For a series that could be the most catchphrase-centric in the history of English television, it is unusual that The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is remembered, not so much for its quotable script, as for the name of its leading character (immortalised by the performance of Leonard Rossiter) and what he came to personify. "Doing a Reggie Perrin" has become common parlance in English culture, meaning an attempt to fake one's own disappearance. References to Perrin habitually crop up in conversations and in newspapers whenever the opportunity arises, such as in the case of the "canoe man," John Darwin, spotted entering the sea near Hartlepool in 2002, only to finally hand himself in around five years later and admit a charge of insurance fraud. Darwin's story had particular resonance for those familiar with Reginald Perrin, largely because the beach-related nature of his disappearance bore such strong similarities to that of the fictional character. It is remarkable, then, given its place in English folklore, that Perrin writer David Nobbs had not originally intended to have Reggie disappear at all - instead he was to be sequestered away in, as Nobbs put it, a mental home. He changed his mind, however, and theorised in a 2007 newspaper interview that in order to create drama "you put mad people into a sane world, and sane people into a mad world." (1)
The world of Reginald Perrin, encapsulated within a suitably brown and orange representation of middle-class England in the 1970s, does not at any point appear particularly sane. What Nobbs actually did, it is tempting to say, was put a mad person into a mad world, but that would be to flatten what is really a complicated and unexpectedly moving discourse on that old chestnut of English situation comedy: the quagmire of middle-age, middle-class frustration. Perrin's quirks and outbursts appear at first glance to be spurious acts of madness, but we come to learn that they are perfectly calculated-- albeit frustrated--responses to the world around him. He feels acutely individual, misunderstood and alone, burdened by a relentlessly heightening awareness of what he sees as the true value of life. This supposed problem could be construed as a burst of pure sanity, of course, and in modern society it probably would be, but nonetheless it is the catalyst for- in 1970s terminology - Reggie's "nervous breakdown." Perhaps Nobbs had put a sane person into a mad world. Perrin's predicament, at heart, is a burgeoning refusal to go along with a situation in which virtually all of his time is devoted to the trivial endeavours of Sunshine Desserts. Everyone around him, it seems, is willing to play society's game (and in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, working life is unwaveringly depicted as a childish game) - but Reggie wants out, tortured by the awareness that a person of his status is obliged to dismiss such feelings as a flight of fancy. He is expected to suppress them, to ignore them, as would his overbearing and eternally self-confident boss, CJ. "I didn't get where I am today," you can imagine him crowing, "by questioning my lot in life and entertaining thoughts of happiness." CJ is a tirelessly repetitive character (brilliantly portrayed by John Barron), one of a core group that performs an increasingly pivotal and symbolic function as the series goes on. The viewer becomes extremely well-versed in the myriad reasons for CJ getting where he is today (2) -- easily half a dozen of them can be issued in a typical episode -- and we also come to expect idiosyncratic utterances at every possible turn from the likes of son-in-law Tom, brother-in-law Jimmy, and vapid junior executives Tony Webster and David Harris-Jones.
