In despair at the futility of a money-obsessed world and the dreariness of his life, a man decides to start a new one by faking his own suicide. When, after his funeral, he returns to his own world in disguise, he sets out to show former colleagues and his family how to live a more meaningful life. He is disappointed again.
How darkly cutting-edge, how contemporary the comic idea behind the TV series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin can sound, when stripped down to its essentials. No wonder the BBC have commissioned a revival of the unforgettable 1976 series, with Martin Clunes taking the Leonard Rossiter role and with Simon Nye, who wrote Men Behaving Badly, taking co-writing credits with original writer David Nobbs.
The Perrin dilemma is every bit as relevant today as it was 30 years ago, Nobbs has said, and he is probably right. People are still bored by their work and yearn for change. The popularity of documentary shows about escaping to the country or to a foreign land suggest that the fantasy is at least as powerful today as it ever was.
It is our personalities which have altered, and in ways that will not help the revived Reggie Perrin. Like that other great 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, Nobbs’s series was a comedy with a tragic heart. Just as it was not difficult to imagine Basil Fawlty appearing in court on a GBH charge, so one could imagine Perrin actually committing suicide, such was the depth of his despair. Beneath the jokes, there was a hard edge to his dealings with his silly colleagues and his aggressively dull family.
Few, if any TV comedies would try that trick today. We are hooked on the feelgood factor. The idea that the central character in a sitcom would fake his own death, even to his family, would set alarm bells ringing. There would be an empathy problem. Aren’t we, it would be asked, meant to be on this guy’s side?
The solution has been to cast as Perrin the blokeish, good-humoured Clunes, who is so good at playing that stock character of sitcoms, the middle-aged man in a muddle. The new series is less “ponderous and melancholic” than the original, Clunes has said a touch disloyally, and his message is clear. Relax, he is telling his fans; I will be as loveable and funny as ever.
Comedies reveal a lot about the way we see ourselves. When Perrin and Fawlty raged against the world, they took action, however futile. Today it is different. Their successors – Alan Partridge, David Brent, the Jack Dee character in Lead Balloon – are ineffective dreamers. The fantasy for them is essentially the same, and is one they share with millions of viewers. They want to be famous, to be a celebrity.
David Nobbs, like the late Peter Tinniswood, was a master at conjuring laughs out of sadness and desperation; melancholy was an essential part of his humour. The whole point of Perrin was that he did more than fret and grumble amusingly about the world. Like the comedy itself, he took risks.
It is possible that the new version, which starts on Friday evening, will, like the original, offer good jokes chilled with seriousness but, as a Perrin fan, I shall be watching with trepidation.