Home: Interview with writer Rufus Jones (Peter)

Category: Interview

Can you explain the premise of the show?

A very middle-class English, family go on holiday to France in their quite spacious Audi. They have a lovely holiday and come back, they open the boot to unpack and there’s a Syrian refugee. After the initial shock, Katy, and her son John, welcome the refugee into their home with open arms. My character Peter, who’s Katy’s relatively new boyfriend, does nothing of the sort. What happens over the series is a sort of house-share comedy about a family, but now you have a new member who is making it both easier and more difficult. You also have Sami, our hero, the Syrian refugee, and his journey through British life and the asylum system here as he tries to get leave to remain. There’s a domestic situation, there’s an asylum situation and through it all my character Peter is trying to be the man of the house and failing.

Explain a little more about Peter – certainly initially he’s a bit of a twat, isn’t he?

A bit?! You’re kidding! Yes, he is a twat. I think with Peter, he’s smart enough to know better but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. He comes out with things that ten years ago you tended not to hear but in the political atmosphere these days you hear them a bit more from people who would never normally say things about how “we’re full up”. Peter is slightly of that ilk but his views on immigration, which to me are questionable, are clearly masking more personal issues. When I started writing the trick I was playing with was that although you have a refugee living with the family, Peter is the refugee because he can’t be a step father to John and he can’t be an adequate partner to Katy. He’s feeling adrift and he’s displacing all that stuff onto this actual refugee. Hopefully through the series you positively see him becoming a better man.

Why did you want to make this show?

I wrote the first pilot episode in three days in an angry, helpless response to what we were all seeing on the news in late 2015 which was the height of the Syrian refugee crisis with tens of thousands of people hitting the ports of Greece. Those numbers were very hard to process when you saw the images. I wanted to write about one person’s story, reaching this country. I wanted to say something about how we treat refugees as well as the refugee experience, and what that says about us. Looking back a big thing was when David Cameron announced that twenty thousand refugees would be allowed in Britain from Syria by 2020. This was paraded proudly as a great act of international charity. Twenty thousand to me sounded like QPR Brentford on a Wednesday evening. When I was growing up one of the great patriotic moments for me – and I’m not given to patriotism – was Live Aid. This act of unity, of raising money through music, it was a moment to be proud of. But suddenly twenty thousand didn’t feel in line with that heritage we think we have as a nation. I wanted to talk about what had changed in our attitudes to charity and empathy on the international stage but also in our streets, to our neighbours.

What did you do by way of research?

I initially spoke to the UNHCR, which gave a macro overview of the situation which was very useful. But the huge turning point was being put in touch via Twitter to Ahmad Al-Rashid who featured in Exodus which was an amazing documentary on the BBC about four years ago, he was one of refugees filming himself coming through Europe; and Hassan Akkad who also won a BAFTA for Exodus. Both these guys were immediately available. I met Ahmad in a Patisserie Valerie and I met Hassan in a church hall. Ahmad was absolutely brilliant. Hassan, we had an extraordinary two, three hour initial interview where he talked very personally about his expectations when he came here verses the reality, the difficulties he’s found since. Hassan came on as a consultant for the show, advising on certain practical things like Syrian Damascus Arabic but also fact checking and details of Sami, my hero’s backstory, and the little details which were important to get right. Hassan was crucial for a lot of the practicalities of filming but also our confidence, that we had a factual safety net that could be there for us.

I hear there were a lot of coincidences on this show?

There was a series of quite outrageous coincidences, one of which was in the very first meeting with Hassan I’d written another character, who is obsessed with Titanic, the film. I wrote it as a kind of placeholder. I loved the idea but it would change because what do I know? I asked Hassan about twenty minutes into our interview, “Where did you learn such good English?” He said, “This is going to sound weird, but do you know the film Titanic?” It was a huge hit amongst middle class Syrians! That and Eminem, that was his gateway into English. There’s a scene where Sami has his phone stolen by a kid on a bike. Hassan had his phone stolen. We had a second camera operator come on about three weeks into production on location. He came up and offered his hand to me and said, “Hi, I’m Sami Ibrahim,” which is the name of Sami Ibrahim my hero.

Was there any reason why you made Sami a Christian as opposed to a Muslim?

I liked the contrariness of it. I wanted to slightly confound our assumptions and expectations of people from that country and that region. I wanted it to be a key platform in the final episode where that becomes a crucial thing as he seeks refugee status at the Home Office. I wanted to show how this person is not so different from all of us. Even though all of us aren’t Christian I thought it might be a good example of confounding expectations and showing someone’s cultural background may have commonalities in ways you don’t expect. That was a key platform of the whole thing – we didn’t want too many jokes on differences between us all. The jokes were almost out of our similarities.

The whole refugee crisis and immigration is one of the most emotive issues of our time. Did you have any misgivings about taking that subject matter on?

