Friday Night Dinner: Why food fights and mayhem have become a TV treat

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Channel 4

At a time when many of us are having to stay away from our family, it’s business as usual round at the Goodmans – in other words, collective chaos.

If you’re unfamiliar with this foursome, they’re the fictional stars of Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner – an anarchic sitcom where the degree of farce borders on the insane.

As the title suggests, the set-up is in theory benign, cosy even. A secular Jewish household – mum, dad and their two grown-up sons – come together each week in the family home to mark the start of the Sabbath.

Soup, chicken and “crimble” crumble are always on the menu and yet the Goodmans never get to eat.

Mayhem ensues within minutes of the brothers stepping through the front door. It starts with their compulsive pranking of each other. But as the evening goes on, a series of random surreal events leads to family meltdown – and dinner ruined.

The show, which starts its sixth series this week, is the creation of Robert Popper, whose previous credits include Peep Show, South Park and The Inbetweeners.

Popper, who is Jewish, had his Eureka! moment for a comedy which played with the oddities of family dynamics, particularly those in a Jewish family, while musing in the bath.

“I decided I wanted to do a show about a family and the feeling you get that when you go home you revert to being kids again,” he says.

“I used to go home on Friday evening, which is like the Sunday lunch equivalent, and my brother and I became like children again.

“And, whenever I’d seen Jewish comedy or scenes, they seemed overdone or overly emotional, with a violin playing and soft focus on the candles so I wanted to do something where those elements were just a backdrop.

“But the intensity of the Goodmans and how they are very argumentative and everyone knows everyone’s business – that’s all very recognisably Jewish.”

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Adam and Jonny are (rarely) on their best behaviour.

Those Goodmans are Tamsin Greig, as mum Jackie, Paul Ritter is dad Martin, elder son Adam is Simon Bird with Jack Rosenthal as his sibling Jonny.

Sitting sardine-like on a sofa, they seem relaxed and in good spirits – unlike their characters in the comedy, which has for nine years followed its own particular formula.

Mum’s desperately trying to keep control; characteristically shirtless dad – the family oddity – has a new weird obsession; strange neighbour Jim unfailingly turns up at the door with his dog and Jonny’s gags always get the better of Adam.

As Bird and Rosenthal jostle somewhat on the sofa you might assume they had adopted their own pattern of brotherly rivalry in real life.

“Well, he’s just tipped a box of popcorn on my head. But I’ve already got three siblings so I’m really over them and don’t need another,” says Bird.

“Between takes we do try to chuck grapes into each other’s mouths. The action and the off-camera bits are really quite similar,” adds Rosenthal.

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Martin and Jackie are the regular hosts of the weekly Goodman family meal.

Though the essential ingredients of the show haven’t altered, the extremes to which the farce goes has been ramped up over the years.

The first episode in the new series doesn’t disappoint in this regard, featuring as it does fire and copious excrement.

Popper admits his enjoyment at “pushing things to the limit and making each Friday awful for the family”, which habitually involves swearing – and violence.

“Jackie is considerably more violent in this series and there’s a greater intensity,” says Greig.

“It’s not right and it’s not good but Robert said, ‘it’s just funny’.”

She recalls hitting Ritter with a stick, he adds “and fist punch”, while Rosenthal displays a bruise and recounts how Bird, who is “a lot stronger than he looks” once caused the ligaments “to pop out in my leg – which was apparently very harrowing for everyone else”.

And a lot of food gets thrown leading to Jackie (and Greig) despairing over the carpet.

“I worry about the waste because the carpet gets trashed,” she says. “But I also find food moving in an inappropriate way very funny.”

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The show first aired in 2011 and is now into its sixth series.

TV critics seem to appreciate the gags. Mark Lawson in the Guardian said: “The pleasure… is in Popper’s expert escalation of the desperation and social embarrassment that are the engines of farce. The plots become twisted chains of deceit, miscomprehension and blackmail.”

While Veroncia Lee from the Arts Desk, called the show a “deliciously daft comedy,” adding: “There’s nothing groundbreaking or edgy about Friday Night Dinner, but like a favourite meal it always satisfies, even if it does repeat.”

For all the silliness, the show is not always an easy ride for the actors, says Greig.

“We’re stuck in this house and it feels like a Jewish Big Brother because you can’t leave and you can’t go outside until it’s dark so as not to disturb the neighbours.

“It’s filmed in winter so if you’re outside and the Beast from the East comes, you think: ‘I really hope someone is finding this funny’ – the experience is often not.”

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Jim Bell, the Goodmans’ bizarre neighbour – played by Mark Heap – pays them a visit.

And for guest characters – which this series includes Miranda actress Sally Phillips – it’s also “quite stressful,” she adds, especially as they don’t know the territorial protocol over the Green Room’s seating.

“If someone is on my sofa, I have to pretend to be OK with it but I’m not a very good actor,” adds Bird.

Sadly the regular visiting character of Jackie’s kindly mum will no longer be in the show following the death of the “brilliant” and “genius” (Greig’s assessment) actress Frances Cuka.

Popper says it would “be a bit crass” to have a funeral in the show but an onscreen tribute will go up as the final episode ends.

Another thing Popper doesn’t feel the show should address is anti-Semitic sentiment, which has been increasingly debated in the UK due to accusations that it’s a problem within the Labour party.

“My intention was never to bring any Jewish issues into the show, I wanted it to be silly and funny,” he says. “But I did touch on it in the last series (when Jim’s girlfriend made an anti-Semitic comment) because I thought I might as well do it once.”

The lack of political comment is among the attractions of the show, which, says Popper, has an increasingly younger audience.

And despite the name calling and often gross scenarios, it’s fast become a family watch .

It’s this “that was appealing when we started all those years ago,” says Rosenthal.

Greig adds: “What’s captured the imagination is the notion of coming home and that feeling that there is always a place to go. That’s interesting to watch and experience.”

Friday Night Dinner can be seen on Channel 4 at 22:00 GMT from Friday 27 March.

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