MARTIN Clunes is a brave man, accepting a role that (Liverpool) actor Leonard Rossiter and writer David Nobbs instantly established as one of sitcom's greatest creations, while both were at the peak of their powers.
Rossiter's comic genius was given free rein as the man tipped over the edge by the twin prisons of middle England and middle management.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin has become, for our informal times, plain “Reggie Perrin”, and while Nobbs is still involved, the scripts are much the work of Simon Nye, reunited with Clunes for the first time since Men Behaving Badly finished more than a decade ago, and yet to repeat its success.
The story has been updated for the modern world: Mrs Perrin is not only there to ensure Reggie remembers his briefcase; she now has a proper job and feminist friends. Reggie, meanwhile, says “shit” and talks about “my penis”, which he certainly didn't do in the 1970s, but probably would have done if the censors had allowed him.
He doesn't work at Sunshine Desserts any more, either, but next door at Groomtech, a manufacturer of male grooming products, where his big new challenge is to “make pumice sexy”. In case viewers don't know what pumice is, Reggie handily gives a whole presentation on the subject.
I found myself trying to guess which bits were Nye's and which Nobbs'. My guess is that “penis” is not Nobbs, if you see what I mean, but “pumice” is.
Nobbs loves nothing better than having fun with words, the sillier sounding the better (with a name like his, this is just as well). Hence, Reggie is urged to attend “a pumice brainstorm”, while Reggie's love interest, Jasmine, suggests “there's a seminar on stubble on the 15th. Perhaps we should go?”
But when Reggie attempts to ingratiate himself with his wife's women's group by declaring “anyone who can bleed for five days without dying deserves a
bunch of flowers now and again”, you sense Nye's pen at work. Except it sounds more like a line he would have written for Gary in Men Behaving Badly.
Back in the 1970s, the portrayal of Reggie's fantasies – commonly involving sex,violence and the abuse of his fellow commuters – must have looked pretty high concept alongside more sedate sitcoms. But comedy, and office life, has moved on and it is hard to see what this “re-imagining” (as TV executives call it) of the original has to offer new viewers.
For those with affectionate memories of the prototype, comparisons are inevitable. For all the discussion of disposable razors at Groomtech, the sharpness of Nobbs' original script is missing. Much of the humour in both versions relies on Reggie's contempt for his colleagues, many of whom turn up this time round as close approximations of their 1970s counterparts. And one of the first things you realise watching the new show is how brilliant the casting was first time round.
Reggie's original underlings, the splendidly sycophantic Tony (“Great!”) Webster and David (“Super!”)
Harris-Jones have been usurped by a couple of caricatures whose slapstick antics only make you want to slap them – with a stick. Likewise, the homicidally incompetent Doc Morrisey is gone; in his place the company's Wellness Person, a weak send-up of holistic healers, who is intended to be irritating in an amusing way, but is just irritating in an irritating way.
The same applies to Jasmine whose obvious appeal is not unwelcome but lacks the subtlety of Sue Nicholls' prim, bespectacled secretary, Joan. When Jasmine enters Reggie's fantasies by crawling across his desk on all fours it is to less effect than when he fondly imagines Joan shedding her specs and tonguing an ice cream cornet.
Part of the problem for Clunes is out of his control. lt is a bit like getting a new stepfather; however likeable he is, he just isn't your dad. Reggie Perrin owes its life to its predecessor but will be haunted by it while there are those of us around to remember Rossiter's barely suppressed mania.
It's early days but this Reggie is a shadow of his former self. Clunes is a solid comic actor with genuine talent but he is not Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. RIP Leonard Rossiter.