Friday Night Dinner’s Goodmans are the Perfect Horrible Comedy Family

With series six finally on Netflix, Robert Popper’s terrific sitcom is being revisited and discovered anew.

Paul Ritter, Tom Rosenthal, Simon Bird, Tamsin Grieg in Friday Night Dinner
Photo: Channel 4

Friday Night Dinner knows the truth about families. Not that they bicker, mock and childishly compete – sitcom’s known about that since Steptoe & Son. No, Friday Night Dinner knows that families aren’t made up of people; they’re made up of odd habits.

Did you ever invite a friend home from school and pray that none of your family’s Weird Stuff would leak out into the playground the next day? That your mum’s special word for a fart wouldn’t follow you down the corridor into Maths, and the dinner hall wouldn’t echo with the high-pitched voice in which you all talk to the dog? Perhaps you hoped against hope that your brother wouldn’t be wearing his comedy Viz Buster Gonad t-shirt, that no-one would see the wooden clothes peg holding open the choke on your dad’s car, and that nobody would call you “Loulabellamella” in front of your pal. (These are universal examples applicable to anyone.)

Your family’s Weird Stuff is what defines it. Friday Night Dinner creator Robert Popper knew that, but instead of hiding his, he bravely exhibited it across six series of a very successful sitcom. Feast on my family’s Weird Stuff, said Popper. It’s so incredibly specific that you can’t help but recognise it.

We do recognise the Goodmans, a middle-class secular Jewish family in suburban London who share a Friday Shabbat dinner each week. Or at least they try to share one, but more often than not, the meal’s derailed by interruptions from neighbour Jim (Mark Heap), other supporting characters, and their own tomfoolery.

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We don’t recognise the Goodmans because every dad in the UK walks around like Paul Ritter’s Martin, with his top off and bosoms out and complaining about being “boiling”, but because every dad in the UK has their own comparable Weird Stuff. The same goes for adult sons Adam (Simon Bird) and Jonny (Tom Rosenthal). Their infantile Rick and Vyvyan from The Young Ones-style playfights and rivalry might not be exactly how you and your siblings go about things, but as grown-ups back in the childhood home, everybody regresses. Mum Jackie (Tamsin Grieg), with her best friend Auntie Val (Tracey Ann-Oberman) and home furnishings obsession is not your mum, but she’s also not not your mum.

As with all great sitcoms, the specificity of Friday Night Dinner’s characters is its genius. Martin Goodman isn’t a stereotypical sitcom dad. He’s far more strange and memorable. His idiosyncrasies merge to form a new comedy type – the Martin Goodman, made unforgettable by the brilliant and much-missed Paul Ritter. Martin’s Weird Stuff – his calculator obsession, toplessness, selective hearing, his “lovely bit of squirrel” and “females” and “shit on it” – are all his own. And yet his knocked-slightly-out-of-orbit position in the family and benign obliviousness also feel like every over-50 dad you’ve ever met.

It takes longer for Jackie Goodman’s Weird Stuff to emerge, but it’s there. To begin with, you’d be forgiven for confusing Jackie with any other sitcom mum who chastises the boys for bad behaviour, until you notice the glint in Tamsin Grieg’s eye every time Jackie calls Adam and Jonny “horrible”. Jackie Goodman finds her boys’ fights and insults funny. As a good Jewish mother, she knows she should chide and chivvy, but in truth, she loves their naughtiness. Jackie is why Adam and Jonny are horrible to each other. It’s the family sense of humour, and she’s the source.

The Goodmans’ believability as a family is Friday Night Dinner’s other major achievement. The situations they get into might be far-fetched (fist-fights with elderly psychopaths in bowling alleys, and front garden dog burials aren’t everyday occurrences) but you never doubt that this lot belong together. Pus-Face and Piss-Face’s childhood is as irrefutable as Martin and Jackie’s courtship.

Not at all believable but somehow fitting in like a dream is the Goodmans’ neighbour Jim, played with exquisite comedic control by Mark Heap. Jim is the strangest round peg ever whacked into the square hole of ‘wacky sitcom neighbour’. Outrageously unrealistic, Jim’s basically an alien in human form who’s bemused by everything and is drawn to the Goodmans like a very strange moth to a flame. Next to Jim, Martin seems normal.

There are also the Grandmas both nice (Frances Cuka) and horrible (Rosalind Knight), plus various dinner guests and interruptions across the six series played by Jason Watkins, Rosie Cavaliero, Sally Phillips and more. They’re all memorable enough, but this core family of four, knitted together through their odd habits and specific lexicon (“nippy nippy” is Martin and Jackie’s word for sex. No, they can’t remember how it started) are what made the show a hit.

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So, here’s to every family’s Weird Stuff, and here’s to the Goodmans: we’re nothing at all like them, but they’re every bit the same as us.

Friday Night Dinner series one to six are available to stream on and Netflix in the UK.