The fall and rise and fall and rise and fall

OK, let’s have this one out. (This could be a long one, but I need to get it off my chest in more than 140 characters, if you see what I mean.) For me, as a viewer and comedy lover, here is what’s wrong with Reggie Perrin, BBC1’s not-really-a-remake of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin. It’s not the acting or the writing or the directing or the lighting or the scheduling or the credits sequence; it’s the idea. Not the original idea; the idea of not-really-remaking it. The very reason for its existence: that’s what’s wrong with it. Hollywood remakes – or reboots, or “reimagines” – old movies as a matter of course, but this is generally done to drag them into a new technological era. JJ Abrams said he wanted to remake Star Trek so that it could be done properly ie. with 21st century digital effects not previously available to the franchise. This makes sense. It might enrage purists ie. those old enough to remember the originals and hold them dear, but there is a commercial logic to it. What we must question with the new Reggie Perrin is the logic of doing it at all.

David Nobbs’s original idea, which he unveiled in the first novel, The Death Of Reginal Perrin, in 1975, was that a man undergoing a mid-life crisis might actually fake his own death to escape the increasingly unbearable monotony and meaninglessness of white-collar, suburban life. (Nobbs came up with the idea before the Labour MP and former postmaster general, John Stonehouse, faked his own death and left a pile of clothes on a beach in 1974, but it proved a timely touchstone for audiences when the show first aired in 1976, by which time Stonehouse’s scam had been rumbled and I think he was still in prison.) The very essence of the original Perrin was of its time; like so many great comedies of the 70s, it speaks of a time of flux and disappointment and political and industrial stalemate.

The “commuter belt” that had grown up around London during the 50s and 60s meant that, in that pre-enlightenment employment era, a large number of men travelled in on the same trains at the same time, wearing the same suits and carrying the same umbrellas and doing the same Times crossword, on increasingly unreliable British Rail trains. White-collar drudgery met infrastructural decline on a daily basis, and the idea of one of these semi-detached wage slaves from a pretty cul-de-sac with his dutiful wife and his own office and secretary “behaving oddly” was hugely attractive as a comedic device, and who better than skilled and temperamental stage actor Leonard Rossiter, then aged 50, to bring all the frustrations and anxieties of the modern menopausal commuter to life?

It was not the first time office workers had been portrayed as the new factory drones (Tony Hancock’s The Rebel and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, both made at the beginning of the 60s, spring immediately to mind), but Reggie’s extreme response was new. And howlingly funny, thanks to the combination of Nobbs’s withering dialogue with its Beckett-like repetition and Rossiter’s stuttering, edgy, genuinely perspiring, theatrical performance, equal to his other great sitcom creation, Rigsby, but thoroughly removed. Though giving the apperance of a standard, 30-minute BBC drawing-room sitcom, Perrin played with form in a way more suited to Python or Q, while remaining dramatically potent, using fantasy and filmed inserts to enhance the narrative. Its theme music was suitably melancholy. This was funny and sad.

Now, I saw The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, the first series, at an age (11) when the image of a hippopotamus appearing each time Reggie’s mother-in-law was mentioned was perhaps the funniest thing in the world ever. I enjoyed the catchphrases and the physical comedy (the throwing of the briefcase, the safari park incident, the farting chairs) while the social satire went straight over my head. As I grew up and revisited it, the latter eclipsed the former and I realised that Perrin was a modern classic. I enjoyed the second series, the third less so, and hated the post-Rossiter revival, The Legacy Of Reginald Perrin, even though the skilled Nobbs was behind every one of them. Still, the first two series are untouchable.

