Author Jonathan Coe, writing in 2015 about the career of the late David Nobbs, claimed that Nobb’s most famous book, The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin, should be considered a classic. Initially I was sceptical that the story of Reggie Perrin, a 1970’s sales executive who fakes his own death and comes back disguised as someone else, could really be up there with Shakespeare.
First there were the dodgy jokes. While I laughed my way through some very funny sections, I nevertheless felt that some of the jokes were unwisely reheated from David Nobbs’ other career as a gag writer for TV comedians:
The driver got in the car and slammed the door.
‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.
‘I’m not Macduff. I’m Carter,’ said the driver.
‘I spoke figuratively,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.
‘Macduff’s got ’flu,’ said the driver.
That joke could have have helped fill the half hour on The Two Ronnies.
Apart from the odd less than ground-breaking joke, there was the bigger problem of accepting that a man could come back to his family, a bit older, greyer, suntanned, new bearded, and with nothing more than some am-dram experience, fool them into believing he is someone else.
AlI this being said, I still found myself fascinated by the story of an average man who wants to be something more. Reggie Perrin is a classic 1970s executive suffering a typical midlife crisis, hoping to escape his humdrum fate. David Nobbs does some very interesting things with the theme of fate, making you realise that we can never escape our destiny because what ever happens to us, no matter how bizarre, turns into what we are destined to do. Achieving something special does not involve leaving ordinary life behind, but finding remarkable qualities within it. This reminded me of that great tome of classic modern literature, the Alexandria Quartet, where Lawrence Durrell writes that our aim should not be to evade destiny, “but to fulfil it in its true potential.” David Nobbs makes the same point more succinctly, and with more laughs.
Overall the theme of fate is handled with such sensitivity and wit that I couldn’t help thinking of parallels with other authors who have written about the same thing, authors like, oh I don’t know, Shakespeare. Talking of Shakespeare, we could go back to my gripe about the veracity of Reggie fooling everyone with his disguise. Are all the cases of mistaken identity in Shakespeare always totally believable? Without the benefits of advanced prosthetics and a team of theatrical makeup artists, can shipwrecked Viola in Twelfth Night really concoct a disguise which persuades everyone that she is her brother? And dashing into the woods to escape her father in As You Like It, is it realistic that Rosalind manages to disguise herself as the sort of man capable of turning the head of shepherdesses? While we are on the subject of Shakespeare, let’s not forget that his plays have their share of dodgy jokes. What about all those puns? “You have dancing shoes with nimble soles. I have a soul of lead,” says Romeo. Did you get that – sole sounds like soul? If the Two Ronnies were working in the sixteenth century they might have passed on that gag.
By the time I reached the end of Fall and Rise, I’d decided that a rather silly romp could actually be a classic story.