It is a wonder that The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-9) ever got made at all.
A naked ‘drowning’; doleful theme tune and man suffering a complete breakdown over three series? Not exactly The Two Ronnies.
Yet it did, and has endured, thanks to the quality of writing and performances. Adapted from the late David Nobbs’ novels, there had actually been warnings from the BBC to ”tone down the content”- until star Leonard Rossiter himself intervened, and said the dark themes should remain.
And what themes. Pompous, brittle Perrin, superbly portrayed by Rossiter, tires of his wife, his impotence, his pointless role in Sunshine Desserts, etc. and so fakes his own death in order to re-invent himself.
More akin to Pinter or Beckett, it’s more theatrical satire than sitcom…full of thwarted ambition, sexual tension and barely concealed misanthropy. Perrin’s wife Elizabeth (Pauline Yates) tolerates her husband, but there is a hint of role-playing when he comes back as Martin, and we realise she knew it was Reginald all along. Sure, she may be a sexual stereotype (a dreadful cook and housewife, smiling indulgently) but there is something in the way Yates portrays her stoicism that reveals a rich inner life.
There may be the standard catchphrases (‘Cock-up on the catering front’; ‘I didn’t get where I am by….’ ‘Super’) but they are cringingly recognisable.
Indeed, CJ his Naziesque boss (John Barron in blistering form) could be regarded as a prototype for any ghastly boss since- from the late Rik Mayall’s odious Alan B’Stard to Matt Berry’s sex pest Douglas Reynholm, and of course, a complete lack of self-awareness, a la Ricky Gervais’ David Brent.
Only Joan, the secretary played by Sue Nicholls, seems underwritten, a ‘dolly bird’ in the unfortunate 1970s parlance. But she has to exist, as she is a conduit for our non-hero’s many frustrations.
Plus, their fantasy scenes together are a hilarious parody of Mills and Boon romances- particularly the slow-motion ice- cream sequence.
Nobbs’ writing remains as sharp as a tack- the streets where Perrin harrumphed serving as reminders of his inadequacies, with literary names such as Bertrand Russell Rise and Leibnitz Drive.
And best of all,it only got more bizarre as it progressed: the third series got richer, which is not the norm, as sitcoms generally run out of steam come series two. Perrin was now running a shop called Grot, selling useless crap like round dice and square hoops- which of course were a massive success.
Post-hippy ideology was slyly parodied, as with one amazing episode where Perrin hosts a happening where nothing actively happens.
The other characters and scenarios were also inspired. There’s Jimmy, a staccato racist (Geoffrey Palmer, never better) and a creepy couple who speak in unison. Interminable, silent train journeys to horrible offices. Chairs which fart when you sit on them.
It’s the grind, the awful, beige British moroseness of it, as summed up by Morrissey in Everyday is Like Sunday.
Painfully real, in its skewed genius, and I love it.