Interview: Robert Popper

The writer of a sitcom explains why he left the prayers out


By Jessica Elgot, February 24, 2011
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The cast of Friday Night

The cast of Friday Night

How can you make a sitcom about Shabbat, and never mention the J-word? Friday Night Dinner writer Robert Popper explains that the rituals of Friday night with the family resonate beyond Golders Green and Edgware.

His new Channel 4 series, which stars Green Wing's Tamsin Greig and The Inbetweeners' Simon Bird could feasibly be called Sunday Lunch - it's the tradition of going home, and never growing up, that inspires Popper.

He says: "I didn't set out to write a Jewish comedy, but I found that environment very inspiring for jokes. It's deliberately not religious. "I was thinking that if I was watching a programme about a Muslim or Hindu family and the brothers were mucking around during a prayer, would I get it? I don't know that I would. Also, I didn't want to make it a clichéd Jewish sitcom with everyone going 'oy vey!' all the time."

At the age of 43, Popper, a Bafta-winning producer with a hand in a number of successful comedies including Peep Show, Bo'Selecta and South Park, is still a regular at the family home in Edgware on Shabbat. "My brother is married and has kids but whenever we go home, even though we are both grown men, we try and ruin each other's meal, putting salt in each others' drinks, and putting stuff from the rubbish bin inside food packages our mum gives us to take home. "

The show’s writer, Robert Popper

The show’s writer, Robert Popper

It's only when you emerge from the warm comfort of your own home, Popper says, that you realise how weird your family really is and how weird other people's families are, too. "I went to a friend's for Shabbat once and his mother cut his toenails after dinner. That's just what they always do. And it's normal to them."

Friday Night Dinner comes less than a year after Simon Amstell's Grandma's House - a much more overtly "Jewish" show. It came out as Popper was writing Friday Night Dinner. "I didn't watch it on purpose, because I didn't want it to seep into my consciousness. I saw about 20 seconds of a trailer and it was enough to know it would be very different. I really love him though; he's a really funny guy."

But both sitcoms draw directly on real family experiences. He says: "I don't think Adam and Jonny in Friday Night Dinner are exactly like me and my brother. But some of the scenes are from real life. My grandmother and my mum once had an argument and she told my mum to go to her room. My mum was like 'What? This is my house. I'm a grown woman.' We put that scene in."

Popper has a soft spot for what he calls "silly". His biggest indulgence is prank calls, a childhood game he has never grown out of. But Popper plays a more dangerous game than just ringing up Dominos to send 20 pizzas to his mate's house. One of his calls made national headlines - when he went on an LBC radio phone-in in the midst of the Gordon Brown "bullying" scandal.

He said: "I called up with no idea what I was going to say. I was sitting in my kitchen and there was a tangerine in my fruit bowl. So I told the phone-in that Gordon Brown had been visiting a factory once and got so angry that he threw a tangerine into a laminating machine, which clogged it up, and then he called the person who gave him the tangerine 'a citric idiot'. The story was in the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and on TV. People talked about it as if it was fact. I got a bit worried; I thought I was in trouble. They called it 'tangerine-gate'."

Friday Night Dinner begins on Channel Four tonight at 10pm.

Last updated: 1:54pm, August 28 2014