David Nobbs interview: Resurrection man
DAVID Nobbs tells Aidan Smith why he was happy to help bring his Seventies favourite Reggie Perrin back from the dead, but draws the line at the return of CJ's farting chair
FOR THE first and almost certainly only time in my life, I'm hoping that my train will be late. I'm meeting David Nobbs, creator of genius comedy, supplier of Reggie Perrin's subversive custard pies, and Reggie's train was always late, so on the final few miles to York I'm trying to dream up an excuse that's the equal of "escaped puma", "stolen track" and "badger ate junction box".
Of course, I can't, so it's just as well I'm punctual for the veteran sitcom writer, who must have been subjected to pastiche Perrin a thousand times before. Silver-haired and scarfed-up, even though it's mild, he greets me at the station's flower stall and leads the charge to the nearest pub.
I am simultaneously thrilled and nervous to be interviewing Nobbs. Thrilled because The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, first broadcast in 1976, was comedy gold. Nervous because it's been remade with Martin Clunes in the title role. The list of successful comedy revivals is a short and dismal one, and some – Ant and Dec as The Likely Lads – were about as respectful as grave-robbing. Over a pint of local ale called Guzzler, Nobbs admits he had doubts that Reggie could rise again.
"Was he still valid? I wasn't sure," he says. "When I wrote the original book the world of work trapped someone like Reggie, but in the past few years it's become so much easier to move jobs. Then, lo and behold, this recession happened and now people are trapped again. That was a stroke of luck – well, a global economic downturn isn't a good thing, but you know what I mean. And look at this in today's paper…" He points to a story headlined "Bossnapping!" about the craze sweeping France for disgruntled workers holding employers to ransom. "How very Reggie!"
You could also make a case for John Darwin being very Reggie. He was the "back-from-the-dead canoeist" subsequently revealed as an insurance swindler. When the story broke in 2007, Nobbs was pressed into service as what he calls "the unofficial Head of Disappearances". He did this reluctantly. "I mean, the detail was quite exciting – canoes, hiding in wardrobes, Panama City – but it was a squalid little scam and very heartless. Reggie was never that. His struggle was existential."
Reginald Iolanthe Perrin was the bowler-hatted middle-manager frustrated by his job at Sunshine Desserts, his boss CJ ("I didn't get where I am today…"), his sycophantic colleagues ("Great!"… "Super!"), his marriage, his hippo-like mother-in-law, his scrounging brother-in-law ("Bit of a cock-up on the catering front"), tardy trains, impotence, hopeless fantasies about his secretary and, oh, everything else. And Leonard Rossiter was unforgettable, a hero to the unfulfilled.
In subsequent series for the BBC, Nobbs, now 74, had Reggie fake his own suicide to satirise corporate life still further, with his Grot empire successfully marketing square footballs and silent records, and not even Rossiter's death was an impediment to the show's 1996 comeback. I missed that one, I tell Nobbs. "Well done you, it wasn't very good, so after that I didn't expect to see Reggie again. I've never stopped writing, but I was starting to think my age was against me. This is a young man's game and maybe the Beeb reckoned I'd had my day."
But it's the BBC that has demanded more Reggie and it's Simon (Men Behaving Badly) Nye who has written the bulk of the new version. "About 30% is me," says Nobbs. "I couldn't do it on my own because I live in North Yorkshire, down a track outside a small village, and I'm out of touch with office life and all the jargon. But maybe I'm not that much of a fuddy-duddy. There was a campaign to bring back CJ's farting chair; this from the production company behind the cutting-edge Peep Show. Absolutely not, I said.
"I think Simon was intimidated by the task and I have to confess I couldn't get the original out of my head. At first, watching the new recordings was quite devastating for me. Martin was fluffing his lines and maybe my presence unnerved him. They weren't my lines, of course, and I kept thinking back to the '70s and all my old friends. That was the devastating thing: everyone in TV works so incredibly hard now and there's less time for fun. We used to follow the location wagons in our caravan and book into smart hotels. There was always lots of drinking, which I have to say I find terrific fun."
Eventually, Nobbs came to enjoy working with the younger generation, and giving them the benefit of his experience. "I won't hear a bad word against Simon but, as he admits, he's not very good at catchphrases. Sometimes I felt he missed Reggie's rudeness so I'd have our hero saying: 'My God, you are fat!' And Martin isn't as good as Len when it comes to the big set-piece speeches although he can do the little asides."
Nobbs also relished the confrontation with the PC brigade. "There were considerable worries over a gag about menstruation, but I didn't have a problem with it. I did veto one about epileptic fits; there's nothing funny in them. I can't bear Little Britain's jokes about incontinence, probably because I'm too near it myself. But I supported a proposal to allow one 'f**k' per episode, although it was eventually voted out. There are probably too many 'f**ks' in comedy now. First time round, I managed to come up with lots of different ways for Reggie to suggest 'testicles' without the word being uttered."
Typical of someone his age, Nobbs doesn't like a lot of contemporary comedy, but while he's not a fan of Ricky Gervais, he did love The Office. That show re-wrote the Health & Safety of work-based comedies and next to it, the revamped Reggie seems old-fashioned. But the brilliance of the original remains intact.
He says: "We were never going to have the new show mimicked in factories and schools the next day – TV can't do that any more." He could add that it's a long time since an actor was forced to quit the profession in despair after having his one-word catchphrase quoted at him ad nauseam. Such was the fate of Trevor 'Great!' Adams. "He'd performed Shakespeare and Ibsen but none of that mattered. He died owing me 500 and he'd also borrowed 500 from Len, which wouldn't have been easy, I can assure you. I miss them all."
Such was the power of Reggie. Insisting on escorting me back to the station, Nobbs chats enthusiastically about his next novel – an attack on religion – and how he'd love to write the first Twitter sitcom. None of this sounds like the work of a fuddy-duddy. I say goodbye on the platform but of course my train is late.
• Reggie Perrin (BBC1) starts on Friday, 9.30pm
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