Friday Night Dinner’s sixth series episode one was watched by a little over 2 million viewers on the night of broadcast. It went on to set audience records for a C4 comedy of 4.3 million viewers over a consolidated seven day period. Making it the single most popular ever episode of any comedy on the broadcaster’s streaming platform, All 4.
Fiona McDermott, Channel 4’s Head of Comedy, said at the time: “Friday Night Dinner has once again proven itself to have all the perfect ingredients – food, family, farce and a dog called Milson. It’s always been a viewer’s favourite…..”
Not for this viewer it hasn’t. I stopped watching Friday Night Dinner during series three, when an overwhelming feeling of déjà vu swept over me. I understood the basic premise, that it’s about two Jewish brothers who go to their parent’s house every Friday night for dinner, I mean even I couldn’t miss the blatant clue in the title, but I came to the belated conclusion that it was the same script every week with the odd piece of slapstick business thrown in as the point of differentiation.
Then in last night’s FND Reunion my conclusion was confirmed by creator and writer Robert Popper, who explained, “Two brothers go home on a Friday night and things happen. That’s kind of the show. It’s the same every week.” And that was the main problem.
The cast was excellent. Tamsin Greig always excels, the late Paul Ritter was an excellent actor (his portrayal of Anatoly Dyatlov in Chernobyl remains a lasting testament to his distinguished career), Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal were, as always, Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal.
Another problem I had was that the catch phrases were rammed home each and every week ad nauseam.
But my biggest problem with the show was Jim Bell, the next door neighbour, played superbly by Mark Heap. He was, at first, just the quirky, odd fellow next door, turning up at inconvenient moments but slowly he became a major character who became intrusive in the family’s life and therefore the show. It ebbed away from being “two brothers going home on a Friday night” to ‘odd neighbour interrupts family’s Friday night dinners’.
Popper initially carefully trod a fine line between Jim exhibiting the characteristics of having a learning disability and just being socially awkward. The family handled Jim sympathetically but were kind to the point of exhaustion. Slowly he began to dominate the show because he was the conduit of easy laughs.
In discussing the character he played, Mark Heap said “He (Jim) was probably on the spectrum.” Yes he probably was, however Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is no laughing matter. So those laughs came not from a character who was clumsy, accident prone or just plain idiotic but came at the expense of a man who was suffering from a diagnosable medical condition. Not something which I found I could laugh along with.
Robert Popper did well to continue writing the series, singlehandedly, for all 37 episodes but it was a wise decision to terminate the show. For some reason, that I just don’t see, FND is frequently described as a national treasure. Like the curate’s egg it was good in parts but a ‘national treasure’, I think not.