I was first introduced to The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in hospital in the summer of 1977, whilst in pain.
I’d been unhurriedly rushed in on Saturday to have my appendix removed, and I spent the next week recovering to the extent that I could be let out. I had a big slit under my belly, held together by stitches, which hurt when I moved, and that included when I laughed.
On the Tuesday night, a couple of mates I’d known since school came to visit me, bringing with them another of our old schoolmates, who was already making a name for himself as a gifted musician. Oggy was also a natural comedian in private, his whole conversation being witty, sarcastic, bitchy, ironic and insulting in various degrees: he could say the most awful thing to your face and you wouldn’t take the slightest offence because you were laughing too hard at what he’d said. Even my mother.
For an hour, I underwent torture by Oggy, who was his usual self, whilst I lay on the bed, gasping and wincing, with one hand clasped either side of the bandage against the seeming possibility of it all coming apart.
Having survived that assault without physical injury, I decided I could risk a television sitcom, and the one that was on BBC1 at 8.30pm was The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
Apart from the fact that it was the first series, in repeat before the second series appeared, literally weeks later, I can’t remember what episode it was, but I quickly got to grips with the set-up, and had enough of a laugh to stick with it for the rest of the series, and the two which followed.
Reginald Perrin is one of those sitcoms that sticks in the mind as classics, remembered to this day. It starred Leonard Rossiter, who was already known for the part of the cheap, sleazy, bigoted landlord Rigsby in Yorkshire TV’s Rising Damp, and who became a national star for this role, and was written by David Nobbs, already a veteran television scripter and novelist, who adapted each series in turn from his own Reginald Perrin novels.
I still have fond memories of the series, but my feelings about it were mixed by the third and final series, which was flat and unfunny until it’s literal last five minutes, which were suddenly hilarious but which exposed to a greater degree than was comfortable the mechanics of the series, shattering the illusion of the comedy for me, right back to the beginning.
Thankfully, this was an isolated case, but it was like the traditional line and about sausages and the law: things we can enjoy until we see how they are made.
So, what was Reginald Perrin and what burst the bubble?
In the beginning, it was a novel, The Death of Reginald Perrin, though I suspect that David Nobbs wrote it with television in anticipation: he certainly spoke at one point about writing it with Ronnie Barker in mind for the title part, and the paperback, renamed after the series, carried a quote from Barker, “I have read this book in one sitting. I laughed 283 times and cried twice. three days later, I still feel I am Reggie Perrin”.
Perrin was a middle-aged, middle-class executive, head of sales for Sunshine Desserts, a company making ices, mousses and trifles. He lived on an estate in a commuter suburb, travelled into London by train each day. He was married, with two adult children. He was permanently fatigued, unmotivated, bored, depressed and (in the book) impotent.
As the story progresses, Perrin’s depression worsens. His life is a series of pointless repetitions, he is surrounded by idiots: his boss, CJ, the incompetent company medic Doc Morrissey, his assistants Tony (‘Great!’) and David (‘Super’). He fancies his secretary. He imagines his mother-in-law as a hippopotamus every time her name is mentioned. His son-in-law is a boring Estate Agent with a fund of dull pet-names for daughter Linda, advanced ideas on parenting, political correctness and a habit of making nettle wine and other atrocities. His brother-in-law is a terse-speaking Army man forever borrowing food.
So Reggie decides to commit suicide. Or rather to fake his own suicide by leaving his clothes on a beach, and creating a new life for himself from scratch. After some failed attempts, he drifts along to his own memorial services, disguised with a beard, pretending to be an old friend of Reggie, just returned from South America.
Everybody praises Reggie to him. No-one recognises him (except Linda and, silently, Elizabeth). As Martin Sheppard, he is offered, and takes, Reggie’s old job at Sunshine Desserts.
A sitcom about middle-age depression, especially such a severe case, was revolutionary for the late Seventies. Naturally, in many ways, the TV series was softened from the novel, but it remained surprisingly faithful to the original story.
Apart from Rossiter in the title part, the series benefited from a very strong supporting cast, playing characters who were, in their differing ways, as set in their grooves as Reggie, except that they are not aware of the trap they are in, and see no problem with it.
Notable amongst these were Pauline Yates as Elizabeth Perrin, playing an anchor role as the caring wife who seems oblivious to her husband’s despair, but who is sensitive enough to recognise how unhappy he is, and to play along to his new identity, hoping it makes him happier. John Barron, a sitcom veteran, played Reggie’s boss, CJ, and Geoffrey Palmer played his first distinctive role as brother-in-law Jimmy.
The second series was based on the sequel novel The Return of Reginald Perrin. It began with Reggie, still disguised as Martin, living Reggie’s life but content with it. No-one at the rapidly failing Sunshine Desserts has recognised him, until he has to have an examination by drunken, incompetent Doc Morrissey.
The Doc immediately recognised Martin as Reggie and reported him to CJ, who sacked Martin on the spot, along with Morrissey.
Reggie tried to pick up one of his interim lives, as a pig-herder, but found his public exposure barred him from that. Rejected by a society he’d originally determined to reject, Reggie – with Elizabeth’s support – out his efforts into one last absurdity: Grot.
Grot was a shop that would sell only completely useless things: square hula hoops, stringless tennis rackets, Tom’s wines. It was rubbish and it was meant to be rubbish, but to Reggie’s horror it was looked on as cool, and in. Grot became a massive success.
