PAul Ritter, who died Monday at the age of 54, is destined to be remembered as the father of Friday Night Dinner. That’s right. If you think of Ritter, or of dinner on Friday night, an image will almost certainly stick in your mind: Ritter, walking with his upper part uncovered as if it were the most normal thing in the world, complaining about the heat or asking about a “beautiful squirrel”.
That role and that image gave Ritter a level of fame that he had never achieved before. Before the comedy, which began in 2011, he had worked solidly in various parts of the small screen, usually playing characters who were professions first and people second: Detective Sergeant in 1998’s Big Cat, geography professor in They are of Rambow from 2007 and Prisoner Louis in Hannibal Rising from the same year, while tending to a growing reputation on stage. In 2006, he was nominated for an Olivier Award for Coram Boy and three years later for a Tony for The Norman Conquests.
But dinner on Friday night would change that. Ritter was the least known actor on the show – Simon Bird walked into it with the white heat of The Inbetweeners, Tamsin Grieg juggled Episodes, and Tom Rosenthal was a fast-growing comedian, but by the end of the first episode he was undoubtedly the star. . Martin Goodman was one of those tremendous characters who seem to exist in a looping orbit that only occasionally intersects with the rest of the show they appear on. He was a Father Jack, a Barney Gumble, a Super Hans: a large, broad figure capable of bumping into an episode, setting it on fire, and leaving a crater for the other characters to work with. That he has managed to combine this with an odd relationship is testament to Robert Popper’s writing and Ritter’s skill as an actor. So far there have been three attempts to remake Friday Night Dinner in the US You suspect the main reason for its failure was the lack of Paul Ritter.
Friday night’s dinner brought the actor’s recognition, along with bigger roles. He played an eccentric forensic expert in Paul Abbott’s No Offense, rarely leading the plot, but bringing things up considerably every time he was on screen. He did the same in Hang Ups, Stephen Mangan’s adaptation of the American show Web Therapy, quietly earning MVP status alongside heavy hitters like Charles Dance, Richard E Grant and Celia Imrie. And on the Cold Feet revival he played a lifeless numbers crusher and weasel with such flair that you can sometimes be forgiven for thinking it was actually a secret show about him.
But at the same time, Ritter also carved a decent niche for himself as a character actor in prestigious period pieces. In 2012’s The Hollow Crown, he was an arrogant and overly compensatory Ancient Pistol. In Toby Whithouse’s The Game, he added great depth to a cold war spy filled with quiet regret. He played Jimmy Perry and Eric Sykes. He played lawyer for Christine Keeler and Brigadier General Sir Ormonde de l’Épée Winter.
And in Chernobyl he played Anatoly Dyatlov. In a grim and dread-drenched miniseries about catastrophic misjudgments, the contemptuous and lazy Dyatlov was the closest thing to a total villain. It was Dyatlov’s arrogant ineptitude that caused a routine test to result in the worst nuclear plant disaster in the planet’s history. For those who only knew of Ritter’s work on Friday Night Dinner, Dyatlov’s casual ruthlessness was a revelation. It was hard to watch the show without completely hating it.
Chernobyl wasn’t Ritter’s last role (he later appeared in Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia) but it was his last truly indelible. It marked another breakthrough, and a future filled with bigger baddies in high-profile projects seemed certain. That they have stolen that from us is a great sadness. That we will always have Martin Goodman, belly out, muttering “Shit” to no one in particular, is a gift. Paul Ritter will not be quickly forgotten.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism