David Nobbs got where he is today thanks to a mixture of luck, graft and an ear for a winning catchphrase, as he tells CHARLES HUTCHINSON...

DAVID Nobbs, novelist, television comedy writer and humour supplier to the stars, is a lucky fellow but a hard-working one too.

"I sit at my desk, looking out over the deserted valley," he writes, in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, I Didn't Get Where I Am Today.... "I stare at a blank sheet of paper. I'm free to put any words I choose on this paper. Nobody can stop me. The whole world is mine to rearrange. And the amazing thing is, people pay me to do this. It can't be true. It must be a dream. Surely I didn't really get where I am today?"

He is quoting his best-known phrase, issued from the mouth of John Barron's acerbic boss C.J. in the capitalist satire The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin, the BBC sitcom of 1976-1979 vintage for which Nobbs is still best known.

Mind you, David Nobbs might never have got where he is today - contented at 68, happy living near Harrogate for nine years with his Yorkshire wife Susan, and writing more fruitfully than ever, he believes. Luck first came into play in his London childhood in the Second World War.

He had, he says, a quiet war - until 1944. The very last doodlebug, the last bomb to fall in Britain during the war, landed in the next street, bringing down most of David's bedroom ceiling on top of him. His injuries? "It hurt one of my thumbs," he recalls.

Lucky? "That has to be luck rather than design, and there is a lot of luck to life," he says. So, was it luck that when he rang the BBC with a gag for the satirical That Was The Week That Was, he got through to David Frost, who sent a taxi promptly to his flat to collect it? Maybe.

Then again, David capitalised on his chance by going on to write for The Two Ronnies, John Cleese, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Jimmy Tarbuck, Billy Connolly, Les Dawson and more besides. This, after all, was the man who Peter Cook later told him had been his hero in Cambridge days.

Has chance played its hand in the writing of his autobiography?

"Everything is chance to some extent. Someone suggested I should do it: the area sales rep said 'You could do well with an autobiography' as we were promoting my last novel, Going Gently," says David, as post-lunch coffee arrived. "It was something I'd never really thought about writing but it has gone really well."

The book carries a subtitle A Life in Television, Books and Other Comedies. "I'm always told people don't know my name but they know what I've done," says David. "People can be completely blank until I say what I've written". Not only Perrin but the Fairly Secret Army, A Bit Of A Do and Gentleman's Relish television series, the Henry Pratt novels and That Was The Week That Was scripts too.

"I think the fact that people don't recognise you every time you go into a restaurant is marvellous," he says. "For me, to be someone as familiar as David Jason would be absolutely horrendous."

Born in Kent, educated at Marlborough and Cambridge, he endured National Service as "one of Britain's most reluctant soldiers", then tried his hand at journalism on the Sheffield Star. "Journalism just didn't suit my temperament really: I always wanted to be funny, and there wasn't much scope for that in reporting, but I did learn to be concise," he recalls. "If you don't want the sub-editors to get at it, make it short in the first place."

Instead, comic writing was his forte, with a gift for crisp observation that has prompted The Times to say: "No writer save Evelyn Waugh is so brutally explicit with dialogue."

He smiles at the quote, then offers advice to burgeoning writers. "I do always say to people: listen, listen, listen. I can't stop myself from hearing conversations - and sometimes I do write things down," says David.

In conversation, you sense that he is naturally reserved. "Writing an autobiography is a very self-centred process, but I did have problems with that as I was brought up in a rather puritan tradition where you didn't blow your own trumpet and it was bad form to do so," he says.

"After the first draft, my editor suggested I was being too reticent about certain things, like the death of my parents, the end of my first marriage, things that were very delicate to write about, but I was glad when it was done."

Indeed, the writing has been cathartic. Maybe he knows himself better now. "To a certain extent, yes. I actually think it has freed me from a sense of disappointment. Previously I felt I hadn't achieved a lot, but when I started writing, I came to realise what I had done, and that has freed me for the future."

That future? There will be more writing, much more: definitely a travel book from his diary of a trip to Peru; hopefully a new TV series set in a Yorkshire village - "I'm working on it, that's all I can say" - and a novel whose content he refuses to disclose to anybody because "it might be nicked, which is something I've never felt before".

"It's a good feeling being on an upward curve at 68," says David, who has one outstanding writing wish. "I would quite like to write a real blockbuster play. It's lovely to hear laughter in the theatre."

May that wish come true, whether by luck or graft.

I Didn't Get Where I Am Today, by David Nobbs, published by William Heinemann, hardback, £17.99.

Updated: 09:33 Wednesday, May 21, 2003