Repetition is a key motif in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. It is the motor that chugs the series along, incessantly battering the viewer as life is battering Reggie, but more importantly setting in train an unending supply of comic absurdity. Perrin is comedy first and foremost, but comedy with an edge - a common enough genre in 2012, but a slightly unusual fit for the light entertainment genre of 1976-1979. Playing darker material for laughs was an area of specialism for Leonard Rossiter. An extremely talented actor (preferred over Ronnie Barker for the role), he managed to imbue Perrin with not only boundless comedic energy but also a very real air of desperation, without which the series-in particular the touching and emblematic final episode-would simply not have worked. Reginald Perrin, of course, was not a million miles from his other sit-com triumph, the would-be despotic but actually pitiable landlord Rigsby in Rising Damp (1974-78). Rossiter makes us believe that Perrin really is the sort of man who would ditch everything and run off naked into the sea -- while simultaneously convincing us that he dearly loves Elizabeth, his wife. It is to her that he bids a despondent daily good-bye, embarking on the same old walk to get the same old train, a routine in which tiny discrepancies from one day to the next only serve to accentuate the sameness of it all. He arrives, depressed, at Sunshine Desserts, a company in steady decline, with its signage deteriorating by the week, and emits the latest in a stream of perfunctory excuses for his lateness. Work tasks are doggedly tolerated, his colleagues likewise, apart from secretary Joan, with whom Reggie develops an unhealthy obsession. Weekends offer no respite. A visit to Elizabeth's mother (the 'Hippopotamus') is often threatened, and a gaggle of needy family characters usually descend. It is unsurprising that Reggie finally breaks down and disappears (it is, after all, a scene featured on the opening credits of every episode), but it is something of an eye-opener when he speedily returns, bearded, as Martin Wellbourne, a long lost friend of Reggie's from the Argentine. Elizabeth, not fooled in the slightest, promptly 'falls' for him. The return of Reggie as Wellbourne encapsulates the central idea of the series as a whole: Perrin is unable to escape. As Wellbourne, he goes on to find employment at Sunshine Desserts, finally reveals his true identity, and is promptly sacked by an indignant CJ -- who, naturally, informs us that he did not get where he is today by impersonating a long lost friend from the Argentine. Fired from his job at a pig farm for much the same reason (identity deception), Reggie decides to found a store named Grot, selling products that have no use whatsoever, and being completely upfront about doing so. With a supply of son-in-law Tom's revolting homemade wine, and an array of other ludicrous items, he opens for business and Grot becomes a nationwide success. Dissatisfied, Perrin attempts to destroy it from within by employing his old colleagues from the now defunct Sunshine Desserts, but instead the firm reaches even greater heights. He finally disappears again, this time with Elizabeth, and ultimately sells Grot.
A third and in some ways rather disappointingly written series, and the last one starring Leonard Rossiter (3), sees Reggie finally do something concrete to address his long-standing issues with being middle-aged and middle-class. He opens a community called Perrin's, inevitably staffed by the same group of characters, designed to help those like his (supposedly) erstwhile self become better, happier people. After brief success, the endeavour collapses and a listless Reggie is forced to take a job from CJ's brother, the remarkably similar FJ, at Amalgamated Aerosols. And so it goes: the Exotic Ices campaign of series one is now the Exotic Aerosols campaign of series three. Tastings have been replaced by Smellings. The Dorset coast beckons once more, but Reggie knows by now that real escape is impossible. It may have provided a crumb of comfort to those viewers who actually were members of the commuter rat race that his constant preference for the greener grass of the field next door came to nothing. If the Perrin saga offers anything at all on the question of personal happiness, it is arguably that such things lie within a person and not forever at the end of some road. A dash of acceptance, you feel, might have occasionally helped Reggie oil the wheels of his existence. Reggie's trouble, as he rails at life, is that he has no idea what he wants from it -- and the imminent prospect of another disappearing act can only produce a weary frown. Meanwhile, the stoic CJs, Jimmys and Tony Websters of his world appear largely content with their lot. Perrin may see these people as absurd, and may reject their conservative ways, but he is hopelessly drawn to them at the same time. The more defiantly he rebels, it seems, the gladder he is to return to the safety of the familiar.--Neil Jackson
(2) Wikiquote currently attributes over 70 “where I am today” quotes to CJ, along with a large selection of muddled proverbs. “What the eye doesn’t see is goose for the gander.”
(3) In 1996, many years after the death of Leonard Rossiter, the Perrin series was reprised in the form of The Legacy of Reginald Perrin – its plot being the worn saga of “man perplexes friends and family by leaving bizarre will”. Featuring just about all of the remaining original cast, incongruously older and visibly uncomfortable without Rossiter, it looks and feels like a script rehearsal. The dead horse received another flogging when Reggie Perrin, starring Martin Clunes in the lead role, and again with David Nobbs on the writing side, was aired by the BBC for a gratuitous two series in 2009/10.