Reggie Perrin author David Nobbs talks about comedic rise to success
PUBLISHED: 12:05 12 June 2013 | UPDATED: 12:05 12 June 2013
Backstage the muffled laughter of television audiences can be heard as David Nobbs continues to craft sketches and punchlines for some of comedy's biggest hitters.
This was a common scene during the 1960s as David put words into the mouths of stars such as The Two Ronnies, David Frost and David Jason.
Born in Petts Wood, he grew up in Orpington before flying the nest to take up a newspaper reporter role in Sheffield.
It was while working for the Sheffield Star that he got his first comedy break, submitting a sketch idea for David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was in 1962.
“I phoned them up with an idea that was pretty feeble,” remembers David. “I had been to a cricket match and took inspiration from that, but worked on that show for a few years.
“I’d spent three years trying to get things sold and not making it, so it wasn’t an overnight transformation.”
Comedy writing can be one of the harshest environments with many jokes destined to blow across the office floor like tumbleweed.
It helps to be naturally funny and 78-year-old David, now living in Yorkshire, says he was a classroom joker at Bickley Hall School long before his television success.
He said: “I was always a bit of a humorist at school. I got by with a persona of deliberate incompetence that seemed to make people laugh, and continues to do so.
“My school days would turn out to be very important because my journeys on the train to and from Chislehurst would form Reginald Perrin.”
Perrin, a middle-aged middle manager driven to bizarre behaviour by his mundane job, is perhaps David’s most memorable character and first came to fruition in his novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, written in 1975.
Television bosses picked up the novel and eventually ran three series called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin starring Leonard Rossiter in the lead role.
“Reginald Perrin was my big break,” explains David. “I seem to be able to get into a character’s head and live the scene as if I was them. In that sense there’s always a bit of me in there somewhere.
“There are things I would have liked to have said and done in life but I was only able to get them out in the fantasy of the novel because I couldn’t be so rude to people.”
The BBC was so impressed with David’s adaptation from page to screen that they asked him to repeat the process for a second series.
Writing for himself is what David sticks to these days, describing the process of penning jokes for others as “frustrating”.
He added: “You had to tailor your comedy to someone else’s humour. We served the comedian, that was our duty. Today stand-up is much more personal, that’s the big difference.
“On television, writers have a greater freedom but that can be too tempting at times because comedy can often be too cruel these days.”
Looking at comedy from a writer’s perspective can mean David notices subtleties that may go unnoticed in living rooms. He says that while Ronnie Barker takes the plaudits it is Ronnie Corbett who has impeccable timing in The Two Ronnies.
“He makes the jokes, and that’s his role as the straight man. It can often go unpraised but Ronnie Corbett has a superb sense of timing.
“It becomes instinctive after a while. I’m currently doing more and more speaking events, and I’m beginning to get better with my timing – but I’ve had plenty of inspiration.”
David spoke at All Saints Church Hall, in Orpington, on Tuesday – with all ticket profits going to Bromley Foodbank.
He has also just penned his 20th novel, The Second Life of Sally Mottram. For more information on David and his work, visit davidnobbs.com.