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David Nobbs: Beaufort Society speech

Following the death of comedy writer and Johnian David Nobbs, we republish a speech that he gave at a Beaufort Society meeting at St John’s College in 2010.

Comedy writer and Johnian David Nobbs, who came to St John’s as a student in 1955 to study Classics and English, died on 9 August at the age of 80. He was best known for creating the comedy series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The patron of the British Humanist Association also wrote 20 novels, the comedy drama series A Bit of a Do, and material for comedians such as The Two Ronnies, Les Dawson, and Ken Dodd.

David Nobbs was the guest speaker at the Beaufort Society meeting in October 2010, a society which was founded by St John’s in 2009 to recognise the contribution of those remembering the College in their will. In his speech, which was originally published in Johnian News in Lent Term 2011, Nobbs spoke of the honour he felt joining those who care so much about St John’s, and he also entertained members with some of his memories of his time in College. His speech is reprinted in full here:

 “In the Hall of St John’s, fifty four years ago, I made my first act of rebellion. I came in to dinner dressed entirely in yellow oilskins, but with a gown and tie.  I was asked to leave and I enquired where in the regulations yellow oilskins were banned. I won, but it was a pyrrhic victory.  I have never had such an uncomfortable meal, boiling and sweating.  I learnt about making sacrifices for one’s principles.

I decided to save my rebellions for my writing.  That was the great thing about Reggie Perrin.  He could say the things we want to say but can’t.  I particularly like the comment he made at the British Fruit Association Conference at Bilberry Hall.  He arrived late for lunch having had a few drinks to calm his nerves and one of the speakers told him ‘You missed a fascinating talk from Dr Hump.  His thesis was that fruit cannot be, and indeed should not be, more or indeed less competitive than the society for which and indeed by which it is produced.’  ‘Really?’ said Reggie.  ‘That is uninteresting.’  Haven’t we all wanted to say that many times in our lives?

One of my previous speaking engagements in Cambridge was at Whitemoor High Security Prison.  A prisoner wrote telling me he was a fan and that there were four other fans of my work in their Wednesday Club, which met weekly to discuss the arts.  I accepted his invitation to speak.  Flattery will get me anywhere.

I turned up half an hour early, as instructed, and was seriously frisked by security.  They told me to relax.  Then I was taken to a waiting room where a group of nervous speakers and instructors sat twitching.  I was told to relax. We were asked to wait for a few minutes while the sex offenders were taken to their activities.  They had to go separately or the other prisoners would tear them apart.  We were told to relax.  You can imagine how relaxed I was by then.

At last I was taken to a small room where there were sixteen prisoners and just one very slightly-built young female warder.  A middle-aged man approached me and said, ‘Hello.  I’m the fan that wrote to you. Bad news, I’m afraid.  The other four fans have been replaced by four Cypriots.’

The first question was ‘Why did they make such a bad film of Tom Wolfe’s marvellous book “The Bonfire of the Vanities”?  My reply wasn’t impressive.  ‘I’m afraid I haven’t read the book or seen the film.’  I could feel my credibility slipping away rapidly.

Maybe the second question would be easier?  It wasn’t.  It was ‘Which Cypriot novelists do you admire?’  I should have thought more quickly and said, ‘Constantinos Thessanopolos.  You haven’t read him?  Oh, you should.  He’s very up and coming.’  But I didn’t.  I said, ‘I’m afraid I haven’t read any Cypriot novelists.’  Already, I had no credibility left.

The next question seemed easier, on the face of it.  ‘Have you ever met Prunella Scales?’

‘Yes, she’s a lovely lady.’

‘I know.  That’s why I’m going to marry ’er.’

‘Her husband, Timothy West, might have something to say about that.’

‘I got plans to deal with ‘im.’

I struggled on.  Somehow the three hours passed, but it was terrible.  How can I describe how terrible it was?  Afterwards, my wife and I went to a Little Chef, and I enjoyed it.

I loved my time at Johns.  It was a privilege to be here.  I remember climbing in late one night, rather the worse for wear, and I met the Dean on the Bridge of Sighs, also rather the worse for wear.  ‘Nobbs,’ he said sternly, ‘you are sent down.  You are rusticated.  You will leave this morning.  You will leave on the milk train.’  ‘Yes, sir,’ I said. ‘Sorry, sir.’

The next afternoon I met him in Second Court.  ‘Ah. Nobbs. Thing’s going well?’ he asked.”