Monday, 14 January 2013

The Reginald Perrin Omnibus

One of the more curious and interesting phenomena in popular culture in the 1970s was that of Reginald Perrin.  My interest in the character having recently been re-ignited, I made a point of searching out The Reginald Perrin Omnibus, a collection of the David Nobbs-penned books on which the later television sitcom (starring Leonard Rossiter in the title role) was based.

For the avoidance of confusion, it should be emphasised that although the TV sitcom was entitled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, it  actually covers the same events and timespan as the three novels which make up the omnibus, the first of which is itself also called "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin", the other two being called "The Return of Reginald Perrin" and "The Better World of Reginald Perrin".

To summarise for the uninitiated, Reginald Perrin is a middle-aged executive with Sunshine Desserts, and as the story begins, he is being confronted with an incipient breakdown of sorts, seemingly precipitated by the drudgery of his job and his daily routine, and a nagging feeling that "there must be more to life than this". The three novels which constitute the "omnibus", and the aforementioned sitcom, follow Reggie through his various life-changes, projects and adventures in the ensuing few years.

One of the first things which I noticed when reading The Reginald Perrin Omnibus was how much the books had been compressed when adapted for television.  The novels have a more sinuous and less streamlined quality about them, with the more risque aspects and sub-plots left in. The additional exposition which this all permits, and the more expansive prose, make these written stories an even more surreal and comic experience - more of a black comedy when in print form, I would say.There is much light-hearted and satirical musing on 1970s Britain, with more context and perspective than could be realistically expected in a condensed small-screen version.

The novels allow more extensive concentration on the niceties and absurdities of English middle-class suburban and rural life. The quirks and eccentricities are woven into the plot in wonderfully deadpan and undemonstrative style, and this forms a sizeable part of the appeal.This is the kind of book which one can breeze through almost effortlessly.  I was past page 500 almost before I realized it!

Another thing which occurred to me when working my way through the pages was perhaps what the author was aiming at, namely a more rounded and all-encompassing look at "modern life", from a 1970s viewpoint. Yes, fun is poked at consumerism and careerism, but equally there is much gentle but pointed teasing at the expense of the "trendy" and "progressive" ideas, attitudes and practices which were in vogue at the time. One senses that Reginald Perrin was striving to rise above it ALL, maybe sensing that even "alternative" things very soon assume a form of normality and routine. These nuances did not come out as strongly in the TV show, I feel.

Bearing in mind that this was written during the 1970s, some references contained within it might not meet with the wholehearted approval of the 21st century palate, although it is arguably reflective of the social and cultural climate of those days.

Despite reinventing himself a couple of times, Reggie ended up coming full circle in a professional and lifestyle sense, although the conclusion of our story is left open-ended as, confronted with a sense of deja vu at Amalgamated Aerosols, he initiates plans to return to the Dorset coast, scene of his two previous metamorphoses.

Although the ultimate outcome is not made clear, one can speculate what the inference was. This left me with a slightly deflated feeling.  Even when we take it upon ourselves to "change", life is still a cycle, or a series of cycles.

Did Reginald Perrin eventually see only one mode of escape from the cycle of cycles?  Or did he re-emerge again, to reboard the treadmill, in the hope that he would find something which even he had difficulty conceptualizing?  It is significant that each time he "disappeared", it did not take long for him to revert to being Reggie again. A recognition that we can never really escape or shed our "self"?

It is tempting to see the Reginald Perrin saga as an ultimately sobering and discouraging parable of modern man.  However, not only is it an enjoyable and stimulating read, but it can also be construed as inspirational, by affirming that things do not necessarily have to be "this way".  It conceivably also lends weight to the notion that "it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive".  Does the "arriving" ever really happen for most of us? The grass is not always greener on the other side, but the chasing, hoping and striving is what makes things worthwhile. Is this exhilaration the substitute for real contentment?  Do we have to learn to accept and value this as our lot in life?

Returning to the book, it would be fair to say that those whose perceptions of Reginald Perrin have been conditioned and shaped by the TV series may take a little while to adapt to the denser storyline, and some of its deviations. Equally, there is much more extensive and thorough development of, and insight into, the various characters and their foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Read and enjoy....

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