Obituary: David Nobbs, script writer

Writer who adapted his novels about Reginald Perrin into classic sitcoms. Picture: PA
Writer who adapted his novels about Reginald Perrin into classic sitcoms. Picture: PA
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Born: 13 March, 1935, in Petts Wood, Kent. Died: 9 August, 2015, in Herefordshire, aged 80.

David Nobbs adapted his novels about Reginald Perrin for the television and they became a BBC classic. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was first seen in 1976 and starred Leonard Rossiter and Sue Nicholls as his secretary. The novels and the sitcom “told the story of a man”, Nobbs said, “living an escapist fantasy in response to the mundanity of his daily commute”.

The series brought to the language a famous catch phrase – uttered forcefully by the tyrannical CJ, Perrin’s boss at Sunshine Desserts, (played by John Barron) who repeatedly declared: “I didn’t get where I got today…”

Nobbs was also a senior figure in the British Humanist Society. He was much affected by his mother’s death and found support from the society. “I didn’t lose faith. I gained faith,” Nobbs explained. “Faith in people.”

David Gordon Nobbs was born into an academic family. His father was deputy headmaster of the City of London School. Hobbs attended Marlborough College and then did national service with the Royal Signals. He read English at St John’s College, Cambridge and soon went to London.

He rang Ned Sherrin, editor of the BBC’s satirical show That Was The Week That Was, who, years later, recalled: “David Nobbs telephoned with an idea and was recruited by (David) Frost, a Cambridge contemporary.”

Nobbs was soon a regular member of the team and remembered later: “I once wrote a complete sketch on a Saturday morning, sent it to the BBC by taxi and saw it performed that evening on television.”

This success led Nobbs to become known on the comedy circuit and he provided material for a host of sitcoms – not least 68 of Les Dawson’s Sez Les. He also contributed to The Frost Report, Frost on Sunday and to The Two Ronnies, writing many of the famous “Misprununciation” monologues for Ronnie Barker and the scene for both Barker and Corbett in a restaurant that only served rooks.

Nobbs also polished up their famous sign-off line: “It’s good night from me and it’s good night from him.” Amongst the other comedy greats with whom Nobbs worked were Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and Dick Emery.

In 1965 he published his first novel, The Itinerant Lodger, which was a surreal tale about a man in search of an identity, but his breakthrough came a decade later when he wrote The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

It was an immediate best seller and when transferred to television brought Nobbs much acclaim. In 2003 he published his autobiography, I Didn’t Get Where I am Today…, and last year published The Second Life of Sally Mottram – a heart-warming story of a resilient middle-aged lady. Nobbs wrote more than 20 novels.

The first television version of Reginald Perrin ran for three years from 1976 and captured the blandness of everyday life, dead-end jobs and the dullness of suburbia. Even the name that Nobbs gave his central character, Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, was a sly side-swipe at mediocrity. Perrin led a Walter Mitty existence, apparently happy with his wife but having endless fanciful fantasies about his secretary.

It was the television series that brought Nobbs real fame. His skill in constructing an implausible situation and maintaining a dramatic credibility greatly bolstered the character of Reginald Perrin. The catchphrases were ungimmicky: “Take a letter, Joan,” and when told by his wife to have a good day at the office, Perrin blurted out: “I won’t.”

Nobbs, with his cunning, zany dialogue, made absurd situations work. The last series had Perrin faking his own death and then attending his own funeral in disguise. Such bizarre scenes were given an extra exuberant poignancy by Rossiter, whose delivery of the Nobbs script was matchless.

In 1989 Nobbs wrote Yorkshire TV’s A Bit of A Do, which was an attempt to capture the spirit of repertory theatre. In 13 episodes the story catalogued the lives of two dysfunctional families and the cast (led by David Jason, Nicola Pagett, Michael Jayston and Stephanie Cole) played minor or major roles to suit the storyline. It was reshown recently and enjoyed a considerable following.

There was a follow-up series of Perrin in 1996 (The Legacy of Reginald Perrin) starring Martin Clunes. In 2009 Hobbs was interviewed by The Scotsman when “Reggie came back”, as Nobbs put it, “from the dead”.

But he clearly had some reservations about returning to the series. “Was he still valid? I wasn’t sure,” he said. “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.”

Nobbs was twice married, firstly to Mary Goddard and in 1998 to Susan Sutcliffe, who survives him.