As such, you might deduce that my animosity towards the not-really-a-remake is rooted in nostalgia for the original. It’s not. I watched the first episode on Friday with an open mind (alright, as open a mind as possible having seen the awful clip they showed on Jonathan Ross, in which a gag about penis enlargement spam seemed to have been introduced into a 70s-like dim-secretary sketch to show that it was modern). Individual lines, which may have been Nobbs’s, and may have been Simon Nye’s, were fine (“Can it be done?” “No, it can’t. Far too many blades”), and Martin Clunes did a fair job as Reggie, also driven to fantasy by his humdrum life. But there was something wrong about the whole thing. We could sit here all day and debate whether the use of the word “otter” is intrinsically funny or not (it’s not), what I’m worried about is what the new Reggie is for.

By all means commission a new sitcom about a man who works for a shaving products firm and is having a mid-life crisis and goes off the rails, but don’t call it Reggie Perrin. For a start, a 46-year-old man in 2009 is not called Reggie, is he? I’m sure there are 46-year-old Reggies out there in the real world, but it feels wrong. Reggie was a perfect name for a 46-year-old in 1975, a man born in the late 30s, when Reginald was a common male name. In 1963, when New Reggie was supposedly born, boys were called Andrew and Simon and Jonathan and Peter and Mark and Matthew as a rule. Or Martin, actually. In other words, why saddle a modern character with an old-fashioned name, other than to make explicit links with an exisiting brand. Why not give this new character a modern name? (I know why, but I ask the question anyway, just to be annoying.)

In the mid-70s, Reggie looked identical to all the other commuters. This drove his desire to break free and be different – and, ultimately, to adopt a new identity, to become a pig farmer, or a suave man back from South America. In 2009, Reggie looks completely different to every other single passenger on his commuter train. This reflects real life. But it robs him of the engine that drove Original Reggie. Sure, he’s pissed off by them having earpieces in, and – look! – he’s snipped the wires of the man opposite, but this makes New Reggie no different from anybody else who gets annoyed by iPods and laptops on trains. The modern commuter does not wear a suit and a tie and carry an umbrella. It is harder to identify social types by what they wear. This gives the writers of Reggie Perrin a big problem.

How to mark New Reggie out from the herd? It can’t be done. The herd is too subtle and varied. It’s a comedy about public transport rather than about commuting. We all travel further to get to work now. It’s not just middle-managers doing the Times crossword. Commuters, including middle-aged ones, carry rucksacks and shoulder bags as well as brief cases. They hotdesk and flexitime. Reggie’s company, for all its modern accoutrements (water cooler, PCs … er, that’s about it), is a workplace out of time. He doesn’t even use flipcharts, let alone PowerPoint, for his presentation.

Which begs the question: if you’re going to draw on the Perrin brand for reasons of instant heritage and a ready-made audience, and have Nobbs onboard in whatever practical capacity be it player-manager or simple talisman, why not:

  • set the new series in the 1970s and make it a period piece, or
  • cut all links with the old series, such as the pointless but aggravating moment when Clunes walks past the old Sunshine Desserts and enters the office building next door, as if to say: ha ha, got you! (Got who? Not those coming to the show for the first time, who won’t know what the hell’s going on. No: the devoted old fans who sat down to watch this for all the wrong reasons? Yeah! Give them a shoeing!)

In many ways, the original co-workers of Reggie were cyphers: catchphrases on legs, there to serve the central point about Reggie’s madness being percolated through the repetition of modern working life. In the new Reggie, apart from the dim secretary – who’s actually more insulting than Joan Greengross, who was at least efficient and knowing, but may well be a truer stereotype, I don’t know – his co-workers are more subtle and verbose and “real”, but also less clearly defined. When Reggie presents the pumice razor raft, I presume we are supposed to think of it as ridiculous, and laugh at the ridiculously positive reaction of the guileless idiots who work at Groomtech, but it’s not that daft, and the stupidity of razor technology was much more efficiently done in a Mitchell and Webb sketch.

That which Nobbs originally satirised – business jargon, brainstorming, the monotonous mantras of market research – remain the bane of office life, more so now that desks and headsets have virtually replaced lathes and safety goggles in our national workplace, and yet office life has been subtly exposed by any number of other comedies since The Fall And Rise, not least, well, The Office. Going over old ground – people in work use stupid terminology and have meetings and refer to data – doesn’t cut it, whether it’s a remake or a reboot or a remimagining.

