Sign up for our weekly newsletter
TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Interview: David Nobbs

22 September 03 words: Jared Wilson

"You look at life with all its infinite possibilities and you suddenly find that you're the sales rep for a product that you don't really fancy. You think 'Is this It'?"

Leonard Rossiter as David Nobbs' iconic character Reginald Perrin

As his agent once told him, much to his chagrin, David Nobbs is not a household name. This may be the case, but the chances are that pieces of David Nobbs work will have found their way into your household over the past few decades. As a writer for comedians, he worked with Frankie Howard, The Two Ronnies and the entire Monty Python team to name but a few. As an author he has written several bestsellers and as a TV writer he bought us A Bit of A Do, and Gentleman's Relish.

His seminal work, however, remains The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. It follows the story of a commuter in his mid-forties who continually repeats the same routine. Every day he leaves the house at the same time, takes the same walk to the station, has the same conversations on the train and arrives in his office the same eleven minutes late. Then one day he decides to change things. He fakes his own death, assumes a new identity and goes back into his old life as a completely new person. This is just the beginning...Prior to Reggie there was little on TV which addressed the absurd boredom of the London commuter lifestyle. Reginald Perrin did it with a vengeance, spawning a host of catchphrases and penetrating the national consciousness like few other sitcoms ever would. It was a great personal pleasure for me to interview David Nobbs. I caught him just as he was preparing to go on a tour of bookshops around the UK to promote his autobiography 'I didn't get where I am today'. His suitcases were packed and he had prepared for the journey as any self-respecting Englishman would - with a liquid lunch.

Reginald Perrin is about the frustration of the little man stuck in the office nine to five. How do you think it relates to today's TV comedies like 'The Office'?
I think the only word I would argue with you on in how you described him is 'little'. He wasn't really the little man. He wasn't Mr Bean or David Brent, he was quite reasonable at his job - it's just that he hated it. I loved 'The Office' and think it was terrific but you have to say that he (Brent) was a berk. I don't think Reggie was. He just felt completely destroyed by the repetitiveness of what he had to do and the pointlessness of it.

A lot of graduates these days are fast-tracked into careers and pretty soon after many think 'Is this it?' Do you think this is why many people of my generation feel drawn to Reggie?
I didn't really know that Reggie had reached generation X and I'm very flattered by it. I think, however, those words that you have used 'Is this it?' are very significant. You look at life with all its infinite possibilities and you suddenly find that you're the sales rep for a product that you don't really fancy. You think 'Is this It'?

Have you ever heard of the Strokes album Is this it? These themes are still really relevant today.
Well yes. I haven't heard that record, but I think it touches on something that is universal. That sense of disappointment will always be ongoing.

So how many of the characters in Reginald Perrin were inspired by people you know?
I have to say none. I have in my career used people I have known, but not in Reggie. Everyone was completely made up.

But they seem so real?
All their catchphrases epitomise something in their character rather than being arbitrary. CJ was pompous and he would let you know he had got where he was. They were all relevant.

So have you ever felt Reggie's sense of frustration at work?
Not really. I think I had an inkling always of what I wanted to do - to write - and I think ultimately I always believed I would manage to do it. I always felt I would be able to live my life through writing. I don't think I ever doubted that. I think when I look around at what other people did I realised that I couldn't be enthusiastic about it. That was what inspired me and drove me on.

The casting in Reggie was so perfect. I can't imagine anyone else playing any of the characters. Do you agree?
I do agree with you. I think that casting is terribly important and that I achieved perfection twice in my life. These two occasions are also my two most successful series, Reggie and A Bit of a Do. I wonder now whether the casting was perfect or whether the fact that it worked made the casting easier. It certainly was bloody good!

What was it like working with Leonard Rossiter?
It was great. It's always wonderful working with people who make the best of your lines and understand your humour. Sometimes you're working with people who just don't get it and you think you're on a hiding to nothing from the start. It was a wonderful team.

How different would Reggie have been if Ronnie Barker had got the part? (Barker originally wanted to play Perrin).
It's very hard to say. I think he would have been very funny and very good, probably very successful but I'm not sure that he would have had the final desperation that Leonard Rossiter had. I don't want to run Ronnie down, but that was the great thing that Len bought to it. He was so on the edge.

