Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

I took my nom de net from this cult BBC comedy classic.  Originally broadcast in 1976-1979, it chronicled the nervous breakdown and subsequent improbable adventures of a middle-aged office worker.


The first series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin launches us into the life of Reggie Perrin, a 46-year-old middle manager at a failing food company called Sunshine Desserts.  Surrounded by period office decor, he struggles with an oppressive boss (CJ) and irritating subordinates, none of whom are black or Asian.  He lives in the fictional suburb of Climthorpe in west London.  His children have left home, his marriage has become dull and he can no longer perform sexually; but his patient, long-suffering wife Elizabeth loves him deeply.

Amidst the 70s middle-class drear, Reggie starts acting eccentrically - being rude in meetings, randomly ordering large quantities of food, dictating strange letters and occasionally screaming.  He loses his temper at an outing to a safari park and nearly gets attacked by a group of lions.  He gives a dinner party at which he serves no food to the guests.  He sabotages one of CJ's fishing expeditions.  Finally, he leaves his clothes on a Dorset beach and fakes his own death.  He takes on a new identity and gets a job as a sewage worker.  By now, he has concluded that "the words 'sane' and 'mad' don't have much meaning".  But he pines for Elizabeth, and he decides to break cover when he sees her having dinner with an old flame.  He does this by turning up at his own funeral, where Elizabeth quickly recognises him.

The two are reunited, and Reggie begins a new life under the name "Martin Wellbourne".  But by the beginning of the second series his new identity has begun to pall as much as the old one.  He drifts for a while.  He works in a pig farm.  He even tries out life as a househusband, which appears to have been a humorous idea in the 1970s.  Eventually, he hits on the idea of opening a shop which sells only rubbish.  The shop, Grot, is a huge success and grows into a multinational business.  Reggie ends up re-employing CJ and his old colleagues from Sunshine Desserts.  But his very success irks him: it proves to be as unsatisfying as his earlier mediocrity.  He reacts by trying to sabotage the business in various ways, but they all backfire - for example, he gives a senior executive position to an Irish navvy whom he meets in a pub, only to discover that he is secretly a master of corporate strategy.

Reggie's only way out is the familiar one that has failed once already - become increasingly eccentric and end up by faking suicide.  This time, however, Reggie's reputation for eccentricity means that everyone just shrugs and thinks nothing of his erratic behaviour.  He says outrageous things on national television and people treat it as a predictable sign of his genius.  When he and Elizabeth eventually go back to that beach in Dorset to leave their clothes there and start a new life, they discover that Grot's employees have decided to do the same thing en masse.

Reggie now suggests to Elizabeth that they sell Grot and fade into comfortable retirement: "when we're rich, we'll really be free to shake off the bonds of our greedy materialistic society".  But one thing that he cannot shake off is a sense of mission.  He decides to set up a commune where people like him can learn to live in peace and love: "a community for the middle-aged and the middle-class".  A place where the inhabitants of suburban middle England "won't be ridiculed as petty snobs but treated as human beings who are bewildered by the complexity of social development, castrated by the conformity of the century of mass production and dwarfed by the immensity of technological progress".  On the face of it, this is an altruistic venture, but the deeply egocentric nature of it is given away by the commune's name - "Perrin's".  Reggie looks at society and sees his own problems writ large, and he decides that he is the man to solve them.

After a brief period of success, the community fails - but this time Reggie doesn't bring failure on himself.  It comes of its own accord.  Morale is ruined by a spate of thefts and a nymphomaniac who seduces the men (Reggie falls from a first floor window trying to get away from her).  Bad stories appear in the tabloid press.  At this point, something inside Reggie gives way and he stops trying.  A group of local yobs attacks the community, and Perrin's closes down.  Reggie ends up working under CJ in another office job... and, finally, unable to face going on, he decides to fake his own death on the Dorset coast.


The basic premise of Reggie's story is that a man can be driven mad by the malignance of sheer normality, or at least normality as it exists in middle-class suburbia.  The nearest Reggie comes to setting out a personal manifesto is a drunk, drugged-up speech which he gives at a work conference in the first series.  He reveals himself as a man with no beliefs other than the conviction that modern consumer society is irretrievably futile, artificial and dull.  "You show me a hero who makes fondue tarts and I'll show you a happy man who earns his living perforating lavatory paper....  What use is life if it isn't for those people who have to live it?"  He proposes his own epitaph: "Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin - he didn't know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein."

