Friday Night Dinner creator Robert Popper: 'Paul Ritter was the greatest actor I've ever met'
Popper reflects on wrapping up his Channel 4 sitcom after 10 years, the genius of Paul Ritter and the one "really funny" moment that never found its way into the series.
There was still a question mark hanging over the future of Friday Night Dinner when Channel 4's relentlessly energetic, unashamedly zany sitcom aired its sixth series in the early part of 2020, but even before the sad passing of star Paul Ritter – who provided hours of mirth as the Goodman family's eccentric dad, Martin – the final episode that went out in May 2020 felt like a perfect finish, with brothers Jonny (Tom Rosenthal) and Adam (Simon Bird) both revealing that they were set to become fathers themselves, much to the delight of their mum Jackie (Tamsin Greig) and much to their own consternation ("We're going to be dads." "I know." "Terrible dads." "Obviously terrible dads.").
The series' end has since been confirmed, but it's not disappearing from our screens just yet – Channel 4 will be bidding farewell to the Goodmans and their oddball neighbour Jim (Mark Heap) with a repeat showing of fans' favourite episodes, plus a documentary special - Friday Night Dinner: 10 Years And a Lovely Bit of Squirrel - featuring outtakes, tributes from famous fans and contributions from crew and cast, including the late Paul Ritter.
It's a warm, affectionate and touching send-off for the show created by award-winning writer Robert Popper, who - as any Friday Night Dinner fan will know - drew on his own family as inspiration for the colourful cast of characters.
Popper spoke to RadioTimes.com ahead of the special's broadcast about bringing Friday Night Dinner to an end after a decade on screen, the genius of Paul Ritter, and the one moment he never managed to write into the series. (Clue: it involves cattle.)
As you say yourself in the documentary, every week Friday Night Dinner is the same but different – does that make writing the show easier or harder, because you have a template to work with but you have to keep it fresh?
I suppose I wanted it to be... different things happen each week, but you have regular rhythms and regular things that do occur naturally, like when you go around to visit your family, the same sort of things get said, the same sort things happen. So sometimes it was like, 'Oh God, how am I going to fill 25 minutes of screen time with stuff happening in a house? Why set it in a house?' – so that was always hard. But then it was like, no, actually, those boundaries are really good, because it sort of forces you to focus on, 'Well, OK, I can only do it in this house, what can I do?' as opposed to 'anything can happen' which is probably harder, actually. So I was pleased to have that structure.
Do you think that's part of the reason why the show had such longevity? Because there is a template to follow?
Maybe. You never really know. I was really shocked that it went on so long, and that it ended up being popular. I think... it's about family, so there's an 'in' straightaway – everyone's got a family, or most people do, and you can relate to that. And I think also part of it might be the fact that it is very detailed and very specific. It's about a specific family and it's not general. I think that actually makes it more general. It means people can somehow relate to it more, because everyone's family is insane in its own way.
The Goodmans were based on your own family, but fans often say they recognise elements of their own family in the characters – did the universality of that surprise you?
Yeah, it really did, because it was always this 'quirky little show'. I remember Channel 4 saying 'It's going to be a quiet, small, little show' and I said, 'No, it's gonna be a loud show, people talk fast, stuff is gonna happen... don't worry!' – because they hadn't really done a family show before in comedy. Channel 4 didn't seem like the place for shows about family at the time, so it was hard to get the show on TV. And then just it grew and grew, slowly, and then around series five, suddenly people were getting tattoos of Jim! I think it took people time to get used to the family and think, 'OK, I like this family now.'
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Starting out, you knew it was a show about a family but did you have a sense that it'd appeal to that family audience, from young to old?
Not really. I was very surprised when people started saying, 'I watch it with my family' or 'my kids watch it'. I used to script-edit The Inbetweeners and Iain Morris, who co-wrote The Inbetweeners, we still have a shared laugh that we've written 'a children's programme' because people say, 'Oh, my kids love it – they're six and seven.' So I didn't ever write Friday Night Dinner for them [a young audience] but it's great that they watch it.
The format of Friday Night Dinner is - to a certain extent - fixed, and the dialogue is so rapid fire... it's almost like a science the way the scenes play out. Did you have to be quite strict about sticking to the scripts and cutting any improvisation?
So we write the scripts and then we go through loads and loads of drafts, we do a big read through, then we rehearse for like a week or so, an episode a day. And so we'll sit and read it and little changes will come up or people suggest things and then we'll put it on its feet and we'll rehearse it in a room. And someone might come up with a better gag and we'll change it, but then the script is kind of locked. Once we're filming, unless something really isn't working, it's 'those are the lines' and there's a certain rhythm and musicality to it, and lines kind of have to be said a certain way.
The cast knew, reading the script, the musicality of it straight away – how it sounds, how it flows, the speed. Most [half-hour] scripts are 30 pages, Friday Night Dinner scripts are 50 pages long. And when we edit them, they're a little actually even a bit short for TV. For Channel Four. It's just because it's so fast.
You mention in the documentary entire conversations your family had that found their way into the show – how much of Friday Night Dinner was lifted from real life?
Early on, quite a lot. You think 'oh, I want to put all these funny things in', and then gradually you start running out! Although my dad was always good, because he just says mad things. So they would get written down a lot. Stuff he'd say generally went in, so that was always good.
Did your family catch on? 'Don't put that in Friday Night Dinner!'
Yeah, they would actually say that! My Mum would say that. 'You're not gonna put that in Friday Night Dinner, are you?' and I would say, 'Yep!'.
