The following speech was given by novelist and writer Jonathan Coe at the Writers’ Guild Awards ceremony, 18 January 2016
Last August saw the death of David Nobbs (above), who, over a period of more than two decades, held many positions in the Writers’ Guild, including President. His death came quickly, after a short illness, at the age of 80. I was in France when it happened, and found out in the 21st-century way, via Twitter. An unusual number of people in my timeline were Tweeting quotations from his work and at first all I thought was, “That’s nice – people are discussing David”. It was only after a few seconds that the awful truth sank in, the realisation that there was a reason – the usual reason – for all this sudden attention.
It’s appropriate that I should be speaking about him here tonight, because I first met David at a Writers’ Guild Awards dinner, in 1994. I had just published an effusive review of his novel The Cucumber Man, which culminated in the sentence: “I think he is probably our finest post-war comic novelist.” It was a bold claim to make, and David never seemed particularly pleased that I’d made it. Over the years, I came to the conclusion that it was the word ‘probably’ he objected to. Not at all. He finally admitted to me, about five years ago, that the word he didn’t like was ‘comic’. He didn’t want to be described as a comic novelist, because he felt it diminished him. He thought of himself as a novelist, pure and simple.
But in fact, there was nothing simple about David’s writing career. He was a unique and remarkable writer because he excelled in two fields which are sometimes considered incompatible. He wrote for television, and he wrote for the printed page, and he wrote for both with equal brilliance. Even if the whole country didn’t know his name, the whole country certainly knew his greatest creation: Reginald Iolanthe Perrin, the 1970s’ frustrated, suburban Everyman, so memorably incarnated on television by Leonard Rossiter, but already a vividly realised character within the pages of David’s novel, The Death of Reginald Perrin, which had introduced him a couple of years earlier.
The making of that iconic TV show was the moment, at the age of 40 or so, when David’s two writing worlds began to converge. Up until that point, he had kept them separate. Having started as a journalist for the Sheffield Star and other papers, in the 1960s he became one of the country’s leading comedy writers, with sketches for TW3 and The Frost Report, for Frankie Howerd, Ken Dodd and Les Dawson, and, most famously, for The Two Ronnies. And he published three fine, well reviewed novels. Although the two kinds of writing ran on parallel lines at first, what united them, made them recognisably the work of the same person, was not just their sense of comedy but their sense of the absurd. David was a huge admirer of N F Simpson and the early Beckett. He believed that life only made sense if you realised that it was fundamentally nonsensical. This awareness runs through all the Reginald Perrin stories, but it was also a recurring motif in his life. I don’t believe that more absurd things happened to David than anybody else, but he had a keener eye for them than anyone I’ve met. Here, for instance, from his autobiography, is one of my favourite David stories, one he never tired of repeating. It concerns a film producer called Dennis Lewiston, who was taking him out to lunch to discuss the film rights to his first novel:
“Dennis told me that he was a great friend of Lynn Redgrave, and might well be able to persuade her to take the lead role. I pointed out, somewhat diffidently, through my coq au vin, that the lead role was a man. Dennis said that we could change his sex. I struggled with a recalcitrant shallot and pointed out that he had a sexual relationship with his landlady. Dennis said that we could make it a landlord. I mumbled through a wodge of mashed potato that the landlady had sexual feelings for the two airmen upstairs. Dennis said we could make them Wrens. He was prepared to change the sex of everyone in the book because he knew Lynn Redgrave.”
After the success of Reginald Perrin, David came into his prime. He wrote a A Bit Of A Do, which explored family relationships through a series of social gatherings in a Yorkshire town, and Second From Last in the Sack Race, the first of his glorious novels about Henry Pratt, his awkward, insecure alter ego. Then there was Going Gently, his surprising but totally successful change of direction, a sweeping panorama of the 20th century, told from the perspective of an elderly Welsh matriarch, looking back on her life on the eve of her 100th birthday. A more overtly serious and emotional book from David, but still, as always, full of laughter. Like the sculptor who specialises in male nudes, but isn’t actually very good at them because he can’t do testicles. The reason: “I just can’t get the hang of them.”
As he entered his 70s, David did not slow down. He did find it harder to get television work commissioned. There was the remake of Reginald Perrin, with Martin Clunes, which gave him great pleasure, but otherwise commissioning editors tended to tell him that his ideas, in the age of Happy Valley and The Fall, were “too gentle”. He wrote for radio, instead, with his long running series The Maltby Collection, and his masterly eight-part adaptation of my own novel, What a Carve Up!, which he improved with dozens of new jokes. And, remarkably, he published no fewer than six novels in his 70s – an amazing burst of late creativity, which included Obstacles to Young Love and It Had To Be You, in which he explores the philosophy of Humanism which had become so important to him. Another facet of his busy, energetic life at this time, besides his tireless mentoring of younger writers, was becoming a Patron of the British Humanist Association.
At the same time, his reputation as a novelist was starting to spread abroad. In the last few years, Italian and Spanish editions of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin have appeared, and in those countries, unburdened by memories of the TV show, the book has come to be seen for what it really is: one of the great English novels of the 1970s. And the last time I saw David, in fact, was in Spain, where we took part in a festival in Barcelona, and were placed on stage together in a set designed to look like a commuter train, at 11 o’clock at night, and instructed to have a conversation about the British comic tradition, in front of an audience of bemused young Spaniards who were really there to see the pop star who was going to be on even later than us. An experience he found bizarre but also strangely satisfying.
In his last few days, with his beloved wife Susan by his side, David may have been unable to speak, but I like to think that silently, he was still cracking jokes, smiling wryly at the idea of death as life’s ultimate absurdity. He would certainly not have been afraid of it. We’re talking about a man, after all, who’d suffered a seizure in a crowded restaurant a couple of years earlier. Paramedics were summoned, and he told me afterwards that he’d really thought he was about to die. And yet, to David, it was a source of pride – professional pride, almost – that still, while being carried out on a stretcher past a table full of concerned diners, he found the energy to look up and say: “One word of advice – don’t have the fish.”
Jonathan Coe is an award-winning novelist, biographer, critic and scriptwriter. He is also the author of short stories, many essays and a wide range of journalism.