1 9 7 6 – 1 9 7 9 (UK)
21 x 30 minute episodes
1 x 5 minute Christmas special
This innovative BBC sitcom had as its central character a man falling headlong into the calamity of mid-life crisis.
The series was also an inspired swipe at middle-class England and big business.
The Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin was quite unlike most other sitcoms: it employed a serial storyline and featured adult themes of disillusionment and loss, and a central character who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was also fantastically funny.
David Nobbs adapted his 1975 comic novel The Death of Reginald Perrin as the first series of this quintessentially British sitcom (it was retitled The Fall And Rise of Reginald Perrin for paperback) and, originally, the author wanted Ronnie Barker to play the part of Perrin, a middle-aged sales executive combating a mid-life crisis with flights of fantasy.
Instead, he was blessed with Leonard Rossiter, who delivered an outstanding performance in the role.
Reginald Iolanthe Perrin had worked in the same boring job with Sunshine Desserts for 20 years. Every day he left his boring Norbiton home, took the same boring train journey, arrived at his boring office, and was greeted by his boring secretary Joan (Sue Nicholls) – a middle-aged bundle of simmering sexuality – who he dreamed of having an affair with.
The business is run by CJ (John Barron), a powerful figure full of impressive-sounding aphorisms that, on analysis, prove meaningless, comprising a heap of mixed metaphors and clichés piled one on top of another.
CJ (pictured below left) has a quality of elusiveness that makes dealing with him frustrating, for it is impossible to decipher what he actually thinks about any given subject.
Most of his statements begin with the all-purpose introduction “‘I didn’t get where I am today by . . . ” followed by a baffling example of what he did or didn’t do to arrive at his present status. He also has a penchant for whoopee cushions so that meetings begin with a definite air of farce.
Perrin’s colleagues, Tony Webster (Trevor Adams) and David Harris-Jones (Bruce Bould), are equally superficial and lacking in original thoughts, meeting any suggestion with a simple one-word platitude, “Great!” (Tony) or “Super!” (David), so that the only difference between them is chemical: Tony bluffs that he is one of life’s great kidders, amazingly confident and about to go places, whereas David is an intensely nervous individual, with zero confidence and a perpetually sweaty deportment.
The dithering company doctor ‘Doc’ Morrisey (John Horsley) is no use either: he knows nothing about medicine and lives in the hope that a sick female employee might be “feeling chesty” so that he can have an opportunity to examine the problem area.
At home, Reggie’s wife Elizabeth is pleasant and understanding, but her very tolerance and unchanging reliability grates on Reggie and adds to his malaise.
Then there is Reggie’s exceedingly boring son-in-law Tom, who makes appalling home-made wine, and his wildly off-centre brother-in-law Jimmy (Geoffrey Palmer), whose military background seems to have cast him adrift in civilian life where he appears hopelessly out of his depth, using militaristic forms of speech to explain his predicament (“No food. Bit of a cock-up on the catering front”).
From episode one, Perrin’s life is brain-numbingly predictable and repetitive – the train ride into London is always 11 minutes late, whatever the excuse – but there are already signs that he is going off the rails with his lapses into surreal reverse logic and a bizarre habit of visualising a hippopotamus whenever thinking of his mother-in-law.
In short, Perrin, at the age of 46, is questioning the meaning of life and going through a real and quite terrifying mid-life crisis.
Gradually his brain parts company with normality and madness becomes the order of the day. In a last-ditch attempt to preserve his sanity and escape the rat race, he fakes his own suicide by leaving a pile of clothes on a beach and walking off into the sunset.
This plot was echoed in real life when prominent British politician John Stonehouse faked his own death in identical circumstances.
Wondering what it would be like to attend his own funeral, Reggie then wears a fake beard, calls himself Martin Wellbourne and falls in love anew with Elizabeth, who recognises his true identity but, for a while, pretends otherwise.
Nobbs once again wrote a novel, The Return Of Reginald Perrin (published in 1977), which he then adapted for a second TV series. In this, Reggie soon jettisons his Martin Wellbourne persona, reveals that he’s not dead and reacquaints himself with his relatives and old work colleagues.
After a brief spell working at a piggery for a Mr Pelham and warding off the advances of a dowdy spinster Miss Erith, Perrin sports a new devil-may-care attitude and launches a shop, Grot, dedicated to selling useless things – cruet sets with no holes, tins of melted snow, self-lowering flour – and even he is amazed when it becomes a massive global success with 60 branches.
Reggie remarries Elizabeth, who has become a Grot business executive, and when Sunshine Desserts collapses, he relocates his former colleagues to the Grot HQ. But still, Reggie is numbed by routine and eerily finds himself taking on the traits and mannerisms of CJ.
The second series ends with Perrin, his wife and CJ all faking their suicides.
The third and final book, The Better World Of Reginald Perrin (1978, once again written in tandem with the TV scripts), formed the basis of the somewhat inferior final series.
Here Reggie has his most ambitious project to date: he gathers the usual crew and launches Perrins, a self-contained commune for the middle-aged and middle-class, where its members can learn to live in harmony and then set out to spread the gospel.
The dialogue was still sharp, but the Perrin idea seemed to have run its course and there was a distinct lack of energy about this third series. In following the first two, however, which contained some of the sharpest and funniest comedy ever aired on TV, it did have a hard act to follow.
A poor US adaptation, called simply Reggie was made by ABC in 1983, and a variation on the Jimmy character appeared in the C4 series Fairly Secret Army a year later.
Inexplicably, the BBC made the series The Legacy of Reginald Perrin in 1996, continuing the story after Reggie had been killed by an advertising hoarding (Leonard Rossiter himself had passed away in 1984), leaving his former colleagues to perform absurd tasks in order to inherit several million pounds from his will.
The group unites to form BROSCOR (the Bloodless Revolution of Senior Citizens), but their march on London is not deemed wacky enough to win the prize.
Stripped of its central all-important character, the show was doomed to certain failure.
Reginald Perrin/Martin Wellbourne
Tim Preece (1)
Leslie Schofield (2)