Henry Jeffreys

Why the Reggie Perrin novel deserves to be considered a classic in its own right

Why the Reggie Perrin novel deserves to be considered a classic in its own right
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It was eerie the first time I watched The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin because it all felt so familiar. Suddenly my parents’ baffling banter made sense. When I thought they were speaking gibberish they were in fact quoting Perrin. My mother would say ‘great’ and my father would say ‘super’. My father would say things like ‘I didn’t get where I am today’ and my mother would say ‘I’m not a committee person.’ If lunch was going to be late my father would say ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front.’ It’s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Perrin has seeped into popular culture and language.

David Nobbs, who died last month, is best known as the writer of three series of Reggie Perrin starring Leonard Rossiter but it’s worth going back to his original novel The Death of Reginald Perrin published in 1975. The eponymous hero is Reginald Iolanthe Perrin whose inane job as middle manager at convenience pudding company, Sunshine Desserts, is sending him slowly mad. He’s married to Elizabeth with two children Mark, a failed or rather failing actor, and Linda who is married to Tom, an estate agent who Reggie dislikes. He catches the same train with the same people every day. CJ, Reggie’s boss, thinks that Reggie is losing his drive and indeed Reggie is temporarily impotent. Worse still, Reggie has anarchic urges that he finds impossible to control. This is the opening line of the book:‘When Reginald Iolanthe Perrin set out for work on the Thursday morning, he has no intention of calling his mother-in-law a hippopotamus.’ Random words such as ‘parsnips’ and ‘earwig’ pop out of his mouth at unexpected moments.

As the novel progresses his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. He then disappears, fakes his own suicide and adopts a series of increasingly outlandish assumed personas. The first series follows the plot of the book extremely closely but in some ways they are very different. The television program is held together by the madcap energy of Rossiter who positively twitches with frustrated passions. He looks like a man trying very hard but failing to be normal. The Reggie of the book is more of an everyman and so his outbursts and erratic behaviour surprise us. He reminds me of the baffled Englishman with a pipe from the Matt cartoons in the Daily Telegraph.

Nothing works properly in Reggie’s Britain: trains are always late, his car breaks down at the wildlife park, even Reggie’s zip gets stuck. It’s a very 70s kind of malaise. A running theme in the book is how bad the ‘tasteless chemical beer’ has become. The old ways are dying out and being replaced with modern imitations. David Nobbs taps into a peculiarly English kind of melancholy.

The book has an elegiac quality that plays second fiddle to the comedy in the series. Like George Bowling from George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, Perrin is fighting fruitlessly against modernity. Orwell writes: ‘There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’  The Perrin equivalent is:  ‘People are graded too. . . .  They’re sorted out. The right ones are packed off to management training schemes. They’re standardized…’

The tone of the book is darker than the television series. In the book Elizabeth’s brother, Jimmy, has an affair with his niece, Linda, whereas in the series they only flirt. We’re explicitly told that the reason that Jimmy keeps popping over so amusingly to borrow food – ‘bit of a cock-up on the catering front’ – is because his wife is an alcoholic and she’s spent every penny on drink. Towards the end of the book, we learn that Joan’s husband who keeps nearly being cuckolded by Reggie is in a vegetative state in a hospital following, we assume, an accident.

The darkness doesn’t detract from the humour, however. The book is built on a number of comic set pieces: Reggie’s drunken speech to the British Fruit Society, Reggie’s flight across England in a lorry shaped like a fruit flan and funniest of all when Reggie attends his own wake disguised as Martin Wellborne. It’s packed with some of the most memorable characters in English literature: there’s CJ, Perrin’s overbearing boss, Elizabeth’s brother Jimmy a buttoned-up ex-army man who can’t get the hang of civvy street, Morrissey the incompetent doctor at Sunshine Desserts and Tom, Reggie’s politically correct son-in-law. After his ‘suicide’ Reggie ponders changing his name to Colin: ‘he felt an incipient colinishness.’

It’s the men who get the best lines and in its treatment of the female characters the book does betray its age. It’s a very different England where executives were almost expected to try to seduce their secretaries. Reggie is losing his drive but what about his poor long-suffering wife, Elizabeth? In other ways Nobbs’s book is uncannily up-to-date. Tom and Linda’s children, Adam and Jocasta, are allowed to run riot as they are practising non-disciplinarian parenting. The preoccupation with Europe could be my father at Sunday lunch: ‘by 1977 the whole of Europe will have achieved standardization of draught beer, pork pies and envelope sizes.’

The book has a wisdom about it that makes repeated readings worthwhile. Doctor Morrissey says to Reggie: ‘Characters in books are always over-sexed. Authors hope it’ll be taken as autobiographical.’ Despite all the sadness and darkness, the book ends on a warm note as Reggie realises how much he loves and misses Elizabeth. The finale sees him back in the bosom of his family.

Ignore the television if you can because the first Reggie Perrin novel deserves to be considered a classic in its own right. It’s not only extremely funny but it provides a guide to moving gracefully into middle age. The age I am now, much closer to forty than thirty, is perhaps the best time to read it. In fact I think I feel an incipient Reggieness coming on. Parsnips.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Foxed Quarterly