'A lovely bit of squirrel': Paul Ritter's most memorable roles

By Stuart Heritage

Paul Ritter, who died on Monday at the age of 54, is destined to be remembered as the dad from Friday Night Dinner. And rightly so. If you think of Ritter, or Friday Night Dinner for that matter, one image will almost certainly be seared into your mind: Ritter, walking around with his top off like it was the most normal thing in the world, complaining about the heat, or enquiring after a “lovely bit of squirrel”.

That role, and that image, brought Ritter a level of fame he had previously never achieved. Before the sitcom, which began in 2011, he had worked solidly in a number of small screen parts, usually playing characters who were professions first and people second – Detective Sergeant in 1998’s Big Cat, Geography Teacher in 2007’s Son of Rambow and Prisoner Louis in Hannibal Rising from the same year – while tending to a growing reputation on the stage. In 2006, he was nominated for an Olivier award for Coram Boy, and a Tony three years later for The Norman Conquests.

But Friday Night Dinner would change that. Ritter was the least well-known performer on the show – Simon Bird came into it with the white heat of The Inbetweeners, Tamsin Grieg juggled it with Episodes and Tom Rosenthal was a fast-rising 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 in. He was a Father Jack, a Barney Gumble, a Super Hans: a big, broad figure capable of crashing into an episode, setting it on fire and leaving a crater for the other characters to work around. That he managed to combine this with a weird relatability is testament to Robert Popper’s writing and Ritter’s skill as an actor. There have so far been three attempts to remake Friday Night Dinner in the US. You suspect that the main reason for their failure was the lack of Paul Ritter.

Friday Night Dinner brought the actor recognition, along with bigger roles. He played an eccentric forensics expert in Paul Abbott’s No Offence, rarely driving the plot, but considerably brightening things up whenever he was on screen. He did the same in Hang Ups, Stephen Mangan’s adaptation of the US show Web Therapy, quietly carving out MVP status alongside big hitters including Charles Dance, Richard E Grant and Celia Imrie. And in the Cold Feet revival he played a lifeless, weaselly number cruncher with such panache that you could at times be forgiven for thinking that it was actually secretly a show about him.

But at the same time, Ritter also carved out a decent niche as a character actor in prestigious period pieces. In 2012’s The Hollow Crown, he was a swaggering, overcompensatory Ancient Pistol. In Toby Whithouse’s The Game, he added huge depth to a quietly regret-filled cold war spy. He played Jimmy Perry and Eric Sykes. He played Christine Keeler’s barrister and Brigadier-General Sir Ormonde de l’Épée Winter.

And in Chernobyl, he played Anatoly Dyatlov. In a downbeat, dread-soaked miniseries about catastrophic lapses of judgment, the sneering, lazy Dyatlov was the closest thing to an all-out villain. It was Dyatlov’s arrogant ineptitude that caused a routine test to result in the worst nuclear plant disaster in the history of the planet. To those who only knew Ritter’s work on Friday Night Dinner, Dyatlov’s casual cruelty was a revelation. It was hard to watch the show without fully hating him.

Chernobyl wasn’t Ritter’s final role (he subsequently appeared in Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia) but it was his last truly indelible one. It marked yet another breakthrough, and a future full of bigger baddies in high-profile projects seemed certain. That we have been robbed of that is a great sadness. That we will always have Martin Goodman – belly out, muttering “Shit on it” to nobody in particular – is a gift. Paul Ritter won’t be forgotten in a hurry.