In conversation with David Nobbs
JONATHAN COE, author of the seminal satire of the Eighties, What A Carve Up! meets DAVID NOBBS, author of the seminal satire of the Seventies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
My train is running twenty-two minutes late: a source of irritation at first, but in the end I don’t mind because I realise it gives me the perfect opening line when I see David Nobbs waiting for me at Sheffield station. “Morning, David,” I say. “Twenty-two minutes late: defective junction-box at Chesterfield.” He recognises the catchphrase at once and smiles.
Nobbs is used to having his own jokes quoted back at him. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin had a startling influence on the national psyche: not just the name of the central character but even whole chunks of dialogue have become lodged in the public consciousness.
In Plymouth, for instance, there is a restaurant called “Veggie Perrin’s” which boasts “no cock-up on the catering front” on its premises. As we pound the streets of Sheffield looking for a suitable interview venue, I tell him that in the Landmark Trust holiday properties to which I periodically retreat for writing purposes, they have log books in which people are supposed to record their impressions: the last one I visited contained the simple entries, “Great – Tony Webster” and “Super – David Harris-Jones”.
But Nobbs’s writing is more than just the sum of his catchphrases. He is also a novelist of enormous distinction; a fact which his publishers’ thumpingly jokey covers and his high reputation as a TV gag writer tend to obscure. Nobbs’s early novel Ostrich Country is an absurdist gem which also manages to satirise the Nineties fads for nouvelle cuisine and food-combining thirty years before they came to pass, while his later books have a tenderness and an eye for detail and a range of human sympathy that is notably lacking from the work of some Booker prizewinners.
When David Nobbs wrote to me a couple of years ago and asked if he could adapt my own novel What a Carve Up! for the screen I could hardly believe my luck. Other novelists have to make do with fly-by-nights like Stoppard and Pinter adapting their books, but I’d got the real thing. The m?�lange of comedy, melancholy and social comment I’d attempted in that novel owed its existence to him, if anybody. Who better to dramatise the tragi-comic excesses of the Thatcherite Eighties than the man who had caught the spirit of another era – the weltschmerz of the Seventies suburban commuter – with such lethal accuracy?
Coe: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin seems very much of its time. TV comedy of the late Sixties and early Seventies is obsessed with notion of the commuter, the little man in his bowler hat and his pinstripe suit, getting on to the same train every morning and living a rather dull, circumscribed life. You find that figure in Monty Python and you find him in Marty Feldman. Have you any idea why that was?
Nobbs: A lot of people were doing it and they were all so clearly identified visually: the rolled umbrella; the way they dressed. But there’s no City look any more and I think that’s one of the reasons that Reginald Perrin seems to be so of its time. However, seeing it again, it was extraordinary how very relevant and up to date a lot of it was: all about Euro rhubarb and the fact that country people aren’t living in the country because they can’t afford it. Other things, certainly, are dated. The behaviour of his wife, for example. Her peculiarly bland and servile attitude, just being there to cook meals and never complaining about anything: that struck one as much more extraordinary now than it would’ve done in 1976.
Coe: In the second series, though, she became his business partner.
Nobbs: Somebody did attack me for the attitude to the wife and then, of course, later on it all changed. They should wait till they’ve seen the whole thing really.
Coe: Have you been following the stuff in the papers about internet companies floating on the stock market? There’s a parallel there with what Reggie was doing with Grot. In both cases people are making huge amounts of money by selling something which isn’t really a product.
Nobbs: I think there is a parallel. It’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, but it’s nice when you do an interview and you learn something [laughs]. I think the funny thing about satire is that it’s very difficult to get beyond the real thing, and if you wait twenty years you’ll be behind the real thing as the world gets more and more absurd. It’s a very interesting parallel, yes it’s extraordinary how much money they’re making, and extraordinary how much money Reggie made.
Coe: Are you on the Internet?
Nobbs: I’m not on the Internet. At the moment I’m a Luddite through laziness.
Coe: Did you know there’s a Reginald Perrin page?
Nobbs: Yes I do, and it’s very nice to know there is.
Coe: But it’s American, strangely.
Nobbs: It gets shown on public service endlessly in Boston and New York and one or two places. I met a man in a bar of a London Hotel – from Idaho, I think – and I said my name was David Nobbs and he said “Not the David Nobbs?” He said, “I didn’t get where I am today by being in a hotel in London with The David Nobbs.” It turned out all his students did these catchphrases, and there was this little pool of fans somewhere in mid-America.
Coe: What do you think of British TV comedy today?