From reading your descriptions in the books Reggie was initially described as a 'paunchy' character. The way Leonard Rossiter moved, his angles, changed that quite a lot.
I absolutely agree with you. One of the main things you learn in a career of writing is that the essence of a person is more important than their appearance. I had an image of Reggie and this was a different image but Leonard was just so good we went with it. His 'angles' is a very good description. He was so very angular. He was great!

How did it feel for you to see Reggie become Reggie Potter for US TV?
I didn't mind Richard Mulligan being Reggie Potter at all. I thought it was good casting and I thought he was very good. I just think they cocked up the rest of it. I really didn't like CJ being so young. I didn't think they interpreted it right. They didn't show Reggie in his normal world at the beginning so you had no idea what he was rebelling against. That was really the problem.

Were there any regrets with the third series of Reggie? I notice it is the only instalment of the series not available on DVD.
I thought it was good. It wasn't as good as the first two, I would be the first to admit that, but equally I can't understand why they'd release the other two and not that. I don't know what's going on there I have to say."

It must be great to see the new lease of life DVD format has given it though!
Yes. It's lovely. You don't know whether people are taking it or not, but your comments about younger people enjoying it are wonderful. That's terrific.

Jonathon Coe compared Grot to the 90's dawn of E-Commerce, in that people were prepared to pay silly money for products that didn't really exist.
It's what happened in a way without being deliberate. I think that the nature of satire is that you're at the edge, but very often life catches up with you.

After Reggie you did Fairly Secret Army, a vehicle for the Jimmy character to get his own show. What are your thoughts on this now?
Well I think that was a very quirky show. I still can't decide whether I should have done it or not. It was based on Jimmy though I had to change his name and pretend he was a new character otherwise people would have been expecting to see Reggie with him. I loved the character, but I don't think I created a strong enough story in the first series. It became a cult show for those who loved his character and how he thought and spoke. My biggest regret is that I think I could have really made it take off and I didn't.

You started out by working on That Was The Week That Was with David Frost. To what level do you think that programme spawned other light-hearted current affairs programmes such as The Day Today, Have I got News for You and even Ali G?
I think they are in the same tradition, but they're not quite as topical and as biting - it's more about showbiz. 'That Was The Week That Was' had real impact because there had been nothing like it ever before. It was totally about the week that had gone before with no holds barred. It was recorded on the evening it went out - only a few hours before so it was very topical. I wouldn't say it was ever 'light-hearted'. What distinguished it were its very frank comments and its anger - its vitriol. It held public figures to account.

From there you started working with some great comedians such as Frankie Howard, Les Dawson, The Two Ronnies etc. Who made you laugh the most?
I enjoyed working for Les Dawson the most of all. He was really quirky, very northern, and very verbose. He was game for anything that we wrote. We wrote him a piece as an underwater bagpiper and he was prepared to walk straight into a tank of water to do it. I thought he was great.

I can see from your book you also quite admire John Cleese as well?
I don't think you can not admire John Cleese. He is a tremendous performer.

He seems like the kind of guy that could just walk into a room and make people roar with laughter.
He has tremendous presence and is an extremely talented man. But I think nonetheless, he was just one of five in Monty Python and the genius of it was the way they all balanced. It was absolutely fantastic!

I know you had worked with the whole Python team just before they launched their masterpiece. How did you feel after Flying Circus came out?
I was very sad not to be involved. That's when I realised that to be just a writer for comedians is a very limited role - you can go so far and no further. If you're not going to be a performer you have got to write longer narrative and more dramatic stuff. If you're a performer you can move the frontiers on but as a writer writing for comedians you're helpless. You've got to entirely rely on their judgement and their ambitions.

Do you still see Reggie as being relevant today?
It's more for my audiences to say that than me. I'd like to think it is relevant and will remain so as long as there are people who have to do jobs that don't give them much satisfaction. I'm sure a lot of people want to escape. To escape from your job is fine, but to escape from yourself is very difficult.

What would you have not got where you are today without doing?
Without persisting and having faith in the fact that I was meant to be a writer.

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now