The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs (1975)

David Nobbs’ fictional character Reginald Perrin proved to be quite a success. The book was popular and quickly spawned the TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, itself a hit, prompting Nobbs to create two further novels both themselves quickly converted into TV series. In 2009 the character was resurrected in a new BBC TV series played by Martin Clunes.

Three things of note in this, the first novel in the series:

1. Funny In the first half it is regularly very very funny, peopled by excellent comic caricatures, constructed from marvellously comic scenes, littered with observations of a kind of subdued, English, domestic surrealism.

‘This is a happy house, Mr Potts,’ said Mr Deacon [the landlord]. ‘And as regards the lights going off suddenly, don’t worry. They only do that when we watch BBC2.’ (p.224)

Davina sat at the bedside.Uncle Percy Spillinger’s breathing was laboured. His wardrobe doors were open. Davina closed them quietly. It didn’t seem right that his last moments should be witnessed by all his suits. (p.209)

He led Constable Barker into the living room. It was comfortable in the impersonal way of furnished flats. Whatever could conceivably have a tassel, had a tassel. (p.277)

2. Clipped It is written in an oddly clipped, functional prose. Short sentences. Brisk paragraphs. Brief descriptions. Punchy dialogue. Almost as if worked up from a screenplay.

‘Listen to those damned dogs,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.
Davina listened. She could hear no dogs.
The wardrobe doors opened again with a shuddering groan. Again Davina shut them. (p.209)

If you compare book and TV series, it is striking how very closely the TV follows the book, right down to exchanges of dialogue. Ready-packaged.

3. Despair Beneath it all runs a dark river of despair. It is about a 46-year-old respectable executive in a fruit puddings company (Sunshine Deserts) having a mid-life crisis. Unable to have sex with his wife. Fantasising about his secretary. Driven mad by the routine crapness of life –

  • his morning train is always 11 minutes late
  • the lifts don’t work
  • the clock on the tower of the Sunshine Desserts building has been stuck at 3:46 since 1967)

– Reggie feels impelled to:

  • write increasingly rude letters to his suppliers
  • implementing madder and madder schemes eg taking a map of Bedfordshire and drawing the outline of his secretary’s handbag on it and then presenting it to a subordinate as the ‘target sales area’ for a new fruit ice cream.
  • hold a dinner party for his boss and colleagues at which he doesn’t actually serve any food but drives them mad with frustration before announcing he has sent a cheque for the value of the food to Oxfam to feed the starving millions.

Finally Reggie fakes his own suicide, leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach late at night, swimming about a bit, then exiting the sea to dress in new clothes, taking the cash he’d been extracting from banks, and setting off into a new life, adopting a variety of madcap identities along the way…

Comic characters

Work

  • CJ, head of Sunshine Deserts and famous for his catchphrase ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, applied in more and more ludicrous situations eg ‘I didn’t get where I am today without knowing a real winner when I see one’ (p.9), ‘I didn’t get where I am by being blown up in the end of the world!’ (p.230)
  • Mrs CJ: very nervous, justifiably so as CJ is always ferociously criticising her.
  • CJ’s office chairs: anyone called for a meeting in CJ’s office runs the gauntlet of his cheap plastic office chairs which more often than not emit a loud farting sound when you sit on them, or get up.
  • David  Harris-Jones: nervous, sycophantic colleague at work: ‘Super CJ’.
  • Tony Webster: smooth, sycophantic young colleague at work: ‘Great CJ.’
  • Joan, his secretary. For eight long years she’s taken dictation of his boring letters to suppliers and retailers and now, when he makes a pass at her, he is astonished when she responds enthusiastically and throws her clothes off.
  • Doc Morrisey: wizened, rubbish old doctor who himself, comically, suffers from much the same male menopause symptoms as Reggie.

Personal

  • Elizabeth: his long-suffering wife, who every morning holds his bowler hat and umbrella and picks fluff off his suit before he sets off to work. She is sweet and loving and kind and Reggie can’t get an erection for her any more and can’t bear living this stifling, predictable clockwork life.
  • His mother-in-law: we never meet her but early on Reggie, his mind slipping, associates her with a hippopotamus, one of the most visually memorable gags in the TV version.
  • Jimmy: his brother-in-law, failed Army type, hopeless at organising anything hence his frequent visits at inappropriate moments with the catchphrase ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, which can also be applied to most other fronts eg, ‘Well, Mark, how’s things on the acting front?’ (p.53)
  • Mark: his grown-up son, a failing actor, scrabbling for work in obscure provincial theatres, routinely popping home for ‘a bit of a loan’.
  • Linda: his grown-up daughter, running to fat and married to Tom.
  • Tom: Linda’s husband and Reggie’s son-in-law, incredibly boring, earnest, bearded, alternative type, keen on composting, not disciplining the children and so on. Catchphrase ‘I’m a x person’ as in ‘I’m very much a stone person’ (p.201).
  • Uncle Percy Spillinger: distant relative, posh, slightly deaf, very eccentric, arrives for the dinner party in full black tie, talks about his collection of curios including a finger bought in Hong Kong, chats up busty Davina, one of the secretaries from work, though puts her off a bit by mentioning his six previous wives, all of whom have died and been buried in Ponders End. He dies and Davina moves fast to secure his inheritance.

