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Reviewed by Will Harris
t’s always been known that American and British sensibilities are different when it comes to their television series, but “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” is one where, as you watch it unfold over the course of three seasons, your predominant thought is how unlikely it would be for such a show to ever be allowed onto Stateside sets. It isn’t that it’s odd or even offensive. It’s simply that no one working for a broadcast network would ever trust the average American viewer to be able to stick with a show which changes as much as this one did in its three-year run.
It would be an understatement to suggest that, when we first meet him, Reggie Perrin (Leonard Rossiter) is bored with his life in the suburbs of London. He’s married, but while he’s not unhappy with his wife, Elizabeth (Pauline Yates), he’s certainly no longer excited by her. Is that why he can’t rise to the occasion, as it were, when he’s in bed with her? No, that would be oversimplifying things. There are a lot of things in Reggie’s life that could be the cause of that. He’s thoroughly bored with his entire lifestyle, frankly. Every morning, he gets up and goes to work, with Elizabeth saying, “Have a good day,” and Reggie steadfastly replying, “I won’t.” He’s invariably late because of some issue or other with the train, though he’s been complaining to British Rail for years without results. He barely tolerates his position as a sales executive with Sunshine Deserts, thinks even less of his supervisor, CJ (John Barron), and probably wouldn’t go into the office at all if he didn’t have lustful thoughts toward his secretary, Joan (Sue Nicholls). When Reggie gets back home, he has to deal with visits from his semi-useless brother-in-law, Jimmy (Geoffrey Palmer), and his politically-correct academic of a son-in-law, Tom (Tim Preece). Sure, he loves to see his daughter, Linda (Sally-Jane Spencer), but between Tom and the bratty grandkids he’s helped her to spawn, it’s rare that her presence in his life is anything but painful.
Yes, life sucks for Reggie, and it’s really taking a toll on his psyche. Whenever Elizabeth mentions her mother, he has visions of a trotting hippopotamus. His sexual frustration at home leads him to have fantasies about Joan whenever she enters his office, resulting in more than a few embarrassing slips of tongue. His solution? He fakes his own death and starts life anew, without all the hassles of his present existence. Given what we know about Reggie, however, it’s unsurprising when he realizes that, in fact, he can’t cut and run as easily as he’d suspected. For all his ill feelings about his life, he still misses the woman he’s spent so many years of his life with, and when he attempts to slip in and attend his own funeral, Elizabeth recognizes him and decides that perhaps she could do with a bit of a lifestyle change herself.
The Perrin’s new lives don’t take, however, and they soon resume their original identities, with Reggie starting up a new business called “Grot,” which proudly sells completely useless items. He reckons it will be an interesting failure; in fact, it turns out to be a huge success, and when Sunshine Desserts begins to fall apart at the seams, it presents Reggie with the opportunity to extract his revenge on his former co-workers and supervisor by hiring them on as his employees. Eventually, however, boredom ensues, and the Perrins bail out again, this time opening a therapy center for middle-aged folk who are looking for an escape from their boring, miserable lives. Though you expect that Reggie’s decision to return to his former identity will be a jump-the-shark moment for the series, Season Two becomes an indictment on consumer stupidity and further emphasizes just how stupid businessmen can be, while the third season goes on to underline the point that Reggie isn’t the only person in the world who’s sick of his current existence.
“The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” is such an inventive sitcom and is filled with so many imminently quotable characters that it makes you wonder why it’s had such a comparatively low profile here in the States. There are obvious echoes of “The Office,” of course, but the fantasy sequences will remind you of JD’s flights of fancy on “Scrubs,” and the relationship between Reggie and his daughter and son-in-law is not so far removed from the Archie / Gloria / Meathead trifecta on “All in the Family.” Although Reggie Perrin is man descending into a madness that’s more or less of his own making, Rossiter’s remarkable comedic performance, which veers between subtle and frantic, makes you sympathize with Reggie’s plight as often as not, possibly because it resembles – albeit in an exaggerated fashion – feelings many of us have experienced when taking stock of our lives. (There’s a remake of the show currently airing in the UK, with Martin Clunes, late of “Men Behaving Badly,” taking on the title role, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Rossiter as Reggie.)
By the way, just as a footnote, America did try to make its own version of “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.” It was called “Reggie,” and it starred Richard Mulligan.
It lasted for six episodes.
Special Features: It’s not loaded to the gills, but what’s here is quite enjoyable. First, there’s “The Reginald Perrin Christmas Special Sketch,” which reunited the cast three years after the end of the series. Granted, it’s little more than an excuse to trot out the characters and have them recite their catchphrases one more time, but it’s still a pleasure to see them again. Also included is “The Very Best of Leonard Rossiter,” which is like watching an episode of “Biography,” except with more clips from throughout his Rossiter’s film and television career than A&E would ever spend the money to obtain. My God, what I wouldn’t give to obtain a copy of “Le Pétomane,” where Rossiter played the legendary French farter, Joseph Pujol. (Fortunately, you can watch it on YouTube.)