He didn’t have to be Jewish to be our favourite Jewish dad

From stage to screen there was something mesmerising about his work, says Tracy-Ann Oberman


LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: Paul Ritter attends the "Friday Night Dinner" photocall at Curzon Soho on March 09, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

April 22, 2021 11:39

I am still in reeling at the passing of the wonderful actor and much adored colleague, Paul Ritter. So is everyone, it seems, judging from the outpouring of sadness and grief following the shock news.

The Jewish community held television’s favourite Jewish dad in a special place in their hearts. A rabbi friend wrote to me saying, “may his memory be a blessing”.

Within the acting fraternity, Paul was hugely loved and respected. From stage to screen there was something mesmerising about his work. Like a close-up magician, his methods were always mysterious. His character choices were surprising and impeccable. I worked with Paul for ten years on Friday Night Dinner and it even took me a good few minute to realise that the haggard, furious, unrepentant nuclear engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, in the award winning drama Chernobyl, was the same man who made Martin Goodman a legendary comic creation.

Watching Paul work was a privilege. I have many memories, particularly of night shoots on the suburban streets of Mill Hill where we shot the main house action. Take after take, trying to not to burst out laughing as he manically manhandled a dead fox out of a car. Or covering my mouth so no one could see me guffawing, as he completely sold the idea of topless Martin frenziedly scrambling on a wheelie bin to get a plastic bag he had become inexplicably obsessed with out of a tree. This was a freezing cold Mill Hill night, and to add to the discomfort he then had to lie on the icy pavement while the make-up team fiddled with the exact positioning of apple crimble crumble over his chest. He uttered not one murmur of complaint. Such a professional.

Just before lockdown three, I took part in a special documentary celebrating ten years of this phenomenally popular TV comedy. I am so proud to have been part of it. The show is a retrospective of everything that makes the show the highest rated comedy in Channel 4’s history. Ten years and six series. How did that happen, we all mused? So few British comedies get to three series, let alone six. Paul made a moving contribution about the character that resonated with the nation. On a personal level, he was extremely kind and supportive when I lost a family member during the filming on the last series. As I kept fluffing my lines, to my utter dismay, Paul kept quietly muttering to me, “Don’t worry, don’t stress, we’ll do as many takes as you need.”

Writer and producer Robert Popper is a comedy legend and when he decided to put a family under the microscope, he looked to his own North London Jewish family for inspiration — what happens when two grown brothers return home every Friday night for shabbat dinner with their parents. For the Jewish community it was a breakthrough; finally a British Jewish writer had created a British Jewish family. For so long our experiences and representation on screen had come from America, where it was ok to be Jew-ish culturally, if not religiously. Here it felt more like something that had to be hidden. In a country whose Jewish male archetypes are Shylock and Fagin, now we had the much more loveable Martin Goodman with his catch phrase, “shit on it” added to the lexicon. And Paul made that happen. We totally believed his eccentrities, the sudden obsessions, the insensitivity, the romanticism, the cock-ups, the Nazi and Hitler book compendiums, the filthy shed where he even hoarded decades-old tins of meat. Paul made that eccentric, obsessive, selectively deaf, ketchup eating, tactless but oh-so-lovable character a living, breathing, utterly believable, Jewish husband and dad.

He himself couldn’t have been further from the character: a Cambridge graduate, hugely intelligent, refined, humble and self-effacing. He was also a master anecdote teller and a true family man, who clearly adored his wife Polly and two sons.

Friday Night Dinner is not a niche show. It’s not just The Jews who love it. It appeals to everyone. It hits the sweet spot where everyone can watch it and love it and identify with at least one of the characters. “Shalooooom” “Bobble” and “Hello Jackie, you look nice” have become school catchphrases. Personally, I do not go anywhere these days without having “Bloody Val” shouted at me in the manner of Martin Goodman. Paul, you will be missed by so very many people.

One of Paul Ritter’s last wishes was that people support the Impact Fund at The Old Vic.

April 22, 2021 11:39

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