Bespectacled, balding, bumbling about in his own little world, Paul Ritter was the man next door, not the man on the big screen.
When he took his shirt off, as he frequently did in the popular Channel 4 sitcom Friday Night Dinner, he was a figure of fun, not a beefcake pin-up.
Ritter starred in six series of Friday Night Dinner from 2011 to 2020. He and Tamsin Greig played the parents of two obnoxious grown-up sons (Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal), who behave like ten-year-olds and are always squabbling and fighting.
The family meet up regularly on Friday nights. For dinner. Things go wrong. They have an annoying neighbour, who is always imposing himself. And that is it. But it appealed to a large section of the public, either because they saw themselves in it or, more likely, they identified their own relatives or friends in it.
It was the role of embarrassing dad Martin Goodman that made Ritter a star, though he was also in James Bond… not as 007, obviously. In Quantum of Solace he had a small role as Guy Haines, a dodgy adviser to the Prime Minister – Ritter would have been perfect casting as Dominic Cummings.
Haines is also secretly working for the international criminal organisation Quantum. His big scene at the end of the movie, when Bond interrogates him about Quantum, was left on the cutting room floor. It was Daniel Craig’s second outing as Bond, a direct sequel to Casino Royale and widely regarded as a bit of a mess.
Ritter also appeared in the Harry Potter series, in a small role as the wizard and would-be Potter biographer Eldred Worple in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
And he played the hapless Russian engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, struggling to come to terms with a major nuclear incident, in the highly acclaimed mini-series Chernobyl in 2019.
But many of Ritter’s most celebrated performances were on the West End stage.
He was born Simon Paul Adams in Gravesend, Kent, in 1966, and changed his name to Paul Ritter when he became an actor because there was already a Simon Adams registered with the actors’ union Equity.
Ritter’s father was a tool-maker and his mother was a secretary, and he grew up with four older sisters. Academically accomplished, he went to the local grammar school and then to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied Modern Languages. During a year in Germany he became involved in theatre and had several small parts in plays.
During the 1990s he began to build a reputation on stage in England and won a few roles on television, including a couple of appearances, as two different characters, in The Bill. Ritter was hardly handsome and his seeming ordinariness made him ideal casting for “ordinary man” parts.
But he had to wait until his forties before he got significant roles in television with any regularity. He had a recurring role in the series Land Girls, he was Pip’s friend Wemmick in the 2011 BBC dramatisation of Great Expectations, and he played Pistol in the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays.
On stage he had a leading role in the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was televised in 2012. The following year he played John Major in the West End play The Audience, written by Peter Morgan and starring Helen Mirren as the Queen.
By that time Friday Night Dinner was taking him to a much bigger audience, as Martin Goodman. The character lives in his own little world much of the time, seemingly partly deaf, which could obviously lead to a misunderstanding or two.
Martin had a tendency to go around half-naked, compliment his wife Jackie’s dubious culinary skills with such quips as “a lovely bit of squirrel” and generally said embarrassing and inappropriate things, such as the occasion when he began small talk with one of his son’s girlfriends by asking if anyone in her family had ever been murdered.
Ritter told one interviewer that many incidents were recreations of episodes from the writer Robert Popper’s own life, including one in which the family have sold a sofa, which gets stuck on the stairs, with them trapped on the upstairs side, and then the buyer gets a call to say his father has died and he must dash off.
But Ritter also revealed that he drew on memories of his own father for many of his character’s mannerisms.
“He was a very funny guy as well,” he said in an interview in 2014. “There comes a point where we all turn into our dads and I’m well down that road at this point.”
In more recent years Ritter found himself in big demand and he had recurring roles in Vera; The Game; Mapp and Lucia; Wolf Hall, as Sir John Seymour; No Offence; Resistance; The Capture; the revived version of Cold Feet; and Julian Fellowes’ period drama Belgravia, in which he played the butler. It reunited him with Friday Night Dinner’s Tamsin Greig.
He is survived by his wife Polly and two sons.
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