He didn’t get where he is today by travelling steerage. David Nobbs, creator of Reginald Perrin and a host of other memorable comedy characters, is a big fan of cruising – though I wouldn’t have guessed it from the first message from him that I spotted on Twitter.
“On the cruise we saw some amazing ruins. In fact I helped two of them in to dinner,” he wrote during a trip to the Mediterranean with P&O. And not everything went according to plan when travelling, if another message was to be believed. “Manana still rules in Spain. I ordered a beer in Cadiz and got served it in Barcelona.”
But his enthusiasm for life aboard ship became apparent when I contacted him to talk about cruises.
“It’s addictive,” he told me. “I keep thinking it’s time I took a motoring holiday or spent some time in Britain and then I find I’m on another cruise. When I get home I feel flat and start looking through the brochures.”
I have often thought that it’s pretty near possible to switch off the brain when on a cruise, because everything is organised for you – if you want it to be. So I was in complete agreement when the 75-year-old author added: “I get quite institutionalised on cruises. It’s like being in hospital without the illnesses and with proper food.”
Nowadays he is usually hired to entertain other passengers on board, but he started off cruising entirely for pleasure, with his wife Susan and sometimes with friends on Swan Hellenic’s Minerva and Minerva 2.
“These were cultural cruises with good tours and great lecturers. They were really enjoyable.”
He also cruised with some American friends on Grand Princess from Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean. “We dreaded the size of the ship, but although the itinerary was rather dull we enjoyed it, and once on board the ship the size didn’t seem to matter. It was like being in a small resort and wandering around at night deciding which restaurant to eat in.
“Also, we found the American passengers more universally likeable and well-behaved than British ones.”
Even a suspected heart attack which led to him being put ashore in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2005, and the fact that it was two weeks before he could get home did not put him off, and he started taking up speaking engagements on ships.
“My first lecturing cruise was on Saga Rose, the next on a Thomson ship, and the rest have been with P & O. I talk light-heartedly about my career and am getting pretty good at it with practice,” he said with customary modesty.
“You get a huge variety of people on board and there are a few whom you hope won’t go ashore to let the side down, but there are always lots of nice people and of course those are the ones who come to hear me. It’s truly rewarding to be told how much pleasure I have given and I can honestly say that I have never found the public intrusive or in any way a nuisance, quite the reverse.
“Last year on Artemis we missed two ports, one due to a passenger’s illness and one because high winds prevented us going ashore on tenders at Corsica. They asked me to do two extra talks, and settled for an interview with the cruise director and a question and answer session with the public. I also did The Weakest Link and was soon chucked off.
“Also on Artemis I ran a book club, choosing The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and this year I did a book club again on Arcadia, choosing Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. I am not entirely at ease doing this, audiences are far smaller than for my talks, but those who do take part say they thoroughly enjoy them.”
David has also been back at sea with Swan Hellenic this year “for our first pleasure cruise in five years.” He chose not to take part in the writing course held on board, even though it offered a £1,000 prize for the best piece written by a passenger.
“It would have been too shaming if I hadn’t won, after 47 years of professional writing,” he said, although surely the real reason was that he wanted to give the others a chance.
There is, however, one thing which has troubled him about cruising, and I have to say it sounds like a serious problem.
“The only real drawback is that for the last two years we have docked at Marseille and not been allowed off by the French because we are classified as crew and don’t have Seamen’s Discharge Books.”
I can’t imagine what the authorities are looking for. And it’s a pleasure to report that Nobbs got his own back by refusing to buy French wines.
Reginald Perrin would be proud of him.
CHOCOLATE-FLAVOURED TALES FROM THE SEA