The obituaries for the late David Nobbs have all concentrated on the television series that he wrote, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79). This was inevitable. It’s the work of his with which most people in Britain around at the time will be familiar, and it bequeathed to posterity a number of catchphrases and classic comic situations, as well as a memorable title performance from Leonard Rossiter as the suburban rebel.
I never cared that much for the series, which overplayed the satire and especially the catchphrases (those poor actors who had nothing to say except ‘Great’ and ‘Super’), and had no one in the cast, bar Geoffrey Palmer, anywhere near Rossiter’s calibre. It made his miserable situation all the more miserable.
But there was so much more to David Nobbs. I’d recommend to anyone his series of ‘Henry Pratt’ novels, loosely autobiographical tales of growing up in a Yorkshire town. The first, Second from Last in the Sack Race (1983), aside from having a gem of a title, is an exquisitely observant comedy of class-ridden regional society in the mid-twentieth century – one of the funniest books that I know. The follow-up, Pratt of the Argus (1988), shows the accident-prone hero learning his trade as the reporter on a local paper, has more of Nobbs’ signature combination of poignancy and socially-realistic comedy. There are two other Pratt novels that I’ve not yet read, but I know that the whole series is greatly treasured by many.
Of his TV work, Fairly Secret Army (1984-86) was a spiky comedy of political paranoia, with Geoffrey Palmer playing a variation of his Perrin character, someone who creates his own paramilitary organisation to combat the rise in liberalism in the UK. And then there was A Bit of a Do, originally a 1986 novel, but achieving classic form as a television series in 1989. Set in a Yorkshire town and arranged around a series of social functions in which a working class and a middle class family awkwardly clash, it starred David Jason and the quite magnificent Gwen Taylor in immaculately observed situations that veered from cheerful character comedy to painful tragedy without ever losing control. I was so struck by assured rightness of the production, and though rather mysteriously it has not been repeated on UK TV for long time, it can be readily found on DVD.
The same cannot be said for what, to my mind, was David Nobbs’s greatest work, Cupid’s Darts. I can’t remember how or why I came to see it. It was broadcast on Yorkshire Television in 1981, as part of a series entitled Plays for Pleasure (those were the days when TV still liked to think of its one-off dramas as plays). I have a vague memory that it was broadcast during the afternoon. It was at a time when I rarely watched TV, so who knows why I chose to see it. It’s the tale of the meeting on a train between a lonely professor of philosophy (played by Robin Bailey) and a darts groupie of all things, played by a young Leslie Ash. As I’ve not seen it in thirty-four years, it’s hard to say precisely what appealed, but I still remember that their unlikely romance was handled credibly and touchingly, that Ash gave a delightful, effervescent performance, and that the outcome was skilfully managed so that both parties learned something of life from each other. Halliwell’s Television Companion took note of it, and called it “funny, endearing and optimistic”. To me at the time it stood out as something exceptional, something wise, observant and truthful, something that was televisually excellent. And now it is gone.
Well, it’s not lost as such – it’ll be somewhere in the bowels of the ITV archives, and there’s a copy at the British Film Institute. But it’s as good as lost. It you want to read any David Nobbs novel, you can order it from your local library (if you still have one), or find it for purchase online. You can find the novel Cupid’s Dart that Nobbs wrote based on the TV play. You can find his better-known Perrin and Pratt works. But if you want to do the simple thing of watching an old TV play to see if it is as good as it once seemed to be, or simply because you like David Nobbs’s work, you can’t. It’s not on the ephemeral archive that is YouTube. I can’t even find a still to illustrate it.
We all know about television programmes which are lost because someone wiped the tape or because they were live and were never recorded in the first place. That’s sad, but that’s just the way it is. Not everything survives. But when a programme exists and you can’t see it, that’s stupid.
I’ve complained about disappearing television archives on this site before now, and proposed some courses of action. It’s just plain wrong. I should be able to get hold of a copy of a television programme in the same way as I can a book – either locally accessible in a library, or available for purchase. Promised innovations such as BBC Store, opening up BBC archival programmes for purchase later this year, may start to make that vision a partial reality, but the Store will be for selected programmes only, heavily biased towards current output, and it’ll be some time before we ever get Yorkshire TV Store.
I might hope for a repeat on TV, though any Nobbs tribute being planned is likely to stop at yet another showing of the Perrin series. Meanwhile a gem of a piece lies unseen, kept alive only by fading memories. This is not right. It serves no one’s interests, and just shows how skewed our culture is towards the book. Any book is available to any person, one way or another. We have legal provisions and a commercial system designed to cater for this. For TV you are condemned to the current and to the selected archival few. This situation has to change.