I didn’t really, no. I had a very firm opinion that comedy could serve it, possibly in interesting and useful and informative ways, and funny in ways that would at least equal a drama. My back of the envelope theory is that British comedies particularly enjoy dark backgrounds. Things like Blackadder Goes Forth. It was an immense show of my youth and told me more about World War One than any number of AJP Taylor documentaries. I think that’s where I took some strength from. I also have another back of the envelope theory that comedy is about community – that if you tell a joke and someone laughs, you’re forming a community. This show is about community, about someone trying to find their place in the world. I think all those things helped me think Sami is a witty character and the show, by being a comedy, would help tell us something about both the resolve of refugees but also the occasional hypocrisies we have in terms of what we expect refugees to be.

You nail your colours fairly firmly to the mast with a joke about Brexit in the first few minutes of the programme. Do you worry about alienating people?

No. Funnily enough it’s pretty much the only Brexit joke we have in the show. I started writing before the referendum to put it into some context and the characters haven’t changed that much since then. Particularly Peter, who says he voted to Leave, he is a character who has received knowledge about immigration. I know plenty of people who voted to Leave –who didn’t vote on immigration, they voted on fighting Brussels. That I can understand. I empathise with that. If you were voting to Leave because you thought immigration numbers would be affected, you could be sorely disappointed over the next few years. Peter represents that area of people who maybe misunderstood what leaving Europe was going to solve. What we said very early on was just as Sami shouldn’t represent all refugees because how could you possibly? Equally Peter is not a Brexit caricature. We wanted him to be someone who is holding on to these anti-immigration views as a kind of Linus blanket for feelings of inadequacy.

Some of the characters who Sami meets are really unpleasant in their attitudes towards him. Is there a concern that the people who appear in the programme who have concerns about immigration are slightly demonised?

There are a couple of unpleasant racists. But the problem with unpleasant racists is that they do exist. I wrote this in Brighton public library because I like being in libraries and I like writing amongst people. Just the other day I sat next to a guy of Middle Eastern origin and a homeless guy came up and just started persecuting him with hate speech and police were called. I was just weighing questions such as this when I had to intervene in the situation. It’s there and it’s a live issue. For every racist we have, we have an intermediary or someone who aids Sami. We hopefully show the complexity of the area. And ultimately Peter over the series, without giving too much away, is slightly redeemed by Sami ironically. I wanted to show Peter precisely to answer your question as a character who holds these views, but does he really hold them? Or is he just parroting this stuff because he hears it more than you might have heard it fifteen years ago and feels you can be part of a club by saying this stuff? But when he’s challenged by Sami, challenged by Katy, even John, over the series he begins to fold and realises it’s not doing anyone any favours, least of all himself. Peter’s the main sort of experimental area for that, for what that sort of slightly lazy anti-immigration view, where that gets you, as opposed to being an out and out aggressive racist, which Peter certainly isn’t.

You conceived all of this, you wrote it, it’s coming entirely from your mind. How difficult is it to give control over to the director?

I found it immensely easy. I was exhausted! Always as is the way of these things commissioning happened very quickly. But it needed to be intense because it’s hopefully a timely piece. We brought David Sant in who’s Spanish originally. He was a clown in previous incarnations, part of an amazing troupe called People Like Us. He has since directed everything. Brilliant director – he directed some of my first stuff that I’d written back in 2005. He lobbied for the piece when he saw the pilot, he was desperate to be on board and we needed someone who wanted to do it. Being a Catalan who came here with no money in the early ‘90s he talked about the affinity he had. There’s a sort of neat symmetry there. He’s always the funniest man in the room but he knows that less is more so he’s very good at restraining me particularly. Give me an inch and I’ll take a mile!

Why did you call it Home?

We went through so many alternative titles. Home felt right from the very first pilot I wrote because it’s nominally about Sami’s home that he’s left, the new home he’s arriving at but also the viewer’s home which will probably be the UK for a domestic audience. It’s a show that as much as it focuses on a new arrival to the UK it’s a show about us and where we are in terms of our slightly sort of chaotic politics and chaotic role in the world.

Do you want to change people’s attitudes with this series, or is it enough to make them laugh?

I want to change the world one laugh at a time! I think the danger with a show like this is you present it as a state of the nation piece. Those pieces are important but the whole point of this show was it’s a one-man story to an extent, or a family’s story. The characters lost intensity and interest if they became ciphers for political viewpoints. You have to be faithful to the characters you create. I don’t want to come over as a balsa wood Stephen Poliakoff or Duplo Dennis Potter. There’s a danger of preaching a little bit with a show like this. The only abstract nouns I’d ever relate to a show like this are about the virtues of tolerance and empathy. Aspects of that are in every episode.

By the same token you’ve got to strike a balance between it being very funny and extremely poignant. Is that a difficult balance to strike when making a comedy?

It is. It was in the writing. If I’m honest I knew tonally what I wanted it to be and I wanted it to have a big heart, as a show. But having those big-hearted moments doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice moments of irreverence or moments of spikiness which test the presumptions you might have around a subject like this. So I wanted the show to be quite contrary in what it shows you and I wanted the battle-lines to shift around a little bit. But you also, when you introduce the actors into the process, suddenly realise the bit you thought was edgy is actually incredibly warm and vice versa. You’ll find bits you wrote as a nice little emotional coming together of two characters can suddenly contain electricity you didn’t think.