The Eternal Truths of Reginald Perrin

Comedy, it often feels, ages like nothing else. Stand-up routines from twenty years ago have a tendency to look like exactly what they are, the musings and preoccupations of another century, whilst all bar a precious few situation comedies from any era prior to the present look as though they’ve been beamed in from a parallel universe. At the very top of the comedy tree, though, a precious few remain universal and perpetual in their feel. They speak to fundamental truths about us, of our aspirations and ambitions, our self-image and our prejudices, rather than coming from a specific time and place.

The subtlest balancing act of all is to tell a story of a time and place whilst retaining an ageless feel. The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin sits at the very top of this tree. First broadcast in 1976 and running to just twenty-one episodes over three series, it tells a familiar story of the absurd in the mundane very much within the parameters of how sitcoms of the time were made, with repetitive catchphrases from a cast of grotesques who display levels of stupidity which require us to work hard to suspend our disbelief. Yet at the heart of The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin is darkness, and existential horror at the purposelessness of our lives and the fundamental futility of the treadmill upon which the vast majority of us walk.

Perhaps the most common mistake to make when considering this show is to view it as a portrait of a mid-life crisis. What actually seems to be happening throughout the first series of the show, however, is something subtly different. Rather than being about that point in life at which one’s youth stops feeling like something that we could reach back and grab, the mid-life crisis is actually just one manifestation of what looks for all the world like a nervous breakdown. There are, we’re led to believe, many men who get to forty years old and grow a ponytail, buy a sports car or acquire the electric guitar they never quite got around to buying when they were a teenager. Not many end up leaving their clothes on a beach and running away to start a new life in a piggery.

For all this talk of the universality of the human condition, though, The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin is planted very much in its time and place. The whole matter of faking one’s own death wasn’t as far-fetched sounding as it might appear today. This plot device was lifted by writer David Nobbs directly from the story of the brief disappearance of John Stonehouse, a former Labour MP and junior minister who left his clothes in a pile on a beach in Miami in November 1974 in order to start a new life in Australia with his mistress and secretary. Stonehouse was arrested on Christmas Eve 1974 in Australia and extradited back to the UK, where he was convicted on charges of fraud, theft, forgery, conspiracy to defraud, causing a false police investigation and wasting police time, spending two years of a seven year sentence in prison before being released.

The story was a tabloid sensation at the time and it’s hardly surprising that writer David Nobbs should have picked up on it. But other themes of the time are also present and correct, including middle-class concerns over “progressive” parenting and the conflicts created by the “permissive society” reaching suburbia, as well as the paranoid conspiracy theory that prime minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent hell-bent on destroying the UK from within, which found traction through Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green’s unscripted soapboxing in 1974 and which led to the formation of several small militias of varying degrees of unhingedness preparing to “defend the country”, preferably via the means of a military coup.

This particular trope was best articulated in an episode in which Reggie’s brother-in-law Jimmy, a failed soldier (some might say a failure, full stop), invites him to see the small armoury of weapons he’s stockpiled at his bedsit for “when the balloon goes up”, which leads to Reggie  questioning who they intend to fight:

Forces of anarchy: wreckers of law and order. Communists, Maoists, Trotskyists, neo-Trotskyists, crypto-Trotskyists, union leaders, Communist union leaders, atheists, agnostics, long-haired weirdos, short-haired weirdos, vandals, hooligans, football supporters, namby-pamby probation officers, rapists, papists, papist rapists, foreign surgeons, headshrinkers – who ought to be locked up, Wedgwood Benn, keg bitter, punk rock, glue-sniffers, Play For Today, squatters, Clive Jenkins, Roy Jenkins, Up Jenkins, up everybody’s, Chinese restaurants – Why do you think Windsor Castle is ringed with Chinese restaurants?

With the audience laughing perhaps a little too sympathetically at Jimmy’s reactionary manifesto, Reggie’s reply – and yes, we have to make allowances for the robust nature of the language contained herein – in the subsequent exchange is devastating:

Reggie: You realise the sort of people you’re going to attract, don’t you Jimmy? Thugs, bully-boys, psychopaths, sacked policemen, security guards, sacked security guards, racialists, Paki-bashers, queer-bashers, Chink-bashers, anybody-bashers, Rear Admirals, queer Admirals, Vice-Admirals, fascists, neo-fascists, crypto-fascists, loyalists, neo- loyalists, crypto-loyalists.

Jimmy (surprised but apparently delighted): Do you really think so? I thought support might be difficult. Well, Reggie, are you with us?

Reggie: I certainly am not. I’ve never heard such absolute rubbish. It is all rubbish. It’s absolute and utter rubbish. Not only that Jimmy, it is neo-rubbish and crypto-rubbish.

A lack of self-awareness on the part of a character is a common mechanism for a comedy writer to leverage cheap laughs, but Nobbs turns this trope on its head, making his character the voice of reason in a world in which he is surrounded by a cast of grotesques. This being a BBC prime-time sitcom from the middle of the 1970s, each has their own catchphrase, each representing how vacuous their inner thoughts must always be. When his salesmen, Tony Webster and David Harris-Jones, parrot “Great! Super!” back at anybody who expresses any idea whatsoever within their vicinity, it’s because neither character is really capable of any greater depth of thought, as they usually demonstrate when they do attempt to go any further.

The existentialist crisis at the heart of The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin seems borne of an inherent conflict between the circularity of our daily routine with the linear nature of our lives. When Reggie imagines his mother-in-law as a hippopotamus or, upon hearing that a speech that he is due to give will be called, “Are we getting our just desserts?”, imagining his boss on a rack, he’s momentarily breaking the circle that every conversation he has seems to have becomes, if only for a few seconds and in his imagination. He does the same things at every time, every day. When his train to work is interrupted, it’s always by the same amount of time. Only the excuse for it being late changes. 

It’s a theme that runs through all three series of the show. In the second, Reggie thinks he’s found happiness through satire, opening a shop selling products that are deliberately useless. When this business becomes a huge success, though, he finds himself having been sucked back into the rat race that he’d previously been so desperate to escape. In the third, he sets himself the lofty ambition of opening a community for the middle-aged middle class, designed to help them become “better, happier people”, only to find that circle closing in again when he hires the entire cast of ne’er-do-wells who played such a contributing role in his original breakdown. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

And it’s a brilliant cast. It’s Leonard Rossiter’s defining role as a comedy actor – more so even than the appalling, dilapidated Rigsby in Rising Damp – while John Barron is magnificently over the top as his overbearing yet broadly incompetent boss CJ, and Geoffrey Palmer, another vastly underrated comedy character actor, seems to he having the time of his life as the clipped, polite, but ultimately unhinged former solder. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin is a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. Even the title music, though composed by easy listening’s Ronnie Hazlehurst, sounds like nothing so much as a suburban British reimagining of the music from Jaws, which came out the year before the show went on air, with its choppy flute opening. There are sharks circling under that water.

But the show is careful not to seek to offer any answers. And therein lies its greatest triumph as a series. Despite missing out the darkest elments of the book upon which it was based – in which Jimmy has an incestuous relationship with Reggie’s daughter and there’s a whole sub-plot which leads the question of whether Reggie might even be a serial sex offender somewhat more open than modern audiences would be comfortable with – it remains an uncomfortable window on a lifestyle that we are all supposed to aspire towards but which many might find empty upon reaching. Its very positioning in the heart of the prime-time BBC1 schedules in 1976 was in itself a small act of subversion of which Reggie himself would surely have approved.