Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to old comedy sketch writer, humanist and humourist, David Nobbs

David, whose writing career spanned sixty years and progressed from provincial journalism to television sketch writing, gag writing for comedians, novels, he published twenty, and of course, tv sitcom script writing, has died at the age of 80.
What you possibly didn't know about David, that :

* he was born in 1935 in Petts Wood, South London and raised in Orpington, Kent, the only child of Gwen, a former Welsh maths teacher and daughter of a maths teacher and Cyril, son of a maths teacher and Senior Maths Master and Deputy Headmaster at the City of London independent boys school and grew up with an aptitude for figures but no desire to become a teacher and was four years old at the outbreak of the Second World War when the family evacuated along with his father's school including scholarship boy, Kingsley Amis, to Wiltshire to the independent boys school, Marlborough College.

* was seven when he discovered his first great writer hero, Captain W E Johns, author of the 'Biggles' books, nine when the family moved back to Orpington and eight when he survived being buried under the rubble of his bedroom ceiling when a V2 rocket and last bomb of the War to fall on Britain, exploded in the next road, killing one and injuring thirty.

* recalled that : "We were a very close-knit family as we listened to a whole succession of radio shows. We never mentioned love and affection. Our shared laughter round the snug coal fire spoke of these things for us” and "I wanted to be a writer from the age of about 10 or 11 when I wrote my first titles for books which were all about badgers and they were all really based on 'Biggles'  So there was 'Badger flies East', 'Badger flies West', 'Badger flies North', 'Badger Flies South' etc. Never wrote the books, which probably would have been a sensation or best sellers and sell far more than anything I actually have written."

* spent four years, up to the age of 14, at Bickley Hall Preparatory School in Chislehurst where he "was always a bit of a humourist" and "got by with a persona of deliberate incompetence that seemed to make people laugh" and would later “like to think the idea of Reggie Perrin came to me catching the 8.16am from Orpington Station on the way to school” where he found himself surrounded by pinstriped commuters, each with briefcase, furled umbrella and newspaper folded under the arm.

* in 1946, at some financial sacrifice by his parents, was packed off to Marlborough College as a boarder, where he was bullied, beaten for biting another boy and in his first year, raped by an older boy, while out on a Sunday stroll, a violation which he later said left him “distressed rather than traumatised”, but was probably the cause of sexual confusion for him in his undergraduate years,.

* feasted on the novels of Waugh and Wodehouse and laughed at the sketches of Peters Ustinov and Jones on the BBC Light Programme's 'In All Directions' and at the age of 17, in the 'Classical Upper Sixth', excelled in Latin and Greek and relished the comedies of Aristophanes and was encouraged by his form tutor, A. D. Whitehorn, father of young journalist Katharine and at 18 in 1953, having been devoutly religious into his teens, realised he was an atheist,

* was drafted into the Army for two years National Service in the Royal Corps of Signals, failed the officer selection board interview and was given a desk job on account of his psoriasis and posted to Catterick and Devon where "nothing happened. Nobody told us where to go. Nobody gave us anything to do" and "We ate and slept and slept and ate and lolled on our pits. We read books. We did crosswords. We amused ourselves. We abused ourselves", before being posted to Germany where, as 'Signalman Nobbs', he monitored Cold War radio traffic to and from the Eastern Bloc and left with his lips sealed by the Official Secrets Act.

* at the age of 19 saw his father in print with the publication of his 'Elementary Mathematics' and demobbed from the Army at 20 in 1955, having completed correspondence course in journalism, followed in his father's footsteps taking up a place at St John’s College, Cambridge, to read for a Classics Tripos, although soon changed to English as “the easier option" and flexed his writing muscles with articles for 'Varsity' and 'Granta' Magazines and had sketches accepted for the Footlights Revue.

* after graduation in 1958, planned to go to Vienna, Europe’s cheapest city and starve in a garret and faith with what he wanted to do : "to write - and I think ultimately I always believed I would manage to do it. I always felt I would be able to live my life through writing. I don't think I ever doubted that. That was what inspired me and drove me on', but instead landed a job in Rotherham covering courts and councils for the 'Sheffield Star', becoming, in his own view, the 'world’s worst newspaper reporter' and he realised journalism was not his future when he missed a scoop about a shootout.

