Having devoured The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on screen, I was well acquainted with its storylines and characters, yet was understandably reluctant to plunge into what could very well have been yet another lazily written novelisation. I needn't have worried. The book predates the series by one year (it was first been published in 1975), and it makes superb, light and entertaining reading.
David Nobbs died in August 2015, and I'm ashamed to admit that I hadn't realised the extent of his talent until I started reading the omnibus. Naively, I'd watched each series and assumed their greatest asset was a magical combination of incredible actors and idiosyncratic production. I was wrong. This book was a glorious revelation. Nobbs' simple, conversational and intimate writing forces the reader into (sometimes unwilling) empathy for even the most unlikeable of characters. That, of all its strengths, is what gives the writing such dynamism and power.
Of course, there were both losses and gains in the book's transformation into sitcom. (Interestingly, the most obvious loss was the written incestuous relationship between Reggie's married, fat and sweaty daughter Linda and her Uncle ["cock up on the catering front"] Jimmy - a coupling completely absent from the television series.)
This anthology tells the tale of Reggie's midlife crisis - in great detail. To explain: Reggie leaves his clothes on a beach, fakes suicide, then masquerades (albeit briefly) as a number of eccentric characters, before realising he can't live without his family. He confesses all to his daughter and, as Martin Wellbourne, he later marries (or remarries?) Elizabeth, his/Reggie's wife. Confused yet? After Reggie confesses his deception to family and colleagues, he comes up with a business idea -Grot - a shop which sells only useless items. Reggie makes a fortune but, still malcontent, he attempts to sabotage and destroy his creation - with little effect. Later, with the help of family and ex-colleagues, he sets up a commune - Perrins - where guests stay as long as they want, receive inappropriate treatment from inept therapists (Reggie intentionally selects the worst candidate for each position), and pay whatever they feel like paying on their eventual departure.
That is the plot - in brief.
The unusual storyline is also crammed with well loved catchphrases (CJ's "I didn't get where I am today..." is a personal favourite), and showcases a unique brand of embarrassing and awkward humour . How uncomfortable I felt when warned of incipient mental meltdown as Reggie ordered ravioli for starter, main course and dessert (and had it served up for his evening meal too!)? Yet I laughed too, because, Nobbs' detailed and sensitive portrayal of Reggie allows the reader to feel his confusion, creativity and intensity. Perhaps Reggie represents us, the eccentric and slightly miserable British people?
The world could learn much from Mr Perrin (and from Mr Nobbs, his creator) - not least that characters, even larger than life caricatures, need to be believable. And loveable. Even those we love to hate, such as boss from hell, CJ.
I'll undoubtedly read this book again - many times - as I find myself grounded by its silliness and humbled by its simplicity. I would recommend it, especially to lovers of British comedy, PG Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe's Wilt and The Office. If you thrive on accurate comedic representations of human angst, anger and frustration, then The Reginald Perrin Omnibus should have a proud place on your bookshelf.
The Reginald Perrin Omnibus by David Nobbs. This edition published 1990 by Random House. ISBN 0 09 943666 3, pbk, 861pp
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Return of Reginald Perrin, and The Better World of Reginald Perrin.
Image from whatsontv.co.uk