In the 1970s, Pauline Yates’s Elizabeth Perrin was the perfect, loyal, dutiful housewife. Her elevation to business partner in series two echoed the independence being struck for by a lot of women at the time, although she was neither a doormat nor a dragon at home, which set her apart from a lot of sitcom wives. In 2009, Fay Ripley’s wife Nicola sees Reggie off to his humdrum job, as per the original (“Have a good day at work” “I won’t”), but is later given a “women’s social action committe meeting” – at which Reggie is not welcome and he makes an inappropriate remark about periods – to mark out her sexual equality, although it looks a lot like a coffee morning. Later, she has a “playground committee meeting” and a Tae Kwondo class, which she cancels. I don’t think she has a job. Another ill-defined character, dragged up to date – a bit – from her 70s origins, and thus becalmed.

In the original, Reggie is impotent with his wife, and turns to Miss Greengross for sexual reawakening. In this one, the one suggestion of impotence at home is in an assumption made by the 21st century Doc Morrissey – the simpering, ambient-music-playing “wellness person” – but this seems from his reaction not to be what Reggie is suffering from at all. But he fancies a new colleague anyway. It’s hard to feel sorry for him. “It’s not the food I want, it’s you,” he moans to Nicola, as she leaves the house. Are we to imply that her independence is irking him? She’s been at home on every occasion he’s come in the front door and clearly has time between meetings to do the cleaning and the washing and fold napkins.

Likewise, how terrible is his boss, Chris? He’s the updated CJ, except he’s a couple of years younger than Reggie rather than a couple of years older to reflect changing executive culture, but he’s also officious and bullying, like an old boss, and recycles CJ’s famous catchphrase, “I didn’t get where I am today …” Except that’s updated too, with the suffix, “… by wearing a suit that makes me look like the bride at a lesbian wedding.” Does this means Chris is sexually enlightened, or bigoted? Difficult to know. So his reference is modern (“lesbian wedding”), yet implicitly tired, like a remake of Dad’s Army set in Helmand Province where a soldier says, “Those towelheads don’t like it up ’em.” Do Nye and Nobbs want recognition laughter, or something harder to come by? I wish they would make up their minds.

It’s as if the New Reggie has actually been beamed in from the past, and finds it difficult to adjust to the new century, and yet that’s not the premise. What, when all’s said and done, does he actually have to deal with that most people don’t also have to deal with? Laptops on trains. Sexual equality. Political correctness. Office charades. Why does Reggie go mad when most people put up with it? In the mid-70s, these were new anxieties, signifiers of a new and confusing world. In 2009, we have bigger problems: climate change, the economy, the chance of a terrorist bomb going off on a commuter train. Even trains being 27 minutes late had a certain potency in 1975, as more people used them. When trains are late now, people phone ahead on their mobiles.

Reggie’s worries seem humdrum and commonplace, self-inflicted, even bourgeois as jobs become more scarce, and those with a boring office and desk and PA might actually be grateful in the current climate. Reggie Perrin in its current, confused form, pinging between two distinct briefs, has no bite. It has no purchase in the modern world – which is ironic when in the past both Nobbs and Nye (with Men Behaving Badly, especially) have demonstrated a real instinct for the zeitgeist. Some good lines (“Shall I sing?”) and likeable performances from the talented likes of Clunes, Ripley, Neil Stuke, Justin Edwards and Jim Howick – familiar from Armstrong And Miller, he plays one of the young bucks in the next office – are at odds with the basic set-up. Memos from bosses read out by secretaries might be good for a laugh, but do bosses actually send messages via secretaries to be read out in the 21st century?

New Reggie says he has trouble “living in the moment.” No wonder.

Oh, and here’s the Mitchell and Webb sketch about brainstorming grooming products that’s funnier than all the Groomtech scenes. (I think it’s from 2006.)


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