Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV
Tamsin Greig is slightly shocked about the places that Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner goes to in its latest season. “There are things that happen this series that you couldn’t have put in the first series,” she says, eyes widening. “We put somebody in a cage.”
The four stars of the show – Greig, Paul Ritter, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal – are sitting in the bar at Soho’s artsy Curzon cinema, just two weeks before the sixth series of the wildly popular show debuts. Charmingly, the quartet arrange themselves just as the family they portray do: the two boys (Bird and Rosenthal are fully-grown men, strictly speaking) sit next to each other on a sofa, picking at a single box of popcorn between them. While the adults sit on their own respective chairs, bemused and amused as their on-screen offspring giggle and rib each other.
It was nine years ago that Friday Night Dinner made its debut, when Rosenthal and Bird weren’t long into their 20s. Since then it has become one of Channel 4’s most successful comedies ever, pulling in a cool million or two every episode. Written entirely by Robert Popper – who was a producer on Peep Show as well as a writer on South Park – the plot centres on the Goodmans, a Jewish family who sit down – or try to sit down – to have dinner together every week. The running jokes include siblings Jonny (Rosenthal) and Adam (Bird) playing pranks on each other; dad Martin (Ritter) constantly producing random items like dead foxes, megaphones or expired meat; mum Jackie (Greig) self-medicating with gin and tonics; and weird neighbour Jim (Mark Heap) forever interrupting proceedings to go to the Goodmans’ toilet or tell them about a problem with his dog Wilson. It is fast, farcical, and has obviously struck a chord with viewers who see some version of their own household amidst the madness.
“A lot of people say it’s the only show that teenagers can watch with their parents,” says Rosenthal. “In modern times there are so few shows that actually do bring people together like TV is supposed to do – so to be part of that is a real privilege.”
Friday Night Dinner hasn’t changed much in a decade because it’s not supposed to. When we left the Goodmans, Jackie’s best friend Val was divorcing her husband Larry; Jim’s beloved Wilson had died after defecating all over the Goodmans’ front lawn; and Martin continued to be the kind of person who celebrates when his old ventriloquist dummy is found in the attic.
How does it feel for the show to become so gigantically successful? As the only one of the cast on social media, Rosenthal is the one who gets sent the bulk of fan-made paraphernalia. He pulls a brown envelope of badges out of a pocket. They were sent to him by a fan and feature various phrases from the show. One says “RIP Wilson”. He’s also had homemade dolls of the show’s characters sent to him via his agent and at a school near Ritter’s home, pupils made Playmobil figurines to look like the cast.
That’s not all. There is a Friday Night Dinner quiz in Ipswich; Friday Night Dinner parties where you go dressed as your favourite character; and, says Rosenthal, people who have simply decided to initiate their own Friday night dinner routine because of the programme.
The cast, who had all done a stint on UK television prior to FDN (Greig on Green Wing, Bird in The Inbetweeners, Rosenthal and Ritter on various Sunday night dramas) are now more well known now for this than they are any other work (with the likely exception of Bird and The Inbetweeners). For them, it’s a comfortable place to be in. “I’d say the dynamic is definitely low-key domestic,” says Bird about their working environment. For Ritter, it’s less paternalistic than that: “I feel any attempt to be paternal would be justly rebuffed.”
On-set, the cast have a green room containing four sofas. Each of them chooses on the first day which sofa is theirs, and that arrangement doesn’t change until the seven weeks of filming is over. When other actors appear on the show “there’s always a little negotiation at the start of each day” Greig says. Heap, as you’d expect, is left to pick a spot on the floor. “We don’t make him sit on the floor!” smirks Greig. “It is a choice.”
As for the content of the story, it’s more than marital squabbles and siblings bickering. It’s a show with a beautifully bizarre range of physical set-pieces. In season two, Jim spills a tub of red paint all over the Goodmans’ house. Greig, remembering the scene, struggles to compose herself. “I have never tasted so much blood in my mouth from biting my cheeks so hard because it was so funny.” This series features just as much wet chaos. “If there’s anything to do with liquid – red paint, shit, vomit – you generally give it to him [Heap],” says Greig. In this season, Ritter says he noticed one of the sound department almost drop their mic because they were using one hand to protest about the foul smell of one of the liquids in question.
