Who among us doesn’t have a reason to return to our parents’ home for dinner? Whether it’s roast potatoes like only Mum knows how to get fluffy and crispy, seeing the family pet or simply getting a balanced meal instead of zapping a fisherman’s pie for five minutes, there’s always a plus. Unless, that is, you happen to be one of the Goodman boys, whose Friday night ritual of returning home was far from harmonious in the hugely successful Channel Four comedy written for its entirety by Robert Popper, Friday Night Dinner.
Adam and Jonny have flown the nest and are embarking on their own lives and careers, Adam (Simon Bird) writing music (or at least advertising jingles) and Jonny (Mark Rosenthal) becoming an estate agent. Come Friday night, they return to the family home for dinner with their parents, Jackie and Martin Goodman. A lovely house in a quiet street…a nice evening planned for an ordinary Jewish family. But things never quite go to plan.
Ensuring that mischief is always bubbling under the surface, Adam and Jonny regress years the moment they get to the front door. Pranking, name calling and physical one-upmanship all abound as the boys bicker for the duration of their visit. They have a variety of nick-names for each other and delight in nothing more than maximising embarrassment for their sibling. Such juvenile behaviour as putting salt in each other’s water, replacing it with vodka or gobbling squirty cream out of the can are the norm. But despite it all, they are normally united when dealing with the challenges that others bring to the table.
Family patriarch is Martin (Paul Ritter). Since the boys’ departure, Martin now seems to teeter between eccentricity and insanity. There are minor quirks, like collecting 50 years’ worth of copies of New Scientist or drying out fish in the under stairs cupboard, to more bizarre elements, such as trying to keep a dead fox in the deep freeze ahead of having it stuffed to become a house talking point. Martin is also obsessed with dated tech…buying a new fax machine long after the medium has become redundant, and making trivial but expansive calculations on his range of calculators. Martin is comedy gold…he is often shirtless, often struggling with an ineffective hearing aid and his eccentric interests, normally being kept from wife Jackie, offered writer Robert Popper a vast array of opportunities, all of which were gobbled up with glee by Ritter.
Trying to hold the family together is Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Her hopes of having a sensible meal with her family rarely end well. With the boys bickering and Martin off on flights of fantasy, she is fighting a losing battle in her attempts to maintain a level of sanity in proceedings. She seems to want very little out of life…a happy relationship for both of her boys, Martin to lead a life of relative normality. Her only real outlet is best friend and almost carbon copy, ‘Aunty’ Val (Tracy-Ann Oberman)… and then there’s her mother.
Known on the show primarily just as Grandma, Jackie’s mother Nellie (Frances Cuka) is a regular extra guest. Trying to ensure she stays young, despite hovering around 80, she is full of eccentricities such as buying all of them the same purse for Christmas and stocking the car with yoghurts. But the disruption her visits bring pale into insignificance compared to the occasions when she brings the new man in her life to see the family. Harry Landis plays Mr Morris, a borderline psychotic married man all set for an affair with Nellie. Morris is angry, permanently. Despite Nellie seemingly uneasy of this clearly unpleasant man, she regularly defends his aggressive behaviour, with the family even locking him in their own house to avoid his psychotic episodes. He returns several times across the six series as he progresses towards marrying Nellie, to the horror of the family, and Landis is hysterical on each occasion.
Martin’s own mother appears now and again. Known as Horrible Grandma (Rosalind Knight), she is a considerably less welcome visitor. Full of nothing but venom and vitriol, she is disliked by everybody, including Martin. Her impending and seemingly inevitable demise is a day seemingly none of them can wait for, Martin included.
But of all the regular guests, the one that appears every Friday rarely gets an invite – neighbour Jim. In a show-stealing performance, Mark Heap plays a visitor who lusts after Jackie and desperately wants to be welcomed into the Goodmans’ world. Eccentric, gullible and very dim-witted, Jim appears every week, normally after spying on his neighbours for the most opportune entry point. Initially he appears just to borrow the toilet, but the reasons for his visits become increasingly bizarre as the episodes continue. Jim’s history is largely unknown, mostly because almost everything that comes out of his mouth is either misinformed or a bare-faced lie. He continually references the family’s Jewish beliefs, but is woefully misinformed in his research, partly due to the boys feeding him with inaccurate knowledge. Any slightly unusual events Jim assumes to be religion related and he tries to embrace them, all the while bowing as he utters, ‘Shalom, shalom.’ Meanwhile, by his side for most of the time is his dog Wilson, of whom he is terrified. Wilson shows no animosity during any episode, but Jim is forever dodging his companion as though attack is imminent. Heap is glorious in his physical comedy, akin to Jack Douglas’s Carry On twitching.
Friday Night Dinner just went from strength to strength through its six series. The boys’ bickering is at just the right level as they remain highly likeable siblings. Greig is stoic in her attempts at a normal life, while Ritter is glorious as Martin. As with so many shows, the catchphrases were never built as such, but have etched themselves into the psyche of the viewing public – and they nearly all belong to Martin. Lovely bit of squirrel, crimble crumble, hello bambinos and of course, sh*t on it – Ritter was hysterical from first shirtless moment to last, combining his comic line delivery with fantastic physical comedy.
Heap and Ritter steal the show, but the feel of the programme and the development of the boys’ lives, who by the end of series six were both destined to become fathers, suggested the show had plenty of life left in it, despite the suggestion from the stars that it had maybe run its course. Sadly, we will never know as Ritter’s tragically early passing at the age of 54 brought the programme to an end. This was one comedy that could not survive beyond its key star’s absence.
All in all, there were 37 episodes of Friday Night Dinner and the standard never slipped. The Goodmans were very welcome guests in homes around the country across nine years, providing hysterical slapstick moments, memorable catchphrases and gathering greater viewing figures with each series. Its absence is felt, but we are grateful for its past - as Jim would say, “Shalom, Robert Popper, Shalom!”
Review by Brian Slade:
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five-year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George', a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on June 23rd, 2021. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.