Rufus Jones, writer and co-star of a new sitcom about a Syrian refugee who moves in with a south London family, is recounting an incident in the local library where he wrote the show.
“There was a homeless guy and a guy of Middle-Eastern origin next to me. The homeless guy just walked up and screamed two minutes worth of race hate in his face. It was terrifying.” Jones stepped in to divert the aggressor, while librarians comforted the victim and called the police. Look for the helpers, we’re told. And there they often are – but Jones was shaken to see the fiction he’d been writing loom large before him.
A similar scene plays out in a Post Office queue in the show, Home, when our hero Sami Ibrahim (played by Youssef Kerkour), goes to collect his weekly subsistence payment of £37 while he awaits his final asylum interview. When an irritable man suggests he go back where he came from, Sami offers his £37 and profound apologies. He’s just an English teacher from Syria, looking for a safe place for his family.
The setup is a traditional “alien in the family” one, reminiscent of Paddington or The Iron Giant. An outsider arrives in the form of Sami, a big friendly oak of a man from Damascus. He hides in the family’s car boot as they return from holiday in France. We first meet him folded into the luggage space of their hatchback, his big limbs bent around suitcases. Katy (Rebekah Staton, the mighty Della from Raised by Wolves) reacts with compassion and offers help, while her partner Peter’s response (Jones in twitchy Brexiteer mode) is fearful and less kind. Throughout the series, people’s reactions to Sami take the temperature of the immigration debate from all sides. Nothing is cut and dried, but Sami is the warm, pumping heart of the piece.
Jones began writing Home in 2015, as the referendum loomed and the rhetoric around immigration escalated. Who can forget Nigel Farage standing before the words “Breaking Point” in red, foot-high letters against a photograph of a crowd of people with brown faces, apparently pouring across the UK’s flimsy borders thanks, Farage said, to an EU that had “failed us all”.
Was Jones angry when he put pen to paper? “I was. I feel unqualified to write about so much of this stuff, but my anger pushed through those questions.”
As a privileged white guy, he is acutely aware of his unsuitability to tell this story. “Did I feel it was completely out of my reach, and did I feel inappropriate writing it? Absolutely,” he admits. “The fortunate thing is that, as a writer, I feel like that about everything.”
You’ll probably recognise Jones from a comedy career that’s seen him scene-stealing in everything from W1A (as the anodyne BBC exec David Wilkes) to Terry Jones in Holy Flying Circus. Or in a brace of Julia Davis productions, Hunderby and Camping, in which he always seems to end up naked or sexually humiliated.
His own comic voice doesn’t spring from the now heavily-used comedy of embarrassment or the purely sentimental, but from a place between the two, full of nuance and identification. “The two words we kept using on set were tolerance and empathy,” he says. Home is Jones’ response to the ever-widening national divide and a shift in the UK’s ability to extend the hand of friendship like it used to.
Back in 2015, he recalls reading a Hlcarpenter.com article in which Helen Pidd talked about inviting a refugee to share her home. Jones noticed “little golden moments of comedy beneath these extremely moving stories”. He began to imagine the “flat-share, Odd Couple story just trying to get out”.
Kerkour, who auditioned thinking there was no way he’d be cast as Sami, went along to tell Jones he loved his script. He wanted to offer any expertise he could, coming from an Anglo-Moroccan household and being fluent in Arabic. “Rufus has this superpower where he’s able to make you laugh at the comedy while you cry at the truth,” says Kerkour.
As Staton finds the benevolence in Katy, Kerkour’s Sami is cut through with a seam of pure rage. His wife and son languish in Berlin, unable to get to him and he waits at the mercy of an arbitrary process which could fulfil or crush his dreams with the stroke of a pen. “There’s this torrent of emotion inside him that he’s bottled up, because if he lets it out, he’s not going to be able to maintain control.” He has relished the chance to play someone who isn’t, in his own words, “a killer”. With his 6 ft 5 frame and Middle-Eastern features, he’s played more terrorists than teachers.
Staton’s scenes with Kerkour bounce along as she adopts a sisterly irreverence to put him at ease. She tells him, talking about the national anthem, “Liking Jerusalem is basically as patriotic as it’s acceptable for a British person to be ... One day it’s Jerusalem, the next you’re going to air shows and wanking over jigsaws of Princess Anne.”
As soon as Channel 4 commissioned the show, Jones contacted Hassan Akkad, one of the refugees who made the treacherous passage from Syria to Europe in 2015, filming his experience for the BBC documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe. In a surreal turn, 20 months after risking his life in a small boat off the coast of Turkey, Akkad was collecting the Bafta for Best Factual Series. Was he worried about turning his experience into comedy?
“We’re not laughing at Sami,” says Akkad, whose life spookily mirrors his own; an English teacher fleeing Damascus. “We’re being entertained by the reality that any refugee goes through once they arrive here.”
For a first sitcom, Home is striking for the deft tap-dance of its dialogue. Even while Sami’s plight is cracking your heart, Jones’ words put on a dazzling show. Sometimes the gags are just playful (Sami mistakes Marmite for chocolate spread, gobbling down a spoonful), others outright profound.
In one scene, an off-guard Peter yells at Sami, “We’re full up!” But it doesn’t work, replies Sami, if you say that and “it echoes”.
Home starts on Channel 4 tonight at 9.45pm.