At home and at work, Reggie is beset by tedium - familiarity of the kind that breeds not contempt but despair and madness.  He despairs even at how familiar he has become to those around him.  At one point, he asks Elizabeth: "Don't you understand how annoying it is always to be understood?"  Yet his fundamental problem is not just boredom.  It is a lack of authenticity or wholeness, whether this is conceived as human estrangement from the natural world or as a kind of Marxist alienation from the capitalist economy (as symbolised by the ludicrous and sociopathic figure of CJ).  Reggie is anti-social in the precise sense of being profoundly antipathetic to his own society.  He first tries to mock that society by setting up a parody business - what would today be called culture jamming or performance art.  He then tries to opt out of it by creating a self-contained community in his own image.

The Perrin's project is particularly revealing.  It is a commune, but it has little to do with flower-power hippydom.  It is a deeply conservative project - an attempt to help suburban middle-class people to get by in middle-class suburbia.  This is an important clue to the paradox at the heart of Reggie's personality.  He is driven mad by despair at the manners and institutions of modern life, but he is wholly incapable of living outside of them.  Otherwise, he'd still be working at that sewage plant.  He never manages to articulate what it is that he's looking for, so he mostly sticks with the easier options of rejection, defiance and running away.  At the end of the day, society has the last laugh.  That's why he keeps ending up on that beach in Dorset.

He does love his wife, though.  In fact, he never maintains a functional relationship of any sort with any other woman, with the (partial) exception of his daughter.  Yet it is in his relationship with Elizabeth that his essential selfishness really comes out, starting with the sheer callousness of faking his own suicide without telling her what he was planning.  She has a brief, contrived breakdown of her own during his drifting phase, but he learns nothing from it.  When Grot comes along, the two of them agree that they will run it together, but somehow Reggie ends up in charge.  He doesn't tell her about his abortive plan to destroy the business, although she guesses what he is up to.  Later on, she briefly tries to save Perrin's, but without success.

So much for Reggie as a flawed misfit.  Yet Reggie is as much a symbol of wider society as he is an enemy of it.  He was, after all, a very characteristic product of his time.  He was a fairly typical member of the first postwar generation - the never-had-it-so-good generation which lived amidst peace, affluence, central heating and the NHS.  By the 1970s, however, a malaise had settled over British culture.  The comfortable postwar society was fraying at the edges, beset by economic stagnation, industrial strife and a general sense of post-imperial decline.  The exuberant energies of the 60s had dissipated and soured, as bohemian free love became suburban wifeswapping and the Beatles gave way to Gary Glitter.  Britain was suffering its own existential crisis of middle age - and was about to reach for its own extreme remedies in the form of Margaret Thatcher.  Everyone ended up on that Dorset beach.

Overall, the series has a distinctive bittersweet tone.  It effectively evokes suburban middle-class life in the 70s, with its golf clubs, dinner parties and British Rail trains.  It recalls an era in which mid-ranking executives wore three-piece suits to work and dictated letters to their secretaries.  Computers appear only as a novelty and as a butt for jokes.  Ditto homosexuals.

There are criticisms to be made of the series.  It lacks some of the sharpness and subtlety of the novels, as well as some of their darkness.  It is somewhat dumbed-down, with elements of slapstick and visual humour.  More seriously, Leonard Rossiter doesn't get Reggie quite right.  His portrayal is too manic, with intermittent bouts of anger and looking sickly.  Reggie is a bit of an anti-hero, but he needs to be played more sympathetically, as well as realistically.  There needs to be a pronounced streak of Everyman in him.  Rossiter's version is just too strange and, for want of a better word, Rossiterian.  He behaves as if he has just walked in from the set of Rising Damp.  I prefer Martin Clunes' Reggie in the 2009-10 remake: his incarnation is calmer, wearier and easier to relate to.  Apparently, Ronnie Barker was originally going to get the part instead of Rossiter - now that would have been worth seeing.


I'm not going to bother writing about The Legacy of Reginald Perrin (1996).


The Perrin franchise was revived in 2009-10 with a remake entitled Reggie Perrin.  This ran to two moderately successful series.

