From a Star writer to writing for the stars

Television screenwriter, creator of Reggie Perrin, David Nobbs, is pictured at his North Yorkshire home near Harrogate.  picture mike cowling jan 21 2009
Television screenwriter, creator of Reggie Perrin, David Nobbs, is pictured at his North Yorkshire home near Harrogate. picture mike cowling jan 21 2009
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The creator of Reggie Perrin and A Bit of a Do is looking forward to returning to South Yorkshire 53 years after he worked here.

Comedy writer, broadcaster and novellist David Nobbs worked as a reporter at The Star for 18 months in Rotherham and Sheffield before he departed for London.

He will be recalling his time here and his successful TV career in a one-man show, An Evening With David Nobbs, which comes to Rotherham next week.

David said: “I left The Star in 1960. I went off to starve on the basis of getting one comedy sketch in a West End review. I thought I could make my living as a writer. Reporting just wasn’t my thing.”

That becomes obvious from some of the stories he tells. David still squirms about having to pose as a talent spotter for Hughie Green for a story and says he couldn’t face going into the city centre for weeks.

Walking to his digs in Burngreave Road one night, he noticed police cars outside a pub but didn’t bother to investigate. The Daily Express headline for that story was ‘six shot dead in Sheffield Harlem’. “I had the sense not to tell them in the office,” he said.

The legendary Star editor Sir Gordon Linacre moved him to the paper’s Rotherham office, claiming it was a promotion as fewer people worked there than Sheffield. His resignation later on was received by Sir Gordon with good wishes but not much regret.

While in Sheffield David beavered away at night, writing his first novel, The Itinerant Lodger, about living in ‘digs’. The former public schoolboy fondly remembers meals of cow heel and brawn in Sheffield digs.

His time at The Star helped to inspire his Pratt of the Argus series of novels.

David said: “I like Sheffield, I like the people, they’re nice kindly people.”

After three tough years in London, he became a regular contributor to breakthrough TV satire show That Was The Week That Was. He remembers offering two sketches a week to producer Ned Sherrin, who usually said he didn’t like the idea that actually got on screen.

That was when he first came across stars like Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, who he later wrote for.

David also teamed up in London with another former Star reporter, Tales of a Long Room writer Peter Tinniswood. They became good friends and did some writing together but the partnership didn’t work.

Solo success began with writing for The Two Ronnies, Les Dawson and other TV comedy shows.

His most famous Two Ronnies sketches were the mispronunciation one for Ronnie Barker and another Monty Python-like favourite, about the Complete Rook restaurant.

He said: “Ronnie Corbett is a joy to work with. I ghosted a book for him and he’s so honest he eventually put my name on it!

“Working with Les Dawson was tremendous fun. He was just as funny offstage as on.”

They used to record Les’s show at the YTV studios in Leeds. “I got close to him. We spent the evenings together and had some great fun.”

Then the BBC decided to make his book, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, into a series.

The famous scenes where Perrin takes the 8.16 train from Surbiton were inspired by David’s schooldays.

“When I was nine to 13 I did get the 8.16 train from Surbiton to school every day. The image must have stuck with me, all those people in suits and bowler hats packed on a train. I didn’t know I was ever going to write about it.”

He added: “The BBC asked me if I had anyone in mind for Reggie. I said Ronnie Barker. They said, ‘terrific, Leonard Rossiter it is’. Ronnie Barker had got three series already, they didn’t want another one. Leonard had just starred in Rising Damp.”

He was more than happy with Leonard Rossiter in the role, who said he respected the writing.

David added: “The thing has been my lifeline. For some reason there’s been an increase in sales of DVDs of the original series.

“We’re talking 40 years, fully – it’s extraordinary.”

At nearly 80, David is enjoying embarking on his first-ever tour, inspired by a BBC radio series he did called With Nobbs On.

He loves Yorkshire so much that he lives in Harrogate now and is working on his 20th novel, set in a “crappy Pennines town” called Potherthwaite.

An Evening with David Nobbs comes to the Rotherham college of Arts and Technology theatre next Thursday. Box office: 01709 722 881.