Nobbs: It’s a very difficult question for me to answer. I have to be careful because I don’t watch a lot of television. I find the constant rudery depressing, and I find the shit and fart jokes endless. I find too much sex, I find these things not put in a particularly funny context. I always say farting isn’t funny in itself, but it’s funny in a wedding reception, or a dinner party or in church. I watched an episode of The League of Gentlemen but I watched one that was particularly revolting, with exploding dogs and everything. I couldn’t quite take it. People tell me if I’d watched any other episode I’d have loved it.
Coe: Comedy these days has lost its inclusiveness. Anybody between the ages of eighteen and 65 can sit down and get something out of Reggie Perrin, whereas something like The League of Gentlemen will only appear very funny to a rather restricted age group. And it’s kind of baffling and unpleasant to anyone older. One of my happiest memories of Reggie Perrin is watching it with my grandfather when I was fourteen or fifteen and he was in his seventies.
Nobbs: That’s absolutely right, and I think it rather reflects life. There’s a great gap between the youngsters in their caf?� bars and the older people in their pubs; the youngsters in their clubs and the older people in sedate hotels in the Cotswolds. There’s the series with Geoffrey Palmer and Judi Dench on Sunday evenings which goes on forever and is loved by old people and is very successful. No young person would watch that and old people wouldn’t watch the other ones. I think that is a shame. But repeats of Dad’s Army still cross that divide brilliantly.
Coe: The generation gap and the disenfranchisement of the older generation was a theme you took on in The Legacy of Reginald Perrin. How did you feel that series worked out?
Nobbs: It didn’t work out. We had great fun making it, it had a marvellous point to make along the way but it just got to it too slowly. I think I overestimated – not for the first time – the strength of my characters. I didn’t think I needed a particularly strong story. I’m sad about it because it did build to a marvellous climax with the old people’s march. And of course it was a terrific gamble without Leonard Rossiter. It was a cheek to do it and it didn’t come off.
Coe: Reginald Perrin is full of character actors who probably can carry a series by themselves. Geoffrey Palmer, who is a bit player in the first series of Reggie Perrin, went on to become one of the biggest sit com stars.
Nobbs: Yes. It would be nice to think one pushed him on a little bit. Of course I took him on myself into a starring role in a thing on Channel Four, called Fairly Secret Army. Another cult show, but a smaller cult [laughs] and the sad thing with that was that I loved the character and the way he talked so much that I didn’t give him enough story line in the first series. I had a strong story line in the second series, but it was a bit late.
Coe: Reggie is someone that young people today feel drawn to and feel sympathetic towards. There is a tremendous “fuck you” attitude about him.
Nobbs: Absolutely. There is a moment where he’s going to give a speech at the British fruit seminar and this chap talks about how British food can be no more or no less competitive than the society in which it is raised, and he looks at him and gives a little laugh and says, “really, that is uninteresting,” and he did it brilliantly. That is saying “fuck you”, but I hope it’s saying “fuck you” more wittily. I love saying “fuck you”, but I don’t want to say it just as “fuck you” every time.
Coe: I love your feeling in Reggie Perrin that there’s something magical about trios of lines. There’s a moment where CJ is pitching terrible ideas at Reggie, and with each one Reggie sits there thinking to himself, “Oh my God,” but what he says out loud is “Wonderful, CJ,” until the third one, when he thinks to himself, “Wonderful CJ” and out loud says “Oh my God.”
Nobbs: Someone at the BBC said, “You can’t do that, it’s just too complicated” and then somebody else said “well, we can dub those things on later” and Leonard Rossiter wasn’t having any of that. We had endless trouble at the beginning of the series with the timing of the Hippopotamus going across the screen. He refused to have it cheated or edited in, he said the look on his eyes must entirely reflect what he had seen and he must see it. He was a perfectionist. They had to announce its start about eight seconds before it came on. It had to be perfectly timed, and it always was.
Coe: Was he a demanding person to work with?
Nobbs: He was a demanding person to work with, but not so much for me because… it sounds immodest, but it was a pretty good product. Once he said, “this scene doesn’t work at all.” And we all sat round and I said, “We’re not going to rewrite this scene in committee. I’ll go home and deliver you a better scene tomorrow.” He was quite frank about the scene not working. I once criticised him, I said, “Leonard I don’t think you’re saying that line quite right,” and he said, “Oh. How would you like me to say it?” I told him, and he said “well, your fervour impresses me. I’ll do it the way you want it.” And he did it the way I wanted it and there was an enormous laugh, and I said to him, “I was right wasn’t I?” and he said “No, you were wrong and so were the audience.” That was his attitude [laughs].
Coe: Which, would you say, gives you more satisfaction as a writer: the pleasure you give to readers of novels, or the pleasure you give to or have given to television viewers?
Nobbs: The great thing about giving pleasure to viewers is that you actually hear the laughter so I suppose that is more instantly rewarding. I once read that my books are very embarrassing to read on public transport because you roar with laughter. So imagine my joy at seeing someone on the Northern Line reading one. I stayed on long beyond my stop to hear him roaring with laughter. He never did. He got sunk in deeper and deeper gloom [laughs].