* teamed up with a fellow graduate entrant, Peter Tinniswood, who, like him was a cricket lover and comic novelist in the making and, during the printers’ strike in 1959, worked on his first novel and had two sketches accepted for a revue, 'One To Another' at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith which failed to impress The Daily Telegraph's critic with 'What a dreary evening', but nevertheless later transferred to the West End with modest success.

* at the age of 23, left home, took a bedsit in a West Hampstead lodging-house, began a novel and attracted the notice of neighbour Phyllida Law with his typing who invited him for tea and when his savings ran out, took a  drifted back to journalism, working for the weekly 'St Pancras Chronicle' and when asked to take part in a police identity parade, was fingered as the villain, while his surname made “laughter ring through the police station” and wondered if he would "ever make people laugh on purpose?'

* early in 1963, between cases at Hampstead Magistrates’ Court, rang the satirical tv show, 'That was the Week That Was' to ask about submitting a monologue, "with an idea that was pretty feeble” inspired by a visit to a cricket match and was put through to David Frost, who remembered him from the Cambridge Footlights and said : “Super to talk to you” and sent a taxi to pick up the script.

* gave up his reporter’s job and moved to share digs with Peter Tinniswood with the pair contributing regularly to tv shows : 'TW3' and its successor 'Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life' and writing jokes for 'BBC3' and was introduced to Peter Cook, one of his heroes at Cambridge, who used some of his sketches at his Establishment Club (right), which in turn led to more tv work on 'The Frost Report' and 'Frost On Sunday.

* at the age of 30, in 1965, saw his first novel, 'The Itinerant Lodger' ,with a central character and storyline that anticipated Reginald Perrin’s preoccupation with shifting identity, finally reach publication and despite the review in the The Daily Telegraph as : 'Presumably all this is meant to be funny', nevertheless, sold the film rights and on the strength of it followed with two further novels, featuring daydreaming heroes : 'Ostrich Country' in 1968 and  'A Piece of the Sky is Missing' in 1969.

* confessed that in his writing : "creating the characters is, I think the hardest part. I don't usually create people from life, so I'm making up all these people and they sometimes refuse to spring to life and suddenly they're there with me in the room and I know that I've got them. I do tend to be a little sentimental in my writing at times because my characters do become friends and I sort of think : 'well, you know, after breakfast I'd rather like to meet some rather nice people in that study of mine and not go up and meet a lot of rotters', but occasionally I grit my teeth and create a few people who are not very nice to be with. One has to do that I think."

* by the late 1960s was writing comedy scripts for Dick Emery, Kenneth Williams, Ken Dodd and Tommy Cooper of whom he said : “you don’t need to like Mozart to admire his music” and  Frankie Howerd, which had to include his trademark "Oohs and aahs" and "no please, titter not" in the script and recalled needing fresh air, tried one of these routines on Barnet Common when the police jumped from a car and asked : 'what was he doing ?' and when he flashed his 'Writers’ Guild' card, they nodded and explained that they were after an “escaped lunatic.”

* with the advent of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969 "was very sad not to be involved. That's when I realised that to be just a writer for comedians is a very limited role - you can go so far and no further. If you're not going to be a performer you have got to write longer narrative and more dramatic stuff. If you're a performer you can move the frontiers on, but as a writer writing for comedians, you're helpless. You've got to entirely rely on their judgement and their ambitions."

* in 1971, at the age of 36, worked as script editor on the first series of 'The Two Ronnies', starring Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett and wrote many of their sketches in subsequent series, including Barker’s “Pisprununciation” monologue and the 'Rook Restaurant Sketch' and presided over the decision to introduce their trademark sign-off : “It’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him”.

* drew the inspiration for his 1975 novel, 'The Death of Reginald Perrin' from "when I went to school every day on the same train and saw the same businessmen" "And the 'Sunshine Desserts' and 'exotic ices' sprang from an article I read in the Sunday Times colour supplement. This was 'Morton's Jams' who were researching a possible new flavour for a jam and whether it would go down well with the public" "There was a photo of all these earnest men with little jars and spoons sitting round a board room table. I thought two days of that would drive me mad."