Farcical scenes

  • When his wife goes to stay with her mother Reggie invites his secretary round one Sunday for sex and they’ve got as far as stripping naked in his (grown-up, long departed) son’s bedroom when there’s a knock at the door.
  • David Harris-Jones gets so drunk at Reggie’s dinner-party-without-food that he passes out and the other guests have a bet what colour underpants he’s wearing. When the men unzip and pull his trousers down they discover they’re white pants with a bog face of Ludwig van Beethoven on them, something he is never allowed to forget.
  • Early on Reggie suggests taking Elizabeth, Tom and Linda and their two little children to a safari park. It is a hot stifling day and the adults’ blandness and the children’s whining drives him so mad, that when the car overheats and breaks down in the lions enclosure Reggie gets out to go and talk to them. Except that they get to their feet and come loping towards him with an increasingly hungry look in their eyes, Reggie turns and runs screaming and it is only a park guard shooting one with a tranquiliser gun before Reggie makes it back into the car that prevents an early departure for our hero.

Despair

In 1849 the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,’ and that could be the epigraph for the Perrin books and TV show, the horribly spirit-slaying, soul-crushing requirements of the daily commute to a pointless, unfulfilling job. Despite the comic flourishes, a lot of the book is just plain depressed.

The corridors of the hospital smelt of decline and antiseptic, and they reminded Reggie of his future. (p.81)

The first few TV episodes follow Reggie being driven over the border of rage and frustration into active despair by everyone and everything around him – by his insufferable brother-in-law, his ghastly son-in-law Tom, his overbearing boss CJ, his horribly cheery colleagues Tony and Adam. The episodes end with Reggie screaming, doing a heartfelt Munch-like scream of soul-pain, as the credits start to roll. Funny? Maybe, but painfully so, disturbingly so.

He was alone, utterly alone. No family. No friends. Not even a friendly bank manager in the cupboard. He began to cry. He lay on his bed and wept, until there were no more tears and he was exhausted and empty. (p.219)

In my review of The Wilt Alternative (1979) I wondered why so many of the novels of the 1970s are about unhappy middle-aged men (see the novels of Kingsley Amis, of David Lodge, the Wilt series, this). Chuck in the depressed, shuffling protagonists of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels, and then the smothering presence of the patron saint of suicidal depressives, Graham Greene (The Human Factor, Dr Fischer of Geneva), to give a powerful sense that it was, at bottom, for this cohort of middle-aged white men, a decade of despair.

One old man had a compulsive snort. As he listened to the compulsive snort Reggie thought about that old man’s life. His first rattle, his first step, his first word, his first wank, his first woman, his first conviction, his first stroke, his first compulsive snort. The history of a man (p.220)

Finale

After faking his suicide Reggie travels across the west of England, changing his name and appearance to try out new personalities, with often ludicrous results. Finally, he realises how lonely and unhappy he is and moves back to London. He gets a job as an under-gardener in a mental hospital and takes to hanging around his old house in his spare time. Eventually, he reveals his true identity to his daughter, Linda, who tells him the family are holding memorial service for him. Reggie attends it in the fake persona of a long-lost friend, Martin Wellbourne. Elizabeth takes to him. He seems strangely familiar…

And in the final scene of the book, after some weeks of seeing each other, of dates and drives and dinners, Elizabeth announces to a surprised family that she is going to marry Martin Wellbourne (in fact, Reggie). They hold an engagement party for the family. Linda corners Elizabeth in the kitchen. ‘Mother, there’s something I have to tell you. Martin, he’s not… he’s not who he seems.’ But Elizabeth amazes her daughter by revealing that she knows Martin is really Reggie, has known for some time. But it will be fun to be married again, to give it all another chance, to live a little.

After trawling down to some pretty grim depths, the novel finally ends on an upbeat note, leaving the reader smiling. Thank God.

TV series

The three Perrin books were made into three BBC TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, which aired in 1976, 1977 and 1979 respectively.

Related links

The Reginald Perrin novels

  • The Death of Reginald Perrin (1975, later reissued to tie in with the TV series, as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin)
  • The Return of Reginald Perrin (1977)
  • The Better World of Reginald Perrin (1978)
  • The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996)
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