The man who gave us Reginald Perrin

THE name Reggie Perrin probably won't mean much to folk under the age of 35, but to those of middle years he's a hero: a fellow traveller on the crazy journey of life.

THE name Reggie Perrin probably won't mean much to folk under the age of 35, but to those of middle years he's a hero: a fellow traveller on the crazy journey of life.

In the 1970s, when we had only three TV channels and popular shows united millions of viewers, Reginald Iolanthe Perrin earned a place in the nation's affections as the bored and unfulfilled fortysomething watching his potential drain away at Sunshine Desserts.

(Readers to whom this means nothing should imagine The Office but with flared trousers and garish kipper ties.)

The bittersweet writing of creator David Nobbs and the character's on-the-edge depiction by Leonard “Rising Damp” Rossiter struck a chord with those who each day made the same journey to the same office to do the same pointless tasks in the company of the same idiot colleagues and bosses.


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One mark of a successful TV series is the number of catchphrases that lodge in the public consciousness; three decades on, lines uttered by Reggie, his eccentric workmates and their inept and pompous boss are still common currency: “I didn't get where I am today . . .”; “Twenty-two minutes late, escaped puma, Chessington North”; “Bit of a cock-up on the catering front.”

Eventually, one overcast Tuesday, he decides to end this tedious existence by faking his suicide on a beach and creating a new life. In the second series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin he remarries wife Elizabeth and they start a retail business called Grot that sells useless goods. Reggie hopes it will be an intriguing failure, but customers relish the sense of novelty and, much to his chagrin, make the enterprise a success.

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“I don't know where the character comes from, really,” says David Nobbs. “I went to school on the train, in Kent, every morning, with those pinstriped businessmen - umbrella, briefcase - and noticed. That must have been an image that stayed with me, from nine to 13 - an impressionable age.

“Also, as a writer, what I do is fundamentally interesting and fundamentally varied; so when you start to write great characters, you just imagine what it must be like not to do something interesting - what it must be like to be in some job that didn't satisfy you in any meaningful way.

“If any one thing set me off it was an article in a magazine in one of the posh Sundays about people researching a new flavour for jam; and they were going round to people's houses with little jars of jam and then going back a week later with a questionnaire, saying 'Did you find this too fruity? Too bland? Not fruity enough?' I thought this must be soul-destroying.”

That sense of dissatisfaction about life is a bit of a theme in David's writing. The main character in his debut novel, The Itinerant Lodger, moves home, changing his name and job. In Sex and Other Changes, a married couple both decide to change gender. A scientist abandons his career to become a chef in Ostrich Country; and in A Piece of The Sky Is Missing an executive at Cadman and Bentwhistle Manufacturing Co loses his job after drawing a caricature of the export manager on the loo wall.

“Identity is a recurring theme,” the author concedes. “I always think there are two great problems with identity: one is when you don't know enough about who you are; the other is that you know yourself only too well, and don't like much what you find. That's the commonest one, and is the reality of many people's lives. They think 'Well, I haven't got any particular talent.' They perhaps have a quick temper that they can't do anything about, and they don't like it very much.

“Now we read that there's a section of the brain that decides if you're altruistic or not; whether you're a nice, kindly person who's interested in other people or not. It was in the paper last week. So, in a sense, it's as arbitrary as whether you're tall or short. But you've got to deal with these cards that you've been handed.”

In many ways the anti-commercialism, pro-individualism theme of the books and TV series was ahead of its time.

“Well, Grot preceded designer label, in a way. The ultimate irony is that you 'buy the label'; and the item itself is useless!” A bit like buying a brand-new pair of jeans that look faded and torn enough to be 10 years old. “I'd have done more on this if I'd written it today. The more expensive something is, the more people will buy it: to prove they can afford it.”

Is there any enduring message we insecure and undervalued salarymen should take from Reggie?

“No, I'm not sure there is! It's not didactic at all; I just hope it will give people a slight sense that they can react against the dreary restrictions and fears and worries” - such as saying to a bore “Really? That is uninteresting.”

“The thought that somebody can do this is a little bit inspiring. It's a kind of satire, with serious points to make about the absurdity of materialism; but I wouldn't want to push that (philosophical critique) too far!”

How would David describe his own personality?

“Well, I do enjoy my life. I've never suffered from anything that could be called depression, and I feel very lucky about that. Obviously I get down when things go wrong, or when people have illnesses or about that state of the world - I'm not wildly optimistic about the state of the world, I must say - but I enjoy friends more and more and I enjoy food and drink and conversation, and seeing the world.

“I could live to be 300 and still feel there are things I haven't done; so many places I haven't been to.”

David was born in Kent in the spring of 1935, the son of teachers. He went to Marlborough College, spent two years in the Royal Corps of Signals during national service, and went to university at Cambridge, where he wrote sketches for Cambridge Footlights performers. He worked as a journalist in Yorkshire, then London, while writing his own material in his spare time.

He admits he didn't really enjoy his time in newspapers; he didn't have the killer instinct to sniff out and get the story. “I wasn't committed; I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wrote The Itinerant Lodger in the evenings while working on the Sheffield Star.”

His big break came with the groundbreaking 1960s satirical show That Was The Week That Was. David managed to make a pitch on the phone to David Frost. Today, he says he got through to the presenter only because “he'd known my name from Cambridge”.

