When you take the time to find out who has actually written the television, stage and radio comedy of the last fifty years it turns out to be a surprisingly short list. Great comedy writers are in short supply and the few that we have need to work overtime, as well as being hardworking and versatile. Even though making people laugh is a great skill and also very lucrative to television companies the writers can tend to be somewhat overlooked. Not this afternoon. Our hour and a quarter with David Nobbs at Scarborough library, part of the annual weekend literature festival, was an entertaining and honest gallop through his long writing career. He kept us laughing as well as giving us some sharp insights into his world. Alongside his television series he has also written for great comedy performers such as Frankie Howerd, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd and Ronnie Barker, and produced sixteen novels. On a good day he told us that he might write three and a half thousand words ( trust me that’s a lot) and when Leonard Rossiter insisted that he should write each of the Perrin series as a novel first, so that he could read it before it became a script, that was what happened.
As he looked back wryly at his successes and failures for us it became clear that it was sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. A proposal for a half hour Pebble Mill play was rejected as supposedly not dealing with contemporary issues and had it been accepted one of the great television comedies- The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin- might never have been written. One of the iconic comedy characters of the twentieth century would have been relegated to a single long forgotten afternoon of disposable entertainment. One of his favourite pieces of work, a series called Stalag Luft which starred Stephen Fry, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Geoffrey Palmer, was never the ratings success its writing deserved, thanks to the fact that week after week Leeds United and Chelsea failed to manage a result in the FA cup. It never had a chance to build an audience. A series about Spanish Ex pats sank without trace because it was too truthful for people to recognise. He explained that people sometimes prefer to see things that are the kind of truth they expect, even if it doesn’t actually match reality. A novel without a detective in it was rejected as the publisher claimed that there was no market for detective stories, even though detective novels were selling like hot cakes at the time. I could go on.
After listening to him for three quarters of an hour it was easy to see why he described comedy writing as a “knife edge” in the question and answer session after his talk. It’s a harsh world where you don’t always get your just rewards and your best efforts can be cut down by ignorance or bad luck, even if you have the kind of talent that deserves better. If an idea is picked up and put into production you need a great team alongside you and if any of them let you down it may still fail, however good your script is. Clearly you need a streak of granite running through your soul, not just a flair for words and timing, if you want to succeed as a comedy writer, along with endless patience and perseverance.
Thankfully David Nobbs has had his fair share of success in return for his hard work and talent, with the ups far outweighing the downs, and this is what will be remembered. There are not many people around who are able to do what he has done. While a flair for comedy is a gift, it is not a gift that lands easily in your lap, all ready for you to present it to the world beaming happily. There is a cost. I am glad that he has been prepared to work so hard to add just a little to the sum total of joy in the world. There is never enough of that and it is not a trivial achievement.