The physical work in the new season has taken its toll on the cast. “Jackie’s quite violent with the boys this series,” says Greig. She throws potatoes at Adam at one point, and a couple of times she got Bird in the face for real. “One potato hit him in the glasses and one potato hit him in the forehead. The potato caused quite a welt.” Normally Bird is a “non-oily actor”, she says, but this time the makeup department needed to do a rare check on his face because of the potato’s impact. Rosenthal rolls up his leg to point out that he still bears a mark from when Greig kicked him in the shin. Not to be outdone, Greig says that she shattered her big toenail on Rosenthal’s leg.
Potato injuries aside, season six sounds like a lot of fun. In the first episode, Martin’s caravan catches fire and Jim drops a cistern full of excrement on the Goodmans’ living room floor. The cast had only one take in which to nail the poo-tastic scene. “I was preemptively told off,” says Bird, who often finds it difficult to keep a straight face during non-humorous moments. Originally, the excrement was going to be made out of dog food, but in the end it involved Weetabix and Bran Flakes. The family were put at one end of the room as though they were in a crèche. From there, they watched Heap bumble and stagger as he flung the cistern and its contents onto the floor. “I was so ashamed of how funny I found it,” says Rosenthal. “I went and shook the hands of the art department: ‘That poo was absolutely excellent!’”
It is a joy to watch the cast interact out of character, where familiarity seems to have bred real fondness. “You would think that after three decades of working in the business you would learn to find people boring rather than entertaining,” says Greig. “I do spend quite a lot of the time just laughing.”
How does this series differ from those before it? “There is greater agony and ecstasy in this,” says Ritter. “There are wonderful things that happen and very painful episodes as well.” One of the changes in the real world was the death of Frances Cuka, who played Jackie’s mother. In the fifth season, she appears only via phone and, Greig says, this was the first intimation to audiences that Cuka might not have been well enough to appear on-set with the others. Partly because Cuka didn’t pass away until filming was over, her death isn’t mentioned in the show. “It just becomes too hot a topic to go anywhere near,” says Greig. “It’s an awful shock.”
Arguably, one thing that keeps the show popular is its lack of a political viewpoint. “There’s no politics, there’s no religion,” says Greig of the new season. Rosenthal adds that he tweeted about how each of the show’s characters would have voted in the 2016 referendum. Jonny and Adam would have been Remainers; he thinks Jackie would have wanted a second referendum; and Martin, interrupts Ritter, is definitely a Green Party voter. Jim, says Rosenthal, would have voted Leave.
Staying with politics, we ask the cast if, after recent high-profile conversations about antisemitism in the Labour Party, it feels significant that a sitcom about a Jewish family has been so enthusiastically embraced by the mainstream. None of the cast is Jewish (though writer Robert Popper is) but Rosenthal thinks there is some truth in that. “Robert never intended to write a Jewish show,” says Rosenthal. “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it on any level.” But he thinks that Jewish people find “extra joy” in watching it.
And what about the future of Friday Night Dinner? After 31 episodes over nine years, any actor would be forgiven if their enthusiasm had dried up. “We think this is probably the end of the show,” reveals Bird. “Every series it feels more like ‘OK, we’re ready to say goodbye to these characters – we’re really proud of it but we’re ready and happy to move on.’ But who knows.”
If it were to continue, however, the cast still have plenty of ideas about how to get even more mileage from its limited concept. “Robert [Popper] has told me several times that he wants to do this storyline of Martin slipping into a coma in the third scene of the first episode,” says Ritter, “and waking up in the penultimate scene in the last episode to croak, ‘Shit on it.’” Greig, meanwhile, says that she has asked Popper if he would consider shifting the framework so that it could be Martin and Jackie turning up at either Adam or Jonny’s place. So far, no dice. But Popper has joked with Rosenthal about the entire show ending with everyone firing lasers out of their eyes or a massive lizard appearing for no reason.
As we finish up, Greig reflects on one of the messages of the show’s success. Given the pressures teenagers are under to be different versions of themselves on social media, she thinks it is interesting that “what’s captivated their imagination is a show about people coming home – and being allowed to be the idiot children they turn into as they step over the threshold”. Proof, perhaps, that all we really want after a hard week’s grind, is a slap-up meal cooked by mum or dad — and the chance to put our feet up in front of the TV. Some things never change.
‘Friday Night Dinner’ series six premieres on Channel 4 on March 27