How else do you feel the show evolved from its beginnings to where it ended up?
I know that when we did the pilot, which ended up being series one, episode two... watching it back Mark Heap's character, Jim, was quite different. I didn't even realise, but we watched it all back recently and he was doing a much, much straighter Jim – much less nervy, his voice was different. So that changed.
Maybe there's a bit more pathos dotted throughout it as it went on. Sometimes we hit that sad note, which we rarely did in series one or two, maybe.
That pathos is touched on in the documentary – most notably the death of Jim's dog Wilson at the end of series five...
I try not to do it too much, because I generally like my comedy shows to be just funny, really. But they're such a brilliant team of actors, they're all so fantastic, and they can do so much. And the idea with the death of Wilson was, I just thought at the time, I know that people are going to be distraught! So I wanted to do it. And I wanted to see Mark Heap act his socks off. He's brilliant. So that that really worked. I mean, it's all undercut when he's carrying a big 9-foot cross and then he goes, 'Oh, I'll just get another dog tomorrow' – so it reverts.
It works, though, because the audience has affection for those characters as well – so it'd seem almost odd almost not to have those moments of pathos because you care about them...
I think so, yeah. I guess it had a bit more of a depth than I thought, when I was writing it. The actors, you notice they're doing other stuff – there's stuff going on underneath, subtext that they convey with a look. Particularly Tamsin and Paul. You know, who are incredible. They're all fantastic actors. I mean, Tom had never been in front of a TV camera when he started – he sat down and said, 'oh, by the way, I've never been on the telly and I don't know how any of this works. Can you explain the entire filming process now?' – and he was great!
In the documentary, you single out the plot with the frozen fox [series three, episode two, in which Martin hides a dead fox in the outside freezer, with the intention of getting it stuffed] as the show at its most outrageous. Was there ever a story or moment that you thought of, then dismissed for being just too far out?
I'm sure I did. Yeah. I always wanted to get... I never managed to do it, but I always wanted to somehow have a cow walk into the house. I never worked out how... how can I get a cow in the house? That would have been really funny – they're having an argument in the kitchen and the door opens and a cow walks in.
Were there any other stories that you wanted to tell that for whatever reason you never ended up telling?
I'm sure. I remember when we did the episode when Grandma (Frances Cuka) gets engaged to Mr Morris [series three, episode three] he takes them all out to celebrate, bowling. And the director Martin Dennis, while we're filming he just had an idea that would have been funnier, which is that Mr. Morris (Harry Landis) should have taken them all - his 80-year-old bride and everyone - to meet his mother. His mother's still alive and she's like 105 and and they all go to her house, and he's absolutely horrible to his 105-year-old-mother. I wish I'd done that instead. That was annoying! I said, 'Why did you say that now?! That would have been much funnier!'.
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The show would occasionally venture outside of the Goodman family home – to a restaurant, or the "terrible pub" – why did we never see Jim's home?
I never wanted to go in there. I just thought people really want to see his house, so I'm definitely not going in there – it's better in your head, imagining what his house looks like. People would just say, 'Oh, I thought it would be like this!' – though I think the dog probably was in charge of the house. The dog has his own floor, and Jim's too scared to go to the first floor.
Paul Ritter insisted on taking part in the documentary despite being ill at the time – but his affection for the show is so clear, with him describing the Martin character as a "great gift"...
Yes, it was very touching... and seeing him so ill, it's just... it was just all very sad, of course. Him passing was terrible, because he was not only the greatest actor I've ever met... I mean, he's incredible, but he was [also] a lovely guy. He was an easy-going, lovely, clever, charming, fun, nice guy, with a really lovely family. So it was just awful, really shocking and terrible.
His love for the show does clearly come through in the footage...
They all loved the show, they loved doing it. It was always fun. And we did get... you know, you're cooped up in a house with 50 crew members. You're really on top of each other. But I really loved that. You know, I didn't like going out filming other places. You get a bit institutionalised! So sometimes I tried to limit the amount of scenes outside the house – because at least you're warm and dry!
I'm presuming the show is now over –
Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Did you have a sense when you were making series six that it would be the last?
I kind of thought it probably would be, yeah. I just thought maybe, yeah, we've done enough now. I know Channel 4 wanted more – specials – but in my head, I thought it had just the right ending, the perfect ending, so to do a one-off special or something? I don't know. I think it went the right way.
Was it hard coming up with just the right ending for Friday Night Dinner?
Yeah, it was – and then I realised, oh, yeah, they could be having kids. And Jim's got loads of puppies. It would be quite hard to film another series anyway, even at that time, because they would have babies and then there'd be like, 12 dogs!
It's a nice moment where Adam and Jonny recognise that they'll also be "terrible dads"...
Yeah. I wanted to have some sort of hope and also the feeling that even though it's ending, you can imagine what might be and where it might go. I wanted it to have some sort of future, in your head.
Friday Night Dinner was beloved by fans, many of whom appearing in the documentary and some of whom proudly show off their show-themed tattoos. If you were to get a Friday Night Dinner tattoo, what would it be?
Well, I wouldn't get one! But If I was to get one, it probably would be Jim screaming, 'So much blood!' – that was probably my favourite moment, where he knocked a whole pot of red paint over his head. It's the funniest moment we ever filmed, definitely, and you see that in the documentary. So it would probably be that. 'So much blood!'... all over my back.
Friday Night Dinner: 10 Years And a Lovely Bit of Squirrel airs tonight (Friday 28th May) at 9pm on Channel 4. To find more to watch, check out our TV Guide.