Coe: But they are melancholy books. The ending of the first series of Reginald Perrin and the novel is quite downbeat. Elizabeth and Reggie are together again but he visits his ashes and has to wipe a tear from his eyes.
Nobbs: Yes, it all comes out like that. There is a lot of sadness in the world, obviously, but I do get great pleasure from life, and sometimes I think it would be nice to write something of total pleasure and optimism. But it just doesn’t come out like that. I don’t think it ever will.
Coe: Was the process in the seventies of getting an idea from the page to the screen easier than it is now?
Nobbs: It was so much easier that it’s almost impossible to talk about it. You didn’t have the layers of command, so you actually saw the person who made the decision. That’s the key factor. Now you just don’t see the person who has the say so, and you don’t really know why they say yes or why they say no. They issue edicts, they’ll say they don’t want period pieces. My edict would be “we don’t want any bad stuff”, and then I would try to look for good in every area.Everything has to go through the ITV network centre. They have an enormous amount of work, they take time, then the decision has to be relayed back by which time the writers are doing something else and the actor isn’t available. I long for the simplicity of the old days.
Coe: Your creative efforts are being thwarted or held up by exactly the sort of bureaucracy that Reggie Perrin was satirising.
Nobbs: I suppose that’s one more irony in a very ironic world.
Coe: Your new book is called Going Gently and it’s published in July by Heinemann. To me, it sounds very different from anything you’ve done before.
Nobbs: The first great difference is that it’s about a woman, which intrigued me enormously. When I told the publisher it was inspired by being present when my mother died, that didn’t make it sound like the road to hilarious comedy. But it was. I saw my mother die very peacefully at a very old age. I had not been sure how much she was able to understand in her hospital ward and this gave me the idea for a book about a woman who relives her whole life in order to escape from the mad, bad and sad old women in her ward. She goes back over her rich and varied life which is also – to some extent – the life of the 20th century, It’s not a millennium book, though. It’s more of a rattling good yarn. I find I get more and more interested in the process of telling a story, and I want to lead the readers up the garden path and then surprise them. I don’t think I was bothered about story when I was younger. Perhaps you don’t respect the reader as much when you’re young.
Coe: What were you more bothered about as a writer then? Getting the jokes in?
Nobbs: Getting the jokes in and showing people how clever I was and therefore occasionally failing to be clever most dismally.
Coe: I was re-reading your very first novel the other day, The Itinerant Lodger. It’s very different from the rest of your work. Were you a Beckett fan at the time?
Nobbs: I was a Beckett fan at the time and I wrote plays, I was into NF Simpson and the theatre of the absurd, and I think it shows. I think the book stands up moderately well and that I did manage to show some of my own voice. I wished I’d shown more but it was a first novel. The publisher’s reader actually recommended that it should not be published because it was a load of drivel, but they ignored Alan Coren’s advice.
Coe: Has he ever spoken to you about that?
Nobbs: I”ve never spoken to him. I admire him and think he’s terribly funny, but we’ve never met.
Coe: At that time you were also writing for The Frost Report and other BBC comedy programmes.
Nobbs: I started out on That Was The Week That Was. That led me on to The Frost Report, and that led on to The Two Ronnies. There were also diversions to write for other stand up comedians like Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd. I did a long stint with Barry Cryer, writing for Les Dawson. Some very enjoyable times. You might say that, from one’s own career point of view, it was a waste of time but then there’s a great deal beyond one’s own career. It was a great pleasure to work with some of these people.
Coe: It does seem to me that TV comedy was at its best in the late Sixties through to the mid Seventies. Was it just good fortune that there was a good generation of writers around then?
Nobbs: I would slightly dispute your dates. I think it went on into the Eighties. I think there was more understanding on the part of the people running television. I think it was the fact that they allowed the people whose speciality was comedy to make the decisions. Comedy is very difficult to read on the page. I think it’s very difficult to judge a script. I can’t believe there aren’t the writers around, I think there are. Sometimes the wrong decisions are made.
Coe: Do you think that if you pitched the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin today as a six episode comedy drama about a man having a nervous breakdown and faking his own suicide, it would get made?
Nobbs: Well, it’s very difficult to say. Probably not, and I’m sure that’s the answer you want me to give, and it’s the most interesting answer. Things are made that are unusual and off the wall, but it’s much harder.
Coe: I suppose you’d have to make sure you had someone like Leonard Rossiter attached before they took any interest.
Nobbs: Well, exactly. They want to get people attached and I write the other way round. I like to write from the caf?� and the pub and on the train and on the bus and the various places I go. I get ideas from life and then think: who would be good for that? But they do say “will you write something for so and so” and sometimes I find that difficult. You’re dredging around for something for them rather than letting your imagination run free.
