The British sitcom The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin aired three seven-episode seasons between 1976 and ’79, each following the efforts of the title character—a frustrated middle-class businessman played by Leonard Rossiter—to find some meaning in his increasingly absurd life. Each season told a full story, broken up into half-hour installments generally built around one or two big comic setpieces. While ambitious in intent, Reginald Perrin was bound to the conventions of its place and time. It was very much a mid-’70s Britcom, complete with catchphrase-spouting supporting characters and laughter punctuating even the most banal line of dialogue or broadest bit of physical comedy. The harder the show tries to be funny, the less fun it is to watch.
Yet The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin wouldn’t be so well-remembered if it hadn’t overcome its genre limitations. The first season in particular is a marvel. As a man losing his grip on his sanity, Rossiter plays to the reality of the situation more than the silliness, and as the season rolls on—and as Reggie abandons his job and family, dons a series of disguises, attends his own funeral, then re-enters his old life as another person—the wackiness gives way to a surprisingly affecting study of a man who “had so much to say,” but couldn’t get anyone to hear it until he stopped being himself.
The series’ second season is more openly satirical, with the hero attempting to prove the pointlessness of commerce by opening a shop that sells useless things—and, perversely, becoming a huge success; the third season is pretty contrived, with Reggie and his wife founding a commune populated by all their old friends and former co-workers. Both have their moments, though they’re short on the existential ache that makes the first season such a classic. At its stiffest, Reginald Perrin is as mannered and claustrophobic as a radio play, dressed up with the forced whimsy of one of those late-’60s anti-establishment movies. But at its best, the show is a clear precursor to The Office’s mixture of satire and sentiment, and to I’m Alan Partridge’s depiction of a man unable to completely remake himself. And amid all the shuffling of scenarios and identities, The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin asks some pertinent questions about what makes us who we are. Or, as Reggie’s wife Elizabeth more simply puts it, “What does it matter what we call things?”
Key features: A bonus Christmas sketch and an hourlong retrospective on Rossiter’s career.