Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Fall and Rise of the Suburban Sit Com

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was one of the darkest sit-coms ever to appear on British TV. Whilst its new remake has a depressing pointlessness to it, the original still has a strange and surreal brilliance. Watch an episode
of it today and it is clearly still very funny. It also serves as a fascinating document about the suburban landscape, which it captures in a way that is both visual and structural.

Like suburbia the shows structure was deliberately repetitive and predictable. Each episode would begin with a sequence where Reggie would leave his house and walk through the suburban streets to the train station. This walk was almost identical each time except for minor comic deviations that arrived - like the landmarks of the route that he would take - right on cue. A large part of the humour came from the slightly heart breaking predictability of this routine. Locked into the same pattern day in day out, Reggie's minor transgressions became ever more bizarre and desperate.

The estate that Reginald Perrin lived on with its streets named hopefully after famous English poets, and the vaguely deco red brick office of the fabulously dowdy Sunshine Deserts where he worked, are all depicted with deadpan pathos. Although seemingly the same each week they actually change to give a series of clues as to the character's mental deterioration. The interiors are equally repetitive and loaded with painful over-familiarity, from the minor victories against his fellow commuters in the morning train carriage to his attempts to avoid sitting in his bosses farting chairs.

Perrin's rejection of suburbia is complex and never entirely resolved one way or the other. After faking a suicide driven by his desperate boredom he starts a new life as an entrepreneur selling useless products. His Grot Shops are a huge success though and he ends up rejecting this new enterprise too. Its success has rendered it as hollow and emptily aspirational as his previous life. Following this he and his wife set up a therapy centre cum commune in their original house.

This invasion of the family home is quite significant and genuinely alters its relationship to the suburban context. The vaguely hippy, counter cultural ideas behind the commune completely transform the classic sit-com family house. In this sense the show's theme was very similar to that of The Goode Life, another 1970's sit com based around a rejection of suburban life. In this show Tom and Barbara Goode - two well to do suburbanites -
decide to quit their jobs and attempt to live self-sufficiently. Their experiment transforms the immaculate lawn of the suburban home into a miniature working farm. Like Reggie Perrin though, they are not natural rebels and most of the humour comes from their obvious suppressed longing to return to the comforts of their former lifestyle.

In one of the most telling episodes a genuine hippie comes on a pilgrimage to visit Tom and Barbara's experiment in sustainability. But he has fundamentally misjudged their radicalism and they are bewildered by this hardcore acolyte. Clearly their rejection of suburban norms is partial at best and any wholesale embracing of a plausible alternative lifestyle is played for nervous laughs.

Similarly Reggie Perrin's daydreams about romantic trysts with his secretary usually involve the two of them making out on his office desk in the middle of a meadow. His esca
pe fantasies are ultimately puerile and absurd and never really allow him to escape all that far at all.

Both Reginald Perrin and The Goode Life were made in the 1970's and early '80's and mined the incompatibility of suburbia's ultra conformity with the ideas thrown up by the late '60's. The interesting thing from an architectural point of view though is how the uniformity and spatial repetition of suburbia becomes part of the joke. To some extent most sit-coms rely on a small number of locations where the spatial arrangement becomes important in establishing strict routines for the characters. The importance of this spatial choreography is captured amusingly in Dan Meth's diagrams of
sit com houses.

These set arrangements are vital in establishing the routine against which the action unfolds.
The difference in Reggie Perrin - and one of the reasons why it is still such a brilliant piece of satire - is the way that this familiarity is subtly altered as the series progresses. The letters on the Sunshine Deserts factory slowly fall off. The grim routine of entering his bosses office becomes an elaborate game. After his suicide Reggie returns in disguise and proceeds to live an almost identical life to his previous one. Any attempt to move on or affect meaningful change seems doomed to failure. Unlike the characters in most sit-coms Perrin tries desperately to escape his situation. In some ways he rebels against the structure of the situation comedy itself.

The most telling example of this is in the titling of the episodes. These are fractionally different each week and take the form of Reggie's excuse for being late when he arrives in the office each day. The excuses become ever more absurd as the series goes on but ultimately remain utterly rooted in routine. Their flights of fantasy only serve to reinforce his total inability to escape. In their repetition lies an acute satire of suburbia itself. Always the same but obsessed by minute displays of individuality and difference.

Ep.1 "Eleven minutes late, staff difficulties, Hampton Wick."
Ep.1 "Eleven minutes late, signal failure at Vauxhall."
Ep.1 "Eleven minutes late, staff shortages, Nine Elms."
Ep.1 "Eleven minutes late, derailment of container truck, Raynes Park."
Ep.1 "Eleven minutes late, seasonal manpower shortages, Clapham Junction."
Ep.2 "Eleven minutes late, defective junction box, New Malden."
Ep.4 "Eleven minutes late, overheated axle at Berrylands."
Ep.4 "Eleven minutes late, defective axle at Wandsworth."
Ep.5 "Eleven minutes late, somebody had stolen the lines at Surbiton."
Ep.6 "Twenty-two minutes late, black ice at Norbiton."
Ep.7 "Twenty-two minutes late, obstacles on the line at Berrylands."
Ep.8 "Twenty-two minutes late, badger ate a junction box at New Malden."
Ep.9 "Twenty-two minutes late, fed up by train delays, came by bike. Slow puncture at Peckham."
Ep.10 "Twenty-two minutes late, escaped puma, Chessington North."

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