Sunday, May 3, 2009

British Comedy, Midlife Madness

By David Luhrssen
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Reginald Perrin is married and middle-aged, a corporate manager and bored out of his mind, literally out of his mind. Like an airplane on autopilot, he is losing altitude and heading for a crash.

The 1970s British TV comedy, “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,” is a remarkably funny look at one man’s mid-life crisis. The four-disc DVD will be out on May 12. As played by Leonard Rossiter (who appeared in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and 2001), Perrin is an awkward stick of a man who trudges to the commuter train Monday-Friday, always arriving at work exactly 11 minutes late (vagaries of British Rail). His boss is a pompous self-made nitwit and his self-serving, younger colleagues pose an implicit threat to his job.

At work, Perrin’s mind drifts into sexual daydreams with his secretary and revenge fantasies against his boss. At home, he barely hears his wife, whose speech might as well be white noise in his ear. Perrin regards his adult children as disappointments, the grandkids as whiney annoyances and the in-laws as sponges. He is about to give a speech to the British Fruit Association on “the rise of industrial desserts in a competitive society.” Episode by episode, Perrin’s grip on the situation weakens. He is going mad.

Unlike most American situation comedies, “Reginald Perrin” had a plot that unfolded over the course of its four-year run. Perrin did what many men in his position only dream of: eventually he faked his own suicide and disappeared into another life. But as is usually the case, escaping who you are is harder than escaping the responsibilities of what you do. The series left an impression in the UK. This fall the BBC will air a new version of “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,” starring Martin Clunes (Shakespeare in Love) in the title role.

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