“Remembering the time I almost had an aneurism when my dad presented me with a clay sculpture he’d made of my head,” Robert Popper tweeted last Sunday. The sculpture in question has to be seen to be believed: it’s like a version of yourself you might meet in a nightmare.
It’s also, as it happens, exactly the sort of thing that Martin Goodman, the lovably strange patriarch played by Paul Ritter in Popper’s Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner, might do. Goodman is a frequently topless (“I’m baking”) hoarder (“they’re collectibles”), who hides roadkill in his freezer so that he can get the corpses stuffed before his wife, Jackie (Tamsin Greig), notices. In the comments below the tweet, someone asked Popper if the head inspired the episode in which Martin paints a terrible portrait of Jackie. No: that was actually inspired by his father painting a terrible painting of his mother.
When Friday Night Dinner – which depicts the Goodmans, a north London Jewish family with two bickering sons, Adam (Simon Bird) and Jonny (Tom Rosenthal), getting together for their weekly Shabbat dinner – concluded last year after six seasons, it was Channel 4’s longest running sitcom. It is also one of its most popular. Some fans have even gone so far as to get Friday Night Dinner tattoos which are, upsettingly, mostly of slightly creepy neighbour Jim (played by Mark Heap, although Popper maintains he’s seen some featuring Martin’s expletive of choice, “shit on it”.) Ritter’s death last month, at the age of just 54, was greeted with an outpouring of grief, as if a real family member had died.
And on 28 May, Channel 4 is celebrating the show’s anniversary with a documentary: Friday Night Dinner: Ten Years & A Lovely Bit of Squirrel. In a story that’s somehow heartbreaking and oddly true to their characters, Greig tried to talk Ritter out of taking part because she was concerned about his health. He insisted.
Popper – who has also worked on Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, Stath Lets Flats and co-created the mockumentary Look Around You – denies that the Goodmans are anything as simple as a fictionalised version of his own upbringing. But, he says, “A lot of the stories are my family stories. Every writer, I think, mines their own life.” Certain aspects of the characters are drawn from his own family, too: “Me and my brother are very close, but we’re very competitive, in the let’s-try-and-ruin-each-other’s-dinner joke which we’ve had since we were children.” Now in his 50s, the two are still putting salt in each other’s drinks. (Popper’s brother is also called Jonny.)
Other aspects of the show are drawn from life, too. Mr Morris – a truly horrible man whom Grandma (the late Frances Cuka, who might be the funniest thing in the show) first begins an affair with and later becomes engaged to – is based on a real, horrible boyfriend Popper’s real grandmother once had. (Popper stresses he was not quite as awful as the character he inspired – who repeatedly drives into things and makes his prospective step-grandsons buy him condoms.) Neighbour Jim’s well-meaning but mildly uncomfortable reverence for the family’s Jewishness was inspired in part by experiences such as that with a university tutor, who responded to the discovery Popper was Jewish by awkwardly saying “shalom” a lot.
The idea for the show started with the name (“the idea I had in the bath”), which provided the setting, a broadcast slot, and the sitcom set-up of characters being trapped together all at once. The character of Adam was written for Simon Bird, with whom Popper had worked on The Inbetweeners; Jim was written for Mark Heap, and Greig and Ritter were recruited after brief discussions with the producers. The only difficult bit of casting was Jonny, for whom the production team saw around 150 actors before finding Rosenthal. “He didn’t tell us that he’d never been in front of a camera before.”
Popper’s scripts make liberal use of catchphrases (“Ello bambinos”, “Lovely bit of squirrel”, “Crimble crumble” and so forth), but they’re catchphrases within the show, too, and the characters roll their eyes at them the way you’ve rolled yours at your own family’s jokes. In the same way, when Adam says he’s just seen “bitch-face”, everyone else immediately knows who he’s talking about. The family has a shared language.
“You don’t often see people in comedies laughing together at their own shared jokes that outsiders wouldn’t really get,” Popper says. “But families have their own shorthand, their own lingo. I think it helps you feel like you’re in it, that you’re part of this little gang.” One of his inspirations was The Royle Family, which did something similar. “It takes place over 30 minutes and, inverted commas, nothing happens” – but for that time, “you’re in that family”. Popper wanted to do the same except “sort of the opposite… I wanted it to be super-fast and for a lot to occur”. Making the show for Channel 4 rather than the BBC helped drive that pace, by forcing him to make the episodes 24 rather than 29 minutes long, and building in a cliffhanger for the ad break at the halfway mark. (Also, Popper notes, “we probably got away with more” by being on the smaller broadcaster.)
Much of the five weeks it took him to write each of the show’s 37 episodes was spent on plotting. “It’s all really about the story, always. I just think, what’s the worst thing to happen to a man with a dead fox? Well, it’d be terrible if he put it in a car and the car drove off. So then I need to solve that. It’s just problem solving.”
A lot of the show’s humour comes from this farce. But sometimes it comes from physical comedy, or from what Popper describes as “concepts”: a character who insists on making people guess things, for example, or one who closes his eyes when speaking. (“I used to have a teacher who did that. We’d stand on a chair and do Hitler salutes at him.”) The running joke in which Jim is clearly terrified of his entirely gentle dog Wilson came simply from the idea it would be funny to watch Mark Heap repeatedly flinch from his own dog.
Popper is now working on a new project, which he’s not ready to talk about yet. Channel 4 would have liked more Friday Night Dinner, if it had been possible, and after series five, Popper even toyed with doing a film. “It can’t just be a movie set in their house – but if they go somewhere, what, Jim’s there with them? How do I logistically do that? So I decided I’d rather do another TV series.”
Even before Ritter’s death from a brain tumour, though, the sixth season was always intended as the last. In the final episode, not only do the boys finally bring girlfriends home to meet their mother, but both, it turns out, are pregnant. Friday Night Dinner was always, first and foremost, a family sitcom. It feels fitting it should end with the Goodmans welcoming the next generation.
“Friday Night Dinner: 10 Years & A Lovely Bit of Squirrel” airs at 9pm on Channel 4 on Friday 28 Ma