Coe: How does it feel to be named by the Times as one of the top ten cult TV shows of all time?
Nobbs: Well, it feels very good, and then I remind myself that it’s just somebody’s view. I looked in a history of television in the library and found a very snide comment about the whole of Reggie Perrin. You have to bear the two together. When I started out, I just had my own idea of what was funny. I think that’s the thing about young writers. You don’t question what you find funny, and then you constantly come up against people who just don’t find some of these things funny. I mean, Reggie Perrin had a big audience but it didn’t have a huge audience because it was not for everybody. A Bit of a Do was more for everybody and had a much bigger audience. You mentioned Beckett; well I think Beckett is a minority taste, but a huge minority of fans and brilliant stuff, so I’m very happy with that. Quite a muddled answer to your question, but never mind.
Coe: I should ask you something about What A Carve Up! What has it been like working on that for the last couple of months?
Nobbs: I bought your book really because you’d written such a nice comment on the cover of mine, I thought I must read one of Jonathan’s. I was riveted by it. I thought it was a marvellous book and, as you know, I asked you if it was being adapted and now I finally have the chance to adapt it. I’ve enjoyed doing it enormously. I think it’s very punchy, I love the anger and the drama as well as the marvellous jokes, and I just hope somebody makes it, and makes it soon and makes it well.
Coe: It might have been a strange experience reading it for you because so many passages are full of your comic rhythms. There’s a scene where Michael visits his publisher and is told to put more sex scenes in his books, where the rhythm of the exchanges there is pure Reggie and CJ. I know I’d been re-reading the Reggie Perrin books just before I wrote that scene.
Nobbs: Well I didn’t know that of course, so I wasn’t looking out for it. I haven’t used that scene because, on television, you can’t use everything. We have to concentrate on the hard hitting central story line.
Coe: I remember Reggie Perrin was re-run exactly the same time as the BBC was showing Gormenghast. I realised that I first read Mervyn Peake in the Seventies, and that at the same time I was watching Reggie Perrin. Suddenly it seemed perfect serendipity to me. Put Reggie Perrin and Gormenghast together and you end up with What A Carve Up!
Nobbs: [laughs] I certainly hadn’t thought of that. What A Carve Up! is a book with an enormous range of emotions, and styles. Yet, I think, all held together by the passion about the story line. But I’m not familiar with Mervyn Peake’s work. I’ve never got on with these fantasy worlds. It may be my loss.
Coe: There are lots of echoes of Reggie Perrin in What a Carve Up! I was thinking again of the central motif of the book, the scene where Kenneth Connor is waiting for Shirley Eaton to come into his bedroom. When she finally does come, he’s embarrassed and horrified and has to run away. It’s just like Reggie lusting after Joan for months and months and when she finally turns up at his house and throws herself at him, he can’t wait to get rid of her.
Nobbs: These are the kinds of things that actually define the modern audience. I suspect that large numbers of people in the audience would find that disappointing, they would rather that he just went through with it. I think that’s very funny, and I think more discerning lovers of comedy would see that as the true joke, but that’s where you can’t please everyone. I can see all those echoes where you mention them.
Coe: Something that’s always intrigued me, who do you think that Reggie would have voted for? Was Reggie a socialist?
Nobbs: I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. It’s a very good question…
Coe: He kind of goes beyond politics, doesn’t he?
Nobbs: I suppose by the very nature of his refusal to accept the conventional values of capitalism he couldn’t possibly be a Conservative. That’s certainly part of the baggage he was getting rid of so I would think he would’ve voted Labour or Hairy Monster Green party or something, as part of his rebellion.
Coe: I think he’d have voted for Ken Livingstone in the mayoral election rather than Frank Dobson.
nobbs: I suspect Ken Livingstone is a bit of a Reggie Perrin, so I think he might see an echo there [laughs].
I switch off the tape recorder and we go looking for lunch, finally settling on an inexpensive pizzeria where, in tribute to Reggie, I am sorely tempted to order ravioli, followed by ravioli and ravioli. It wouldn’t be the first time, David Nobbs tells me, that a fan has carried his devotion that far.
Relieved that the formal intervew is over, he radiates the quiet contentment of a man who is now enjoying a happy second marriage, a well-earned tranche of repeat fees from the BBC, and the gratifying sense of having created a fictional character who is still, almost thirty years on, well-known and well-loved by the British public. Not many writers can boast as much.
Two weeks later I am back in a Landmark Trust property on the South Coast, wrestling with a new novel and, of course, the even more challenging task of writing something memorable in the property’s log book. A quick flick through the previous entries and I see that somebody has got there before me:
“I didn’t get where I am today by writing in log books…”