Nevertheless, Frost liked an idea for sketch, and said he'd send a car for the script. “So he sent a taxi to Hampstead magistrates' court - where I was not appearing but reporting! He let me know he thought it was really good and was going to use it. So I told everybody . . . and they used one line from it in his monologue!”

The quip bemoaned the fact you can look forward to watching a sporting legend - someone such as the cricketer Gary Sobers - and then they get out first ball. Perhaps sport should be scripted, like theatre: big names should have star billing and spend a long time in the spotlight. You wouldn't expect Laurence Olivier to come on as the theatre equivalent of cricket's nightwatchman, now, would you?

“He used that line about Olivier. It didn't make much sense, but I think he did it to encourage me; and the next week I had a proper sketch on. That's how it started.”

Were there ever times he doubted he would make it?

“When I look back, I think I was very unworldly about it. My greatest work happiness is a good day's writing. If I've done a good day's writing, I don't get depressed if the cheque doesn't come. If I've done a bad day's writing, I worry about money and all the problems of the world.

“If the writing was going well when I was young, I was exhilarated. I don't remember ever thinking I wasn't going to make it; but I'm not sure to what extent I was practical in my ambitions, really.

“I think it's as one gets older that one becomes more realistic and thinks more about the money side of things. When I was young, I had to pay the rent, but the rent was minimal. I didn't have all the worries about mortgages that everybody has today.”

There's a resilience of youth, then? “Yes. I gave up many ambitions when I was young - to own a house, to have a car. I just thought 'I'm a writer. Writers starve in garrets.' When I found I wasn't starving in a garret I was thrilled!”

Today, the non-garret is a home in the countryside near Harrogate, where he lives with Sue, his second wife. This particular sunny January morning is one for dealing with life's chores and necessities.

“You're interrupting me doing my wife's tax return; I'm delighted to talk about something else,” laughs David. There's a blood test on the agenda later in the day, along with a trip to the hygienist.

As an acute observer of life's minutiae, does David always find himself looking sideways at the world whenever he goes to the doctor or dentist, or to the shops?

“I suppose I do. I don't have a notebook and go 'Oooh! that's good; I'll use that.' I don't tend to notice what people look like or what they're wearing, or what colour the rooms are; I just take in notices or little quirks of behaviour.

“I'm fond of detail. As in Cupid's Dart (his new novel): when someone gets in the lift, I liked putting in 'made by Blackstone of Preston'. It's the little details, I think, that make all the difference in comedy-writing.”

(Cupid's Dart - about an unlikely liaison between a 55-year-old philosophy lecturer and a twentysomething, darts groupie, Essex girl - is published by William Heinemann at £17.99.)

THERE'S a touch of “coming home” about David Nobbs's appearance at the Essex Book Festival.

By pure chance, his talk is booked for Halstead. Would you believe it but his paternal grandparents used to live at Sible Hedingham, about three mikes away. “My grandmother used to walk down on a Friday, even when she was coming up to 80, and walk back with the week's groceries,” he says.

His mother spent the last 10 years of her life at Little Yeldham. When she couldn't really look after herself any more, she moved in with her sister-in-law - “two widows watching the snooker.”

As a boy, David used to spend at least a fortnight of the summer holidays on his uncle's farm at Little Yeldham, where his cousin now lives.

Turns out he knows East Anglia well.

“We used to go to Frinton for a week's holiday every year - until I was 18 and said it was boring, and we went to Southwold instead! It wasn't boring at all - it was an utter joy - but at that age you want to spread your wings. We used to go on the Colne Valley line during the war. It's an area I have great affection for.”

He's no stranger to the Suffolk coast, either. One of his university friends used to have a holiday cottage at Aldeburgh, and David would stay. He still visits today. “Sue, my wife, loves the colour of the houses, compared to the plain stone where we live.”

David Nobbs's talk is at Halstead library on March 21, 2007, at 2pm. Box office 01206 573948; www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

DAVID Nobbs worked with some of the finest names in British comedy.

“When I started out writing for comedians I didn't have much confidence about it,” he admits. “If I had a funny joke, I was thrilled! I didn't think 'I'll write that for so and so', but as you get on you're servicing the strengths of these people. But with Leonard Rossiter you weren't: you were creating a dramatic role that he interpreted; so it's quite different.”

Les Dawson was enormous fun. “He was a lover of comedy. Some if them are not particularly funny off (stage), but he was hilarious. He didn't regard comedy as something that needed to be encapsulated and marketed; it was just what life was about. He was just as funny in the bar, and was delighted if other people were funny.”

Messrs Barker and Corbett “were two very professional men who knew exactly what they were doing, and performed what they were doing with such aplomb”.

Similarly, Leonard Rossiter was “always a perfectionist. He could get a bit tetchy if things went wrong; if people weren't up to the job. But he was a great professional and was fun a lot of the time”.

Nobbs in a nutshell

Comedy writing credits include: The Dick Emery Show, Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Roy Hudd, Kenneth Williams, Fairly Secret Army, A Bit Of A Do

He's written 16 novels. Seven have been adapted for TV

His most famous character began life in a book called The Death of Reginald Perrin, published in 1975

A trilogy of Perrin novels was turned into BBC series

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin ran over three seasons, between September, 1976, and January, 1979

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