The British Humanist Association (BHA) is deeply saddened to hear of the death of its Patron, the writer David Nobbs. Nobbs was one of Britain’s most prolific comedy writers, and was best known for creating the iconic character of Reginald Perrin.
Born in Orpington in 1935, Nobbs had known from early on that he wanted to earn a living as a writer. He began his career as a reporter for the Sheffield Star, before getting his first break in comedy as a writer for the satirical show That Was The Week, That Was, hosted by David Frost. In a career spanning six decades, Nobbs went on to write 20 novels and wrote for some of Britain’s leading comedy figures, his work spanning multiple TV and radio shows. He contributed to The Frost Report and The Two Ronnies, and provided material for comedians including Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd and Dick Emery.
He will likely remain best known for his Reginald Perrin novels, which told the story of a man living an escapist fantasy in response to the mundanity of his daily commute. The novels were turned into a TV series starring Leonard Rossiter, before being later revived in a contemporary version starring Martin Clunes.
Nobbs relayed in a 2010 Observer that how his mother’s death had profoundly changed his attitude towards life and death, leading him to declare himself humanist and become a member of the BHA. Describing in moving detail his appreciation for his mother’s happy and fulfilling life, which culminated in a peaceful death, Nobbs explained, ‘I no longer fear the moment when I will cease to exist, I no longer resent my mortality, I no longer worry about the brevity of life.’ Nobbs saw the rejection of religion as something more than merely the loss of faith, but the discovery of faith of a different kind – one in people rather than deities.
As a Patron of the BHA, Nobbs was eager to get involved with its work for a secular state and a fairer society, and joined in with several of its high-profile campaigns. In 2010, he was one of 54 public figures to sign a BHA-organised open letter protesting a state-funded visit from the Pope, and in 2014 he was one of over 100 high-profile individuals to challenge the Prime Minister’s divisive claims that Britain was a ‘Christian country’.
As Nobbs’ career progressed, humanist themes became increasingly central to his work. In his own words, his later novels Obstacles to Young Love (2010) and It Had to be You (2011) were ‘humanist books as well as humorous ones’. While It Had to Be You (originally written under the working title Life After Deborah) deals primarily with difficulty of losing a loved one, Obstacles to Young Love sought to address the question of whether it is ‘possible to have a fulfilling and meaningful life without religious faith’.
Nobbs had in fact addressed the very same question elsewhere, providing moving elucidations of the meaning to be found in the acknowledgement that we have only one life to live. He became one of Humanism’s most articulate exponents, embodying his own sentiment that ‘humanists find their own faiths, values and morals, and express them in individual ways. They never chant in unison, and that is their strength.’
It was in the afterword for the BHA’s Funerals without God that Nobbs wrote, ‘One cannot think of a humanist death without thinking about the significance of a humanist life.’ The legacy of comic brilliance and acutely humane writing that Nobbs has left behind leave those words in no doubt.
Commenting on the author’s death, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘David Nobbs had a special talent and we were all honoured to have worked with him over his years as a Patron of the BHA. He was a British humourist in the best tradition: strong characters, warm wit, great fun, and deep understanding of human frailty. His writing was always sharp and acutely aware of what made people tick. David was a passionate individualist – he believed that meaning was something we were all charged with creating in our own lives – and he was a creator of memorable characters. At the same time, he wrote beautiful stories which captured the essence of the human experience, tapping into the emotions and experiences we all share. His books and scripts got to the heart of what it is that makes us human.’
Nobbs’ death will be commemorated with a humanist funeral, and he is survived by his wife, Susan, four stepchildren, eight step-grandchildren and two step-great-grandchildren.