Our first glimpse of Paul Ritter as gormless dad Martin Goodman in Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner provided a taste of the glorious madness to come over the following 10 years: Ritter stands topless in the garage, oblivious to the world, protecting his collection of New Scientist magazines from being binned. He proudly brandishes a poster of Isaac Newton. “Now he was a genius,” he says. So too was Ritter, who died from a brain tumour yesterday (April 5), at the age of 54.
To millions of people Ritter was synonymous with Martin, playing alongside Tamsin Greig, Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal and Mark Heap. But his work encompassed a wide range of serious roles as well. Before 2011, when Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner first aired, Ritter was already a Tony and Olivier Award-nominated actor.
Like his Harry Potter counterpart Alan Rickman (Ritter appeared in The Half-Blood Prince in 2009), Ritter was an un-starry character actor who played a broad range of men before becoming inseparable from one in particular. His first big film role was in Johnny Depp drama The Libertine (2004), in a small role as Chiffinch. By then he had been regularly racking up work in theatre, TV and smaller films, but the following few years saw his profile steadily rise and rise, as he appeared in bigger-budget projects like Son of Rambow, Hannibal Rising, and James Bond blockbuster Quantum of Solace.
His illustrious stage career included Helen Edmundson’s Coram Boy, for which he picked up his Olivier nomination when the play was first staged with the National Theatre in 2005-6; the Old Vic’s 2008 production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, which saw him nominated for a Tony the following year; and Art, in which he starred opposite Rufus Sewell and Tim Key in 2016.
In 2012, as Friday Night Dinner was finding its feet, Ritter starred onstage as another father, opposite Luke Treadaway as Christopher, the autistic boy at the heart of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The National Theatre production went on to win a joint-record number of Oliviers, and toured the world – though without Ritter, who continued to work solidly, largely in TV shows like Wolf Hall, No Offence, and The Last Kingdom.
In 2019, as he was more recognisable than perhaps ever before as Martin Goodman, Ritter took on a role that could barely have been more intensely serious. Playing a much more dangerous idiot than Martin, he stepped into the shoes of Anatoly Dyatlov, deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, arguably more responsible than anyone for the fatal reactor explosion in 1986. As Dyatlov, Ritter bullied and belittled his colleagues, and his intensity was one without which the opening scenes of the drama would have been a great deal less powerful. Both here and as Martin, Ritter exuded a supreme confidence in the correctness of his own world view – maddening for anyone encountering either character.
But, frustrating though Martin was for his nearest and dearest, he was a character who provided a decade of joy to audiences around the world. Ritter could have had no inkling that this middle-aged dad would become his most enduring character but, as with all perfect castings, it looks inevitable in retrospect. Ritter plays Martin with a baffled, grumpy otherness, appearing – as Ritter sometimes could – as though he was entirely content living in his own world.
Among the tributes today, Popper said that Ritter was not only a “lovely, wonderful human being” but also “the greatest actor I ever worked with”. With Greig on screen, he brought a gravitas and commitment to family sitcom, comparable to someone like Simon McBurney in Rev and Brian Blessed in Blackadder. If Paul Ritter was in it, the work was automatically better. To watch a compilation of his best moments is to bask in the reassuring presence of an astonishing comic actor, safe in the knowledge that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
And, in six seasons of Friday Night Dinner, Ritter did pretty much everything there was for a sitcom actor to do: covered his topless body in ketchup; set fire to a caravan; ate brie on the toilet; froze a fox; washed his foot in a toilet; poured a jug of water all over himself; and trapped an old woman in the boot of a car. These disasters – always of his own making – are just part of another Friday for Martin, who is at once thrillingly bizarre and perfectly believable. It is terrifying to imagine what happened to him on the other six days of the week.
The messages all over the internet today are a testament to Ritter’s warmth and skill as an actor, and the depth of feeling he was able to evoke even while embodying a hopeless buffoon. He leaves behind one of modern comedy’s most enduring characters and a body of acting work of which he, and any other actor, should be remarkably proud.