TV

'Home' is my challenging retort to the UK's laughable Syrian refugee pledge

Rufus Jones proves comedy can be the best vehicle to explore the big political issues of the day in his new Syrian refugee comedy 'Home' hits Channel 4

Rufus Jones, writer and star of Home on Channel 4

I can’t quite remember where the inspiration for Home came from. I started writing in the Autumn of 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. I know – a Biblical exodus of people and I’m thinking, what this situation could really do with is a six-part narrative comedy for Channel 4. I’d better explain…

Home tells the story of Sami, a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into the UK in the boot of a family car, returning from a holiday in France. He stays with the family: Teacher Katy, her son John and her newish boyfriend Peter. Katy and John welcome Sami with open arms. Peter (who I play) absolutely doesn’t, regarding Sami with annoyance and suspicion.

Though there was nothing funny about the Syrian crisis, the UK’s response to it did seem to me to be laughable. The British Government had pledged to settle 20,000 Syrians here by 2020. Forgive me, but 20,000 didn’t sound like a lot then, and it sounds even less now. Much talk of fulfilling our moral responsibility, but Germany opened its doors to nearly a million. Twenty thousand? That’s not Moral Responsibility, that’s QPR v Brentford.

Growing up, the UK had always seemed to pride itself on its response to international emergencies. Live Aid was one of the great patriotic memories of my childhood, outside of sport. But now? Referendum campaigns were gathering pace and immigration was becoming a preposterous battleground. The nation was changing, becoming more introspective. What happened?

I also remember reading an article in The Guardian about amazing British families giving spare rooms to Syrian refugees who’d made it here. And amid the emotion of these accounts, shiny funny details: the fiercely ambitious refugee who started applying for high-flying jobs he had no hope of getting, including Social Media Manager for the Sunday Sport.

Details like this not only brought you closer to a single refugee story – news footage of crowds building up on the Greek islands had an abstracted desperation that was becoming hard to process – but said something about this country’s questionable expectations of what a refugee should be? How a refugee should behave?

A joke punches up, or punches down. A lot of the jokes in Home punch my character Peter squarely in the balls. This felt right

I raced into writing Home without worrying too much about whether comedy was a suitable form to take on this subject. Some of our most beloved sitcoms have taken place before sober backdrops. The trenches of France for Blackadder Goes Forth. Prison for Porridge. And of course there was that unflinching study of the terrors of Resistance France,  ‘Allo ‘Allo. British audiences like their comedy to shine in the darkness, to sing through a Blitz.

My only rule was to write in good faith, and make sure the joke was travelling in the right direction. A joke punches up, or punches down. A lot of the jokes in Home punch my character Peter squarely in the balls. This felt right.

You have to trust your radar. As an actor, I’ve been lucky enough to have wandered into some dark recesses for a laugh. Hunderby and Camping with Julia Davis, also Holy Flying Circus, which tackled Monty Python’s fight against the blasphemy laws with Life Of Brian. If you plumb depths, you can mine a lot of truth.

At the risk of sounding irreparably pompous, a sitcom format felt right for Home because comedy tends to be a communal experience, at least if you’re doing it right. You tell a joke, you get a laugh. That’s a community. And Home is about a man trying to find a new community. In fact, Sami employs comedy to get ahead. He’s a witty guy and he learns quickly that humour is a valuable passport through British life.

Did I feel out of my depth writing about this material? Christ, yes. I’m a middle class guy from Shepherd’s Bush – what business did I have wandering into material like this and trying to make sense of it all? Fortunately, the key advantage I have is that I feel out of my depth writing about anything. That’s just what being a writer is like. I could be writing about a folding bicycle specialist in Chiswick and it would still feel like a preposterous socio-economic Matterhorn to climb.

The cast of Channel 4 comedy HOME
Rufus Jones (right) with Rebekah Staton, Youssef Kerkour and Oaklee Pendergrast in Home

Home was always meant to be challenging, and it felt right that the person it challenged first and foremost was me. So I tried to write it.

I’m thrilled Home is going out in the month we are due to leave Europe. How much is coincidence and how much design – you’d best direct that question to the mighty thrones of the Channel 4 schedulers. But good on them, March works for me. Upping anchor from Europe doesn’t mean refugees stop being our problem, and if the show acts as a reminder of that, I’ll be extremely pleased.

Home starts on Channel 4 on Tuesday 5 March at 9.45pm

Images: Channel 4

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