Saturday, 25 April 2009

Recreating a comedy classic....Reggie Perrin 2009

I wasn't one of those who threw up my hands in horror and ran around the room shrieking when it was announced, some time last year, that the BBC were remaking their classic 1970s sitcom 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin', which starred the legendary Leonard Rossiter. This new six-part 'reimagining', the latest resurrection of a TV classic in the wake of the success of 'Dr Who', would, we were told, star jug-eared TV actor Martin Clunes in a series which would update, modernise and thoroughly 21st-century-fy (a word I've just made up) the concept of a man wandering into the worst of mid-life crises and going entirely off the deep end, to the confusion of his friends and family. Now I'm a huge fan of the original 'Reginald Perrin' series and the somewhat darker books upon which they were based but I'm not such a fan that I baulked at the thought of someone new having a go at them. Why should I? Nothing's sacred these days, nothing's sacrosanct and, as 'Dr Who' and 'Survivors' have shown, a good idea's a good idea and is always worth a bit of a wash and brush up for a new generation who may be only vaguely aware of the original, if at all.

So now it's here. 'Reggie Perrin' has arrived on BBC1 on Friday nights and, despite all reasonable expectations (and much miserable comment from a few souls who saw previews of or bits of the first episode) it's actually not bad at all. In fact, on the basis of the first episode, it's really pretty damned good. The original writer David Nobbs has drafted in Simon ('Men Behaving Badly') Nye to co-write the series and drag it kicking and screaming into the here and now. And together they've done a good job so far. Critics will always groan and grizzle that "it's not as good as the original", largely because they're not able (or, more often, willing) to look at the thing in isolation, as a new creative endeavour for a new audience, without constantly harking back to the 'classic' series. It happened with 'Survivors' last year and it's still happening with 'Dr Who'; they just won't give these things a chance. 'Reggie Perrin', judged as a new comedy series, does what a new comedy series really needs to do - it's funny. Even set against the standard of the original series it holds its head up remarkably high and with some confidence. So it's a winenr as a new series and it's a winner in comparison with its forebearer...but with some inevitable and unavoidable reservations.

Nobbs and Nye have very cleverly kept the spirit and theme of the original series and its characters and, of necessity, jettisoned the creaking 1970s characterisation, morality and imagery. Reggie in the 1970s constantly pictured his mother-in-law as a lumbering hippo; not big or clever in 2009 so now he doesn't think of his mother-in-law at all (as yet we don't even know if he's got one). Now Reggie's fantasy images are more prosaic but more contemporary; the frustration of the commuter age, the idiocy of 'new age' medicine, as dispensed by his company's "wellness person". Where Reggie in the 1970s worked for Sunshine Desserts (nicely visually referenced in the first episode of the new series), modern Reggie works in that most ludicrous of industries - the men's health and grooming business, characterised here in "Groomtech Industries" where excitable idiots dream up insane and pointless gizmos and gadgets for vain modern men who know a bit more about facial cleansing than is really necessary.

We're on familiar territory as the new series starts. Reggie sets off for work, battling through the hostile and unfriendly territory of the commuter train, arrives for work fashionably late, makes small talk with his miserable secretary, and faces another dreary day in a job he's become entirely contemptuous of. Clunes nails new Reggie from the off; he's as lugubrious here as the more physical Rossiter was back in the day. At times Reggie seems like an older and more grizzled version of Gary from 'Men Behaving Badly' but that may be more a case of Nobbs writing for the actor rather than any fault with Clunes' performance. Throughout the episode Clunes' comic timing is spot on; the visual gags all work, from his clumsy investigation of new girl Jasmine's office, casually throwing water in the face of a prattling colleague, telling a toady to 'Shut up'. Best of all is his little jab at his dowdy secretary; asking her if she's got any problems, if anything's worrying her, he responds to her monosyllabic assurances that she's fine with a snappy "Then cheer up you miserable witch."

So Clunes has made a more than decent fist of Reggie himself. But the original series had such a strong and memorable raft of supporting characters played by good, solid 1970s character actors, it'd be expecting miracles to hope the same sort of lightning could strike twice. Sadly it hasn't. I didn't get where I am today without realising that John Barron's portrayal of CJ, Reggie's monstrous boss in the 1970s, was a classic comedy creation. Neil Stuke plays Chris Jackson (a blander name it'd be hard to imagine) and while he has much of the same pomposity and I can see the logic in creating a 'younger' boss for Reggie, Stuke completely misses his chance with the "I didn't get where I am today...." line and only really raises a laugh in his first scene with Reggie where he replaces his off-putting big office desk with a huge leather chair which dominates the entire room. Stuke's promise that "I'm watching you, Reggie..." towards the end of the episode carries none of the weight, threat or humour of the original CJ and it's a shame that poor casting (Stuke's normally a decent, reliable actor, especially good in series two and three of 'Game On' a few years back) has undermined such an important character in the Reggie Perrin saga.

Problems too with Reggie's wife Nicola. In the 1970s Pauline Yates played Elizabeth as a prim, stay-at-home 1970s housewife who always made sure Reggie's dinner was on the table and that he was spick and span and well-turned out for his working day. Now, of course, Nicola's a busy career woman who attends tae-kwondo classes, holds meetings for various charitable organisations and, occasionally, finds a bit of time for Reggie even if she doesn't understand what he's going through. All well and good but Fay Ripley hasn't made much of the material so far (bearing in mind that we're talking about episode one where, quite rightly, the focus is on establishing Reggie and his dilemma) and it's hard, even taking the new series as a stand-alone show, not to yearn for the reassuring warmth of Pauline Yates.

Otherwise we've met only the new object of Reggie's obsessions; gone is his comely secretary Joan (Coronation Street's Sue Nicholls) to be replaced by Jasmine (Lucy Liemann), Groomtech's latest go-getting recruit, and Reggie's two weaselly colleagues Anthony and Steve who are so far more irritating and amusing and, frankly, no replacement for the "Great!" Tony and "Super!" David of the 1970s....but there I go making those damned unavoidable comparisons again.

It's hard - and not always advisable - to try and judge a new series on the basis of one episode and I hope to return to 'Reggie Perrin' on Stuff as the run progresses. I'm pleased that Nobbs and Nye haven't slavishly recreated the old show - even though I miss Jimmy with his "bit of a cock-up on the catering front" and even Reggie's dozy daughter Linda and her husband with his propensity for making undrinkable homemade wine. The old show was very catchphrase-based and that's what I miss most in this new series - but maybe we're not such a catchphrase driven society these days? 'Reggie Perrin' has, despite the fact it actually looks as if I didn't really enjoy it, got off to a cracking start with some good gags, some genuine laugh out-loud moments and lots of good physical comedy. A lot of thought has clearly gone into what from the old series can reasonably be expected to work in 2009 and while some old favourites have gone - whither Doc Morrissey? - there's a lot of potential here and, if nothing else, it's heartening to see a good old-fashioned studio-based comedy series on the BBC and even better to see one which is actually funny.

So put aside your preconceptions and your prejudices and even your DVDs of the old series - you can watch and enjoy them any time you like. Take a chance on the new 'Reggie Perrin' and I really don't think you'll be too disappointed.

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