Since being recognised as a symptom, the mid-life crisis has manifested itself in different forms for each successive generation to reach the point at which there’s more of your life behind you than in front of you. In the mid-1970s, a time when the phrase ‘a job for life’ still applied to heavy industry, it was a truism also relevant for the white-collar worker, not just the blue one. Two concurrent BBC sitcoms of that era reflected this in contrasting ways. They present the conundrum from the male viewpoint because that was the viewpoint of the moment they were made, but their message is not ‘gender specific’.
‘The Good Life’, which debuted in 1975, focused on Tom Good, whose dissatisfaction with his materialistic lot fired his imagination when hitting his 40th birthday – which was then a significant marker for taking stock and judging whether one’s life could be filed under success or failure. Tom quit his office job and persuaded his wife Barbara they could carve out a self-sufficient lifestyle in Surbiton, much to the horror of neighbours Margot and Jerry. A year later saw another take on the mid-life crisis theme that was considerably more subversive, despite being cloaked in the deceptive dressing of the familiar suburban sitcom so commonplace on middle-class screens in the 70s, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’.
Adapted by experienced TV comedy writer David Nobbs from his earlier novel, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ dealt with the unexpected rebellion of the archetypal white-collar middle-management yes-man who had formed the backbone of the post-war British rat-race, commuting to work on the train from the suburbs clad with brolly, briefcase and the requisite copy of the Times. Reginald Perrin had a comfortable home, a dutiful wife, a couple of grown-up children, a secretary about whom he harboured unrealisable sexual fantasies, and a terrifying boss in the dreary business that had employed him for 25 years who he despised but was utterly subservient to.
Reggie was representative of millions of middle-aged men (as 46 was then regarded) across the country when the show first aired – too young to have participated in global conflict (which could at least be seen as a worthy contribution to something of value) and too old to have let their hair down with the rest of the 60s swingers. Instead, Reggie was the beneficiary of an acquisitive society that alienated rather than embraced him. He had every material benefit he had worked for at his fingertips, but it wasn’t enough.
On paper, it doesn’t sound remotely radical, yet the opening titles of the show didn’t highlight the domestic bliss prevalent in other sitcoms of the period. We saw a figure we presumed was Reggie strolling along the seashore before abruptly removing his clothes and heading for a watery grave – a poignant image just a couple of years after middle-aged Labour MP John Stonehouse had faked his suicide on a Miami beach, hoping to swim away from the criminal proceedings awaiting him. Viewers moderately disturbed by this beginning were lulled into a false sense of security as the programme unfolded and seemed to conform to standard sitcom fare – until they were allowed to eavesdrop upon Reggie’s thoughts and private opinions of the world he occupied and the people surrounding him. His contempt for them for eagerly leaping upon the same unfulfilling conveyor belt he himself was trapped on gradually saw him sabotage his security with masochistic relish.
After years as a busy character actor on stage, screen and television – he appeared in Nigel Kneale’s seminal TV play ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’ in 1968 and in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the same year – Leonard Rossiter had finally become a household name in 1974 playing seedy landlord Rigsby in Yorkshire Television’s sitcom ‘Rising Damp’, but it was as Reggie Perrin that Rossiter gave perhaps his greatest performance, brilliantly portraying the meltdown of a man whose suppressed spirit was boxed-in by the comfy circumstances that had enslaved him since completing his National Service. A sitcom whose lead character regarded his enclosed world as one populated by pompous idiots and clueless crawlers as deluded and deceived by the system he had been deluded and deceived by wasn’t necessarily one that guaranteed success, yet it struck a chord with viewers and eventually spanned three series.
‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ was crammed with the kind of catchphrases that had become the hallmark of the renowned Perry & Croft sitcoms – ‘Great’, ‘Super’, ‘I didn’t get where I am today…’, ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, ‘I don’t like people; I’m not a people person’ – yet that too was part of its clever ruse to mask the message in accessible insignias. In an ongoing narrative unique to 70s sitcoms, we witness Reggie’s slow descent into madness, which climaxes with him ‘doing a Stonehouse’ and faking his suicide before re-emerging into the life he left behind disguised in a curly wig and facial hair, posing as an old friend of Reggie. After being offered a job at his old employers he comes clean and returns as Reggie, though the same problems resurface and his response to being sacked by Sunshine Desserts sees him start his own business.
A shrewd comment on consumerist gullibility, Reggie’s chain of ‘Grot’ shops – selling items that are of no use whatsoever, such as square hoops, square footballs, tennis racquets with no strings, eggcups too large to hold eggs, tins of melted snow, and his son-in-law Tom’s ghastly homemade wine – results in Reggie ascending to the status of a millionaire entrepreneur and enjoying the table-turning coup of employing his former boss, CJ; however, even this doesn’t give him the contentment he craves anymore than his old life did and he walks away from that as well. Reggie Perrin is a businessman allergic to business.
Watching ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ exactly forty years on, there’s no denying it exudes the same nostalgic period charm as other shows of its era, yet the underlying rage and determination of its hero to break free of a life cycle he had been led to believe would provide all the answers remains a relevant topic; Reggie’s own life cycle may today be one that belongs in another age altogether, but there are just as many (if not more) careering towards fifty in the twenty-first century who undergo the life-changing realisation that there’s more to living than making a living. And we all, in our own differing ways, have a little bit of Reggie in us.
© The Editor