In an attempt to destroy his unwanted success, Reggie took on everyone from Sunshine Desserts, which had recently collapsed. He brought in Tom and Jimmy. But every one of these natural square pegs formed square holes around themselves, talking Grot higher and higher, and all deeply grateful to Reggie for their chances to matter, to succeed.
There was only one possible ending. As Grot mounted higher, Reggie decided on another fake suicide, this time with Elizabeth in hand. They left their clothes on a beach, dressed up as tramps and walked away. But when they looked back, the beach was full of people, leaving piles of clothes and dressing as tramps. If it worked for Reggie Perrin…
The second series saw Reginald Perrin at its peak. The characters were all well-defined and beautifully inhabiting their roles, the lines were funny, the underlying setting and its unwanted success was ingenious, and the ending both inevitable and satisfying.
But things come in threes, and Nobbs was already hard at work at the final Reggie Perrin book, The Better World of Reginald Perrin, and adapting it for the third and final series.
I can’t remember if I read the novel first, or watched the series: either way, I was not impressed with book or television adaptation.
Because the third series was so much of a disappointment, I retain fewer memories of it. In essence, with the money derived from Grot, Reggie tried to do something worthwhile, creating a kind of University for the middle-aged, the mature, enabling them to learn, grow, develop.
This University was set in a middle class house, in a middle class neighbourhood, surrounded by middle class residents who, frankly, disapproved and resented this monstrosity in their midst, and eventually rioted against it.
Having lost all his money, Reggie is forced back into employment in London, at Amalgamated Aerosols , this one run by FJ (John Barron in a curly wig, with sideburns), the elder brother of CJ. FJ pretends to be totally different from his brother with his verbal foibles, only to be a virtual copy, and the new company was a virtual replica of Sunshine Desserts.
For the last ten minutes of this episode, I laughed like a drain, to the climactic scene as Reggie, in his mind, sees the beach where he will leave his clothes, this time, impliedly, for real.
Why didn’t the last series work? Why did that last ten minutes work so well?
I couldn’t immediately answer the first question, although it didn’t take me too long to work it out. In the majority of the thirds series, Nobbs reversed the flow of the entire series. Reginald Perrin was based on depression, and negative feelings and situations, people caught in repetitive and ultimately meaningless roles. The humour was appropriately negative, snide, sarcastic and ironic in various degrees. The second series had worked so brilliantly because the whole purpose of Reggie’s actions was to fail, with success as an unwanted, to-be-feared outcome.
But the third book/series was about Reggie doing something that he saw as good, as helpful, as meaningful, something he wanted to succeed, unreservedly. But the humour was built upon, and remained consistent with the negativity underlying the first two series.
Furthermore, Nobbs undermined the fictional reality of his world when he worked all the supporting cast into Reggie’s new venture. They were idiots, and not just idiots but Reggie saw them as idiots. A series before, he’d brought them into Grot specifically to destroy it, yet here he was bringing in the same characters to make a success of something in which he believed. It really didn’t fit. Everything undermined the very heart of what made the series funny.
But the other question was easy to answer: too easy, in fact, and too revealing. It worked because Nobbs reset the defaults. He put Reggie back full circle. A new, attractive secretary. An idiotic, self-important boss. Two phoney assistants, who, instead of saying ‘Great!’ and ‘Super’ to everything, said ‘Magnificent’ and Terrific’.
It was funny because it was the start of the series, unchanged. But in itself, it was very simple catch-phrase comedy. The new characters were nothing but a collection of catch-phrases.
The horrifying thing was that everybody else who had populated the series from the beginning stood exposed as the same. Tom with his ‘I’m not a ( ) person’. Jimmy’s ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’. CJ’s ‘I didn’t get where I am today by…’. Tony’s ‘Great!’ and David’s ‘Super’. Reggie’s daily ‘I won’t’ to Elizabeth’s ‘Have a good day’, and his daily announcement to Joan, ‘Eleven/Seventeen/Twenty-two minutes late’ before reciting BR’s latest absurd reason for delay.
Catch-phrase comedy from beginning to end.
And that spoiled it for me. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin not only ceased to be funny but, in an odd, backwards sweeping sense, ceased to have ever been funny.
Sadly, Leonard Rossiter died in 1984, denying us any further performances of the quality of Reggie Perrin (the series may have turned to ashes in my mind, but, like Rising Damp, Rossiter’s performance remained a gem). An American version, titled Reggie, starring Richard Mulligan, formerly of Soap, as Reggie Potter was a one-season flop, as was a 2009 revival starring Martin Clunes, which got two series despite substantial critical and commercial disdain for the first.
Even Nobbs himself tried a revival with 1996’s The Legacy of Reginald Perrin, with virtually all the supporting cast repeating their roles after Reggie’s death, but it was like a lion-tamer’s show without the lion, and I bailed after one episode.
I suspect that, if I were to watch repeats of the first or second series, I would find little to amuse me. Having seen through the mechanics, the constant repetition of the same phrases and sayings would merely be dull, and it would be a question of whether those moments when the series took off in an individual direction were sufficient to sustain interest. Yet it has to be said that The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a landmark series for its subject matter, and deserves credit for making genuine comedy out of such things.