine Reggie’s story as a bleak, downbeat drama, perhaps brought to the screen by one of the masters of British miserabilism such as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. But this is not David Nobbs’s style, at all. Remember his background in television comedy. Remember the strong streak of absurdism in his earlier novels. This is a writer whose work is built on the collision of two seemingly incompatible modes: high seriousness, and low comedy.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, then, is a book which manages to find joy in the trivial and creates farce out of monotony. In his job, Reginald Perrin is surrounded by people for whom repetition is not a source of frustration, but rather, for them, a kind of comfort and inspiration. His two colleagues, Tony Webster and David Harris-Jones, always respond to any suggestion – however stupid it is – with the same words: ‘Great’ and ‘Super’. His intimidating boss, CJ, begins almost every sentence with the same boast: ‘I didn’t get where I am today without …’ David Nobbs implies that the daily routine of office life turns people into robots, but rather than merely depressing the reader with this fact, he goes one step further (and therefore, one might argue, one step closer to the truth) by rendering these figures absurd. In fact the farce of office life which Nobbs portrays in the novel exactly bears out Henri Bergson’s theory of comedy – which he believed to arise whenever a character is shown to display ‘une certaine raideur de mécanique là où l’on voudrait trouver la souplesse attentive et la vivante flexibilité d’une personne‘ (‘a certain mechanical stiffness just where one would like to find the alert suppleness and the living flexibility of a human being’).
In this way, it could be argued that Nobbs’s critique of consumerism, industrialisation and globalisation was not only ahead of its time (not many people had seen these things coming in 1974) but that it is truly radical: to imply that capitalism is absurd, after all, is far more scathing than simply to point out its failings and corruptions. And it is not only capitalism that is held up to ridicule in this novel, but the very foundation and cornerstone of our civilisation: language itself. As his breakdown advances (a ‘breakdown’, of course, which is actually a journey towards enlightenment) Reginald Perrin not only begins to use the wrong words to refer to everyday objects, but realises that he doesn’t care about his mistakes and even relishes them. And at the very end of the novel, when his wife Elizabeth comes around to his point of view, she too realises that language itself is entirely abitrary: ‘Parsnips – coffee,’ she says, declaring the two words to be interchangeable: ‘What does it matter what we call things?’
The relationship between Reggie and his wife is at the heart of the novel: it is his love for her which makes him realise that he can’t carry his plan through to its conclusion. For, in spite of its relentless mockery, the novel is also suffused with a certain tenderness which becomes more and more pronounced as the story unfolds. This tenderness is very important to David Nobbs’s writing, and is a striking characteristic of his recent work – for he is still very prolific in his mid-70s, and his seventeenth novel, Obstacles to Young Love, was published in Britain last year to great critical acclaim.
And now I will end this little introduction, if I may, on a highly personal note. I was fifteen years old when I first discovered The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The nearest bookshop to my home was in a little, unremarkable town called Bromsgrove, and it did not stock many titles. I bought this novel because I had been enjoying the television adaptation, which had started to be broadcast a couple of weeks earlier. The price of the book was 75p: I know, because the same copy is on my desk in front of me as I write these words. To say that a book has ‘changed your life’ has become so commonplace that it has become almost meaningless. Nonetheless, I think that in this case, it is probably true. At this young age I was already trying to write novels, trying to find a literary voice. I had, perhaps, at the back of my mind, the very vaguest notion of what it was that I wanted to write. I wanted to write something that offered a portrait of society as a whole, but filtered through the individual consciousness. My sensibility was being pulled in two different directions – towards humour, and towards melancholy – and I wanted to find a way of writing that would reconcile these two opposite approaches. But I had no idea whether such a book could be written, whether it was even possible. Until now. For in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin I found the perfect crystallisation of my own hazy literary vision. I realised that such a book could exist, and not only exist, but find a wide reading public. For the next few years, David Nobbs became my guiding light, and this book, more than any other, is the one that turned me into the writer I have become today. To borrow a phrase from CJ, Reggie’s immortal, comically monstrous boss: I didn’t get where I am today without being inspired by The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.