The remake echoed the original series in some respects - including some very deliberate hommages - but the differences are pronounced.  The transition to a modern workplace and home is reasonably well accomplished - the office, the house, even the commuter train have all been convincingly updated.  But a lot more has changed than the technology and decor.  Unlike the solicitous stay-at-home Elizabeth, New Reggie's wife Nicola has a job as a teacher and is an altogether more substantial character.  The couple have no children.  New Reggie's boss, Chris Jackson, is much younger than CJ and sports an estuary accent.  New Reggie's employees, while multi-ethnic, are a little less convincingly drawn than Old Reggie's.  Sleazy old Doc Morrissey and his dingy occupational health clinic have been replaced by a young female wellness counsellor surrounded by gentle lights, soft music and "Depression is Normal" leaflets.

New Reggie's breakdown is less striking and dramatic than Old Reggie's.  "Actually," he remarks to his father-in-law, "the worst thing is, I don't really know what's wrong."  He gives in to a strange itch to wear a white suit and fills his office with plants.  He starts commuting first class and then, in disgust at the two-tier arrangements, pays for all the second-class commuters to join him.  He considers becoming a teacher but messes up a visit to his office by his wife's pupils.  He only really begins to freak out in the final episode of the first series, when he gives an eccentric, ranting conference speech ("I've sold razors so that people can shave the stubble off their faces.  And what happens?  Next day it all grows back again!  So I've wasted my life!").  He has to be dragged out of the room, shouting about sex and world peace.  Interestingly, the speech is reasonably close to the equivalent given by Old Reggie at his own work conference 33 years previously.

Reggie leaves his clothes on the beach - and then quickly returns home, declares that he is "reborn" and resigns from his job.  He tells his wife that he is now happy and thinking straight; but this is clearly not true on either score.  He drifts from job to job until eventually he gets an unexpected lucky break.  His boss Chris is sacked, and the chairman of the company offers to re-hire Reggie in the role of managing director.  He accepts.  The chairman remarks that "rebels are essentially dull-minded élitists who run out of ideas".  It is a more perceptive comment than anything that CJ ever came up with.

Reggie resolves to keep it real in his new role, but he is incapable of exerting control over his own eccentricity.  He bans ties and buys slippers for everyone.  He plays the ukelele in the office.  He has the water cooler filled with cough mixture, then with champagne.  He takes the entire workforce to see The Sound of Music in the middle of the day.  The chairman is particularly unimpressed when he unveils plans to launch a bizarre new product range entitled "Grot", but Reggie doesn't really care as he reasons that the company is "going down the pan anyway".  Of course, the Grot range turns out to be fantastically successful - yet all this means is that he is making money for the shareholders.  The company is eventually taken over, and Reggie loses his job.

The scriptwriters make New Reggie's selfishness towards his wife more of an issue than it was with Old Reggie.  Even at the height of Grot's success, New Reggie is shown to be unhappy and neglectful of his marriage.  Nicola begins an affair with a neighbour, which leads to a very public slanging match between her and Reggie, in which Reggie comes off worst.  The series ends with Reggie confronted with a choice between reconciling with his wife and running away again.  We never find out what he decides.  The main point is that he even regards it as a dilemma.

Certain themes are echoed from the original series.  Like his older predecessor, New Reggie is afflicted by a sense of alienation from nature.  Old Reggie disliked consumer capitalism, but the effects of post-1970s globalisation give New Reggie a target which Old Reggie never had: "When the last Polynesian island opens its branch of Starbucks, I for one will vomit onto my globally available Ikea coffee table."

The most obvious difference between Old Reggie and New Reggie lies in the difference in the approaches taken to the character by Rossiter and Clunes.  Clunes delivers lines from the script about anger and hatred, but he mostly just comes across as fed up.  Where Rossiter's Old Reggie was manic and desperate, New Reggie is cynical and tired.  This makes for a more satisfying and realistic portrayal of the character, although it does undermine the central irony of the original series, which was that of a man driven ruthlessly to the edge of literal madness by the sheer force of normality.

I'm not sure how much sense Reggie Perrin would make to someone unfamiliar with the original series, although the co-writer, Simon Nye, is capable of writing which is funnier than David Nobbs' original 70s scripts.  Overall, the series is well-crafted, if imperfect.  There is a certain fascination in seeing how Reggie's world has been brought into the 21st century.