The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was a very popular sitcom in Britain in the mid-’70s, and at various moments during the four-series run, it’s remarkably easy to see why (Leonard Rossiter). At other times, however, it’s unbelievably puzzling (the plots). Creator David Nobbs adapted the show from his novel about a food products executive having a mid-life crisis, eventually leading to a breakdown and commitment to a mental hospital. The television version of Reginald Perrin was not quite so dark, and in the form of the brilliant Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp), he has some wonderfully bright moments for a man losing his mind.
But mainly, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin is about the repetition in Reginald Perrin’s life. In series one, which aired in 1976, it’s the same endless repetition we all fear that Reggie loathes and yet still plays into on every level. At home, when his wife, Elizabeth (Pauline Yates), tells him to “Have a good day…” He habitually responds with a sour, “I won’t,” while she stops him to pick at a stray piece of lint on his suitcoat before sending him out into the wide and repetitious world.
At work in the same job he’s held with Sunshine Desserts for 20 years, he has the same exchange with the same secretary (Sue Nicholls) about how his train is the same 11-minutes late every day. Even in his thoughts he can’t escape the repetition. His fantasy about embarking on an affair with his secretary always takes place in the same mundane, pastoral setting. Every time his mother-in-law is mentioned, he flashes a mental picture of a lumbering hippopotamus.
These kinds of visual comedy cues are only funny the first couple of times, and maybe that’s the point. For Reggie also has a boss (John Barron), who is constantly offering unwanted, indecipherable advice by stating and restating, “I didn’t get where I am today by…” He is in the constant company of co-workers that are infuriatingly content going through the motions every day, and a wife who doesn’t question Reggie’s increasingly odd behavior. She instead tells him what she’s serving for dinner each evening as if it’s some sort of automatic recitation. It’s no wonder that midway through the first series, after failing to seduce the secretary and bungling a speech in front of the British Fruit Association, Reginald Perrin disrobes on a beach and disappears into the sea.
Of course, the water proves too cold for Reggie to carry out his demise, so he spends an episode traveling around the country, trying on several silly identities (Rossiter has a great talent and a fabulous face for this kind of comedy), until the final episode finds him disguised as “Martin Wellbourne” attending his own memorial service.
Series two (1977) sees Reggie returning to normal life as Martin Welbourne. He remarries his wife and opens a shop called GROT, which he has specifically designed to fail. GROT sells rubbish and items meant to be useless, such as round dice and square footballs. Because this is a sitcom, he naturally employs his former co-workers from Sunshine Desserts, who bring all their catchphrases.
Unfortunately, GROT succeeds, and Reggie is thrown back into the life he so resented in series one. It’s a rather bleak circular path Reginald Perrin walks. What is a man to do when he cannot even fail properly?
Why, stride into the sea, of course! Another staged suicide and our repetitious hero returns for series three (1979) to start a commune called “Perrins” for middle-class, middle-aged, stressed-out executives. I’m sure ample comedic payoffs can be found in that setup, particularly with these characters, but somehow series three missed them completely. It brings back all of the old crew. It now also includes Reggie’s military-minded brother-in-law, Jimmy (Geoffrey Palmer from Fairly Secret Army), and an incomprehensible cook called McBlane. Improbably, Perrins is an eventual success (unlike series three), so the last episode finds Reginald Perrin back at the low point in his hamster wheel, with a position at “Amalgamated Aerosols”.
Rossiter’s performance as Reggie makes this show worth watching, possibly over and over again. Perhaps it’s a matter of timing or generational tastes. I came into British television on the heels of The Young Ones, and I prefer Spaced to just about anything else. As a long-running hit show, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin doesn’t quite register today. Rossiter, however, is brilliant to watch no matter what he does or how many times he does it.