Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin: David Nobbs

If I were to be stranded in the middle of a (blissfully Ant and Dec free) jungle and allowed only one novel to take to while away the hours until I am eaten by ferocious carnivores, this would be the novel. Not Dickens, not Orwell, not E.M. Forster, but Nobbs. I am fully aware that 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin' is not the greatest novel in the world but it is my all time favourite novel, one I have read and reread since the age of thirteen.
Originally published in 1975 as 'The Death of Reginald Perrin' the novel was picked up by BBC television and subsequent reprints were retitled to fit the name given to the TV series which was so perfectly cast. Earlier this year David Nobbs was involved in an attempt to bring Reggie's tale up to date but for my money it was wasted effort by the BBC. They should simply have shown repeats of the show from the seventies and urged people to read the novel.
When I first read about Reggie's mid-life crisis - which sees him fake suicide, assume various false identities and then realise it has all been a dreadful mistake and that he misses his wife and family - I was a teenager. Yet there was a powerful message for me even at such a tender age: the source of Reggie's malaise is the fact that he has spent his entire life working to promote desserts. All my life I have known the value of 'not giving the best years of my life to puddings' courtesy of David Nobbs.
Reggie's breakdown affords Nobbs an opportunity to take swipes at many of the conformist tendencies of the middle classes, from their mock-tudor housing estates to their habit of standing on the exactly the same spot on the train station every morning. Reggie begins to say and do the things many people wish they could say and do but can never bring themselves to challenge the apparent order of their materially comfortable if spiritually empty existence. Nobbs knows his targets well and yet, despite showing up the monstrosity of certain aspects of society he does not make monsters of his characters. Not even Reggie's boss, the brusque C.J., can be seen as a monster when he is portrayed with so many frailties, just like any of the other characters.
And what a cast of characters they are. From Reggie's long-suffering but far from subservient wife Elizabeth to his stiff-legged, staccato-voiced brother-in-law Jimmy; from pompous son-in-law Tom to mockney, leftie son Mark; and from simpering, yes-man colleague David Harris-Jones to the practially incompetent work's doctor, Doc Morrisey - all are flawed, all are fully rounded despite being sparingly sketched and coming replete with their own catch-phrases. All are gloriously and hilariously human.
On the back of my edition there is a quote from Ronnie Barker, who was initially sounded out as a candidate to play Reggie in the TV series. He says 'I laughed 287 times and cried twice...I still feel I am Reggie Perrin as I walk about, what a beautiful book.' I coudn't have put it better myself, Ronnie.

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