Obituary: David Nobbs
Self-described as the world's worst reporter, he went on to invent comic anti-hero Reginald Iolanthe Perrin
Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30
David Nobbs, the comic writer, who has died aged 80, created one of the classic 1970s television sitcoms in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin; which interwove melancholy themes of disillusionment and loss and featured a central character on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Nobbs's anti-hero sprang fully formed from his 1975 novel The Death of Reginald Perrin (originally the synopsis of a half-hour play) before transferring to television. The actor Ronnie Barker read the book and reported laughing 287 times and crying twice.
Nobbs would write three more Perrin novels and more than a dozen others, all humorous, leading Jonathan Coe to acclaim him "probably our finest post-war comic novelist". As well as four Henry Pratt novels, Nobbs's favourites included Going Gently (2000) and Cupid's Dart, published on Valentine's Day in 2007. His final novel, The Second Life of Sally Mottram, was published last year.
Granada Television had wanted to make the Reginald Perrin show as a two-parter with Ronnie Barker in the title role, but Nobbs's agent steered him to the BBC where the head of comedy, Jimmy Gilbert, sat Nobbs in a chair that he remembered made a mournful noise "like a cross between a muffled fart and an elderly toad's sigh of satisfaction". Nobbs took this as an omen, and when, after a successful pilot episode, Gilbert commissioned the first series, the farting chair became a running gag along with the hippopotamus which trotted into Reggie's mind's eye at every mention of his mother-in-law.
Nobbs hit on the character of Reggie Perrin by recalling how, as a boy in the 1940s, he caught the train every morning to school in Kent, a soul-crushing experience in which he was surrounded by pinstriped commuters, each with briefcase, furled umbrella and newspaper under the arm. The idea for a comedy formed when he read an article about the launch of a new flavour of jam, which seemed to Nobbs "so very, very boring for all the people involved". He borrowed the name Reggie from Reginald Maudling, his MP in Barnet; Perrin had been the name of a boy in his prep school.
At 46 Reginald Iolanthe Perrin was a deskbound sales executive in the throes of a midlife crisis, ground down by his suburban life and daily commute to his mind-numbing job with Sunshine Desserts. But when Reggie finally lost his sanity, Nobbs shifted the show into savage satire as his anti-hero faked his suicide before reappearing as the cynical, successful owner of a new shop called Grot, dedicated to selling useless items.
The series was rich in catchphrases, perhaps the most enduring being that of Reggie's tyrannical, bumbling boss C J (played by John Barron), who would constantly patronise his staff with the rubric: "I didn't get where I am today without …"
Although Nobbs had originally suggested Ronnie Barker for the part of Perrin, Jimmy Gilbert gave it instead to Leonard Rossiter, who delivered an outstanding performance in the role. The ground-breaking show ran for three series between 1976 and 1979, and sealed Nobbs's reputation, becoming one of the biggest and sharpest comedy hits of the day; the Reggie Perrin character featured in a book on executive stress; he was even the subject of a question in Trivial Pursuit.
David Gordon Nobbs was born on March 13 1935 at Petts Wood, south London, and raised in Orpington. His father and both grandfathers were maths teachers, his Welsh mother had taught maths before marrying, as had both grandmothers; perhaps unsurprisingly, young David had a natural aptitude for figures.
David was seven when he discovered his first great writer hero, Capt W E Johns, author of the Biggles books, and nine when he wrote his first story. His father, meanwhile, taught maths to Kingsley Amis, who once came to tea.
In 1944, the family returned to Orpington, having been evacuated to Wiltshire. When the last doodlebug (indeed, the last bomb of the war to fall in Britain) landed in the next road, burying 10-year-old David under the rubble of his bedroom ceiling, he hurt a thumb, but the war in Europe ended a week later.
At 14, a year after being sent to boarding school, David was raped by an older boy while out on a Sunday stroll. Nobbs later said that the experience probably contributed to his coming sexual confusion and late development. He was bullied, and once beaten for biting another boy.
During National Service with the Royal Corps of Signals, he failed the officer selection board and was given a desk job on account of his psoriasis before being posted to Germany where, as Signalman Nobbs, he monitored radio traffic to and from the Eastern bloc.
Demobbed in 1955, having completed a correspondence course in journalism, Nobbs followed his father up to St John's College, Cambridge, to read for a classics tripos; he switched to reading English, "the easier option", and wrote articles for Varsity and Granta magazine.
After Cambridge, he landed a job with Kemsley Newspapers, working in Rotherham covering courts and councils for the Sheffield Star, becoming what he claimed to be the world's worst reporter, and teaming up with a fellow graduate entrant, Peter Tinniswood. Tinniswood later achieved success on television and radio with wry northern comedies including I Didn't Know You Cared.
During the printers' strike in the summer of 1959, Nobbs worked on his first novel and had two sketches accepted for a revue called One To Another.
That autumn, Nobbs returned to London and lived the life of a struggling writer in digs, counting rejection slips for his first novel. When his savings ran out, he took a job as a clerk in Chancery Lane and drifted back to newspapers.
Early in 1963 he rang David Frost at the BBC's That Was The Week That Was from a public telephone between cases at Hampstead magistrates' court with a script for a monologue; Frost remembered Nobbs from the Cambridge Footlights and told him to put it in a taxi, the first of many of his items to be included on the show.
Throwing up his reporter's job, Nobbs moved to share digs with his old friend Peter Tinniswood and the pair began contributing regularly to TW3 and its successor Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life; they also wrote jokes for BBC3, the show on which, in November 1965, Kenneth Tynan first said "f---" on British television.
Nobbs was introduced to Peter Cook, one of his heroes at Cambridge, who used a couple of his sketches at his Establishment Club. This led to more work for Nobbs as a writer on David Frost's television programmes The Frost Report and Frost On Sunday; once, when Frost used some of his material on The Billy Cotton Band Show, he asked Nobbs if he preferred to be paid in money or champagne. "I received a bottle of vintage Krug," Nobbs remembered, "and I didn't have to send my agent 10pc."
Following the publication of a number of his novels, Nobbs worked as script editor on the first series of The Two Ronnies, starring Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, and wrote many of their sketches, including Barker's "Pisprununciation" monologue; it was Nobbs who presided over the decision to introduce their trademark sign-off "It's goodnight from me and it's goodnight from him".
Later he wrote for most of Britain's leading television comics: Tommy Cooper ("sublimely funny", Nobbs thought), Ken Dodd ("completely self-centred"), Frankie Howerd ("so neurotic"), Dick Emery, Jimmy Tarbuck and Les Dawson, with whom he worked as script editor on Sez Les.
Post Perrin, Nobbs's television career seemed to falter: a sitcom for the BBC about British expatriates in Spain - The Sun Trap - failed as dismally as the soap opera Eldorado would do later.
In Fairly Secret Army, Nobbs morphed Reggie Perrin's military brother-in-law Jimmy Anderson ("No food. Cock-up on the catering front") into Major Harry Truscott ("Tricky blighter, Johnny Invoice"); it became cult viewing on Channel 4 in 1984. A Bit of a Do, published as a novel in 1986, became an ITV drama attracting nearly 15m viewers a week.
Nobbs, who was showered with industry awards, underwent a prostate operation when he was 51 and later suffered from stress. His autobiography I Didn't Get Where I Am Today appeared in 2003.
David Nobbs was twice married, first in 1968 to Mary Goddard (dissolved 1998) and secondly, in 1998, to Susan Sutcliffe; three stepchildren of his first marriage survive him along with a stepdaughter of his second.