It's all about bouncing back

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

If you grew up in the 70s and your parents were proud Angophiles with an anti-establishment sense of humor, then you need to come to my house for a cup of tea because you and I will become fast friends before the Earl Grey cools. I know this because I feel certain your parents let you stay up to watch Monty Python at age 9 and likely even let you study another BBC counterculture classic The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. This brilliant piece of Britcom, although lesser-known in the U.S., shaped more of my world view than I would ever care to admit and that's why I feel a need to promote it here, for those of you who haven't yet had the pleasure.

A three-season series launched in 1976, the first season tells the story of 46-year old Reginald Perrin, a senior sale executive with Sunshine Desserts, a company that sells and promotes flavored ices. A normal-enough man with a normal-enough life, Perrin slowly starts to lose his sanity in the face of continuing his solidly uneventful and mind-numbing suburban commuter routine. He rebels against normality -- almost unintentionally at first -- fantasizing quietly inside his own head about breaking free -- and then openly, in front of friends, colleagues and family. Unable to accept another day of inventing new ways to boast about flavored ice, he craves escape, but - like nearly everyone else in his circumstance - he just doesn't quite know how to manage it. He starts with a standard mid-life crisis agenda -- talking back to his boss unexpectedly and having an affair with his secretary -- but even that starts to feel sadly pedestrian. And so, in a fit of desperation, he fakes his own suicide -- leaving his clothes on an abandoned beach -- and starts a new life.

Soon, however, Perrin misses his wife Elizabeth and returns (under a false name, though his wife pretends not to recognize him) and remarries her. In the second series, he starts a new company, Grot, openly selling useless items at obscenely inflated prices. "So much rubbish is sold these days under false pretences", Perrin tells a customer, "that I decided to be honest about it." His goods include square footballs, round dice, silent records, and tins of melted snow -- and so it is, of course, a huge success. Horrified, Perrin makes numerous failed attempts to destroy Grot, and eventually just gives up again -- faking his own suicide once more, though this time accompanied by his wife.

The plot sounds simple enough in its 70's-style morality, but the series was really brought to life by the very tight writing and the performance of an impressive cast -- most especially its leader, Leonard Rossiter, who played Perrin. Rossiter was a natural at portraying the stereotypical English suburbanite; yet also managed to keep that subversive twinkle in his eye as Perrin grew odder and odder.

Personally, my favorite aspect of the show was always the catch phrases. Catch phrases have a terribly bad name in today's comedy; but in Perrin they were used properly -- as a simple device for illustrating the painfully repetitive nature of Perrin's day. Like passive worker bees, Perrin's office colleagues literally used the exact same words to respond to every situation presented to them. For example, two junior "yes men" sale colleagues at Sunshine Desserts, bumblers who quivered in the face of authority, were rarely ever permitted to say anything other than "Great!" and "Super!" respectively, no matter what they were asked. It sounds extreme, but it truly works well -- even today, it reminds me of too many folks that I've worked with in offices through the years. It's an odd little trick that really holds up. Similarly, the boss at Sunshine Desserts, CJ, could never start a sentence without the tired phrase "I didn't get where I am today by . . . " blah blah blah. And even to a 9-year old, it quickly became apparent why Perrin needed to get away. Of all these, the one I always enjoyed most, however, came from Perrin's ne'er-do-well hippy son-in-law, who never quite managed to get a grip on anything. His phrase, as befitted his life, was "bit of a cock up on the XX front." As in, when asked about his new job, "Well, bit of a cock up on the employment front." Where's the food? "Afraid there's been a bit of a cock up on the catering front." Poor Perrin's life never changed; yet, somehow, for the viewer, it never got old. (BTW, you can't imagine the constant temptation, as a grade-schooler, to sidle up to my teachers and announce "Ah, yes, bit of a cock up on the ol' homework front today." Real missed opportunity there.)

There are times, certainly, when the series feels dated -- not just in fashion and setting, but also in its 1970s style of rebellion. I still feel, though, upon a recent reviewing, that there is a timeless quality about Perrin. For as one older review that I found of the show mused: "As long as there is industry, capitalism and a human longing for a life less ordinary, there will always be a Reggie Perrin sentiment present in the world."

The series was based largely off the the 1975 novel "The Death of Reginald Perrin" by David Nobbs. Nobbs was an established comedy writer in Britain in the early 70s. He was a writer for The Two Ronnies when the BBC invited him to submit an idea for a play about social problems in contemporary society. The synopsis he submitted concerned a man slowly going mad from his daily routine and it was rejected as unsuitable. Thankfully, Nobbs he held it and converted it into the Perrin novel.

Sadly, there aren't a great number of clips available online from the original series to show you, though there is this fun show post-show analysis / retrospective:

and this quick couple of bits from a similar retrospective, intro by Ronnie Barker:

Thankfully, you can still buy the entire series from Amazon UK (for the time being), though you will need to have a multi-region DVD player to see them. If you ever get the chance, do see it. And then stop by my house for tea and flavored ices.


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