I DIDN’T get where I am today by waffling… a fitting dust of irony for a columnist turned blogger, perhaps. But more importantly one of many quotes from CJ, that spout of splendid nonsense in The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin.
The writer of that comedy, David Nobbs, died yesterday at the age of 80. By all accounts an unassuming and decent man, Nobbs had that rare ability of coining seemingly ordinary phrases delivered by seemingly ordinary people – yet which have stayed with us.
Many of the lines people remember from Perrin tumble from the mouth of Charles Jefferson, or CJ, Perrin’s ridiculous boss. These were prefaced with the words “I didn’t get where I am today…” and this was funny in itself as, like many good comic lines, it’s a spin on the every-day pomposity of those who proclaim about being “self-made”.
Sometimes the comedy came from the ridiculousness of what followed that refrain: “…by selling ice cream tasting of bookends, pumice stone and West Germany”.
Sometimes there was a degree of pathos, such as his reflections on the disappearance of Reggie Perrin: “I didn’t get where I am today wondering what life’s all about” and “I didn’t get where I am today by thinking”.
One I particularly enjoy has a semi-tragic circularity: “I didn’t get where I am today without knowing there’s no fun in getting where I am today.”
Well, you could continue riffing with CJ all day. No one who watched Perrin is likely to forget this comedy about a mid-life breakdown and unravelling. Certainly not me, because as well as enjoying the series at the time, the first person I interviewed was the Perrin star Leonard Rossiter. He was in Tartuffe at Greenwich Theatre in December 1976 and I was playing at being a journalist for the student magazine at Goldsmiths College. I recall that he was a little prickly, probably due to being interviewed by a fuzzy-haired know-nothing student.
I had always thought that Rossiter died playing squash – memo to self, try to stay cool on the court tonight – but read this morning that he died in his dressing room at the Lyric Theatre in London while starring in Joe Orton’s black comedy Loot. He did play the crazy rubber-ball game though, as the Daily Mail later reported that: “The squash-playing, keep-fit enthusiast had a heart attack that was sudden and unexpected.”
As for Nobbs, he was an interesting man, funny and sharp, and painfully aware of what made people tick. And what happened when the ticking went awry, as with Perrin. He was also, towards the end of his life, an avowed humanist, and a long-time patron of the British Humanist Association.
In a moving piece he wrote for The Guardian five years ago, Nobbs explained how watching his mother die was “quite simply, beautiful. It was serene”. The experience found expression in his later novels, but also in his belief in humanism.
Nobbs lost his earlier religion, the standard-issue Church of England faith. Of this he wrote: “Loss of faith. It sounds so negative. I didn’t lose faith. I gained faith. Faith in people. I am proud to describe myself as a humanist.”
And you couldn’t wish for a better memorial than that.