 * became the creator of the tv sitcom 'The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin' adapted from his novel and starring Leonard Rossiter which ran in thee series from 1976 - 79 which 'told the story of a man living an escapist fantasy in response to the mundanity of his daily commute' having first written it as a half-hour play, rejected by the BBC as 'not being topical', then received interest at  Granada Television which wanted to make it a two-parter with Ronnie Barker in the title role.

* back with the BBC and the Head of Comedy, Jimmy Gilbert, who sat him in a chair which he remembered made a mournful noise “like a cross between a muffled fart and an elderly toad’s sigh of satisfaction” and which he took as a good omen, and commissioned a pilot episode, followed by the first series, with he 'farting chair' as a running gag along with the 'hippopotamus' which trotted into Reggie’s mind’s eye at every mention of his mother-in-law.

* recognised that : “Reginald Perrin was my big break. 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.”
* saw : his series become one of the biggest comedy hits of the day;  C J's “I didn’t get where I am today without…” become a catchphrase ; an Indian restaurant called Veggie Perrin’s open in Plymouth; a racehorse bestowed with the name 'Reggie Perrin'; his character inspire an Essex University sociological study of real-life management dropouts featured in a book on executive stress; Reggie become the subject of a question in 'Trivial Pursuit'.

* experienced a lull in his career and attempted a revival in 1984 with his 'Fairly
Secret Army', script-edited by John Cleese, in which he took Reggie's military brother-in-law, Jimmy Anderson, played by Geoffrey Palmer and transformed him into Major Harry Truscott and followed his attempt to run a mercenary paramilitary outfit and saw it become cult viewing on Channel 4 and described it as “a show which very few people watch, but which those few people like a great deal."

* started 'A Bit of a Do', set in a fictional Yorkshire town, as a series of plays set at social functions, then, in 1986, turned into a novel before, in 1989, transforming it into a successful tv series with David Jason with audiences of 15 million while in 1993, one of his favourite pieces of work, a series called 'Stalag Luft' which starred Stephen Fry, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Geoffrey Palmer as Commonwealth soldiers trying to escape from a German prisoner of war camp in the Second World War fail to build an audience thanks partly to the fact that week after week Leeds United and Chelsea failed to manage a result in the FA cup.

* in 1995, at the age of 60 the peaceful manner in which his mother died after a long happy life and a short illness, changed his attitude to death and persuaded him to become a humanist and stated : "I didn’t lose faith. I gained faith. Faith in people. I am proud to describe myself as a humanist. Last year I joined the British Humanist Association, and I don’t think I would have made this move if I had not seen my mother die that sunny Sunday morning" which strengthened his feelings for disbelief and belief that "there are just as many of the 'Christian virtues' to be found among the faithless as the faithful."

* explained on writing 'Obstacles to Young Love' in 2010 that he "found with this particular book, I would write, probably, a scene a day and very often I would come down the stairs for lunch and say to my wife Susan : "I'm really surprised by what happened today, it wasn't at all what I expected." So I know where I'm going in a general sense, but quite a lot of things, sometimes much sader than I expect, creep into the comedy."

 * concluded that : "I think that, to a certain extent, in all my writing, if there is a recurring theme, then it is identity. And there are two great aspects to identity. One is not knowing who you are. The other aspect is knowing who you are only too well and not liking it, and Reggie came into that category, although maybe in the end he was in both categories. Maybe that's why he was more successful than the others" and "In a lot of our lives we try to get in and out without communication. There's a lot of that going on now and we try to fight against it and I fight against it more in books than in life, perhaps."

* had Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association say of him on his passing that : "He was a British humourist in the best tradition: strong characters, warm wit, great fun, and deep understanding of human frailty. His books and scripts got to the heart of what it is that makes us human."
 * he himself said :
"I think comedy is wonderful and it's very important. I think it gives a sense of proportion and I think it's been a joy to work on it."



1 comment:

  1. I "grew up" with Reginald Perrin and later "Fairly Secret Army" and enjoyed both tremendously. It's fair to say that I didn't get where I am today without being able to recognize a great loss when I see one and the news of David Nobbs' death is very sad indeed. I'm kind of hoping that he just faked it and is working as a pig farmer somewhere. My condolences to his wife and family.