'Being at the end of your tether is something I can sort of relate to'
Rufus Jones' latest project might present itself as a state-of-the-nation piece, but really it's all about family. By Gemma Dunn
The plight of refugees has been recorded many times by documentary-makers, but Home - a brand new sitcom commissioned by Channel 4 - explores the issue in an entirely new light. Following last year's successful Comedy Blap of the same name, the six-part series, written by and starring Rufus Jones, follows couple Peter (Jones) and Katy (Rebekah Staton), who wind up with an unexpected souvenir from a recent family holiday to France.
That 'souvenir' comes in the form of Sami (played by Youssef Kerkour), a Syrian refugee who enters Britain illegally via the family's chock-full car boot to claim asylum.
It's a narrative Jones (43) has been working on for over three years.
"You do things in a comedy that you possibly can't do in a drama," says the W1A actor. "I got writing on this in late-2015 when the refugee crisis, particularly for the Syrian refugees, felt like it was at its apex.
"I started reading some interviews about British families who had opened their doors to Syrian refugees who had made it here under the Refugees Welcome Here project and Refugees at Home initiative.
"The interviews were very moving. But within them were these shiny moments of comedy, humorous moments, that were about culture clash, but were also about what we expected of refugees, as opposed to who they actually were as individuals."
Jones adds: "The thing about comedy is detail, when it works well, and what we weren't getting were detailed stories of refugees. What we did have was this shocking footage of refugees in the Greek ports and it was a sort of abstract intensity. It was numbing people and these individual stories were very important."
He remembers an announcement by then-prime minister David Cameron, which stated 20,000 refugees would be allowed into the UK by 2020.
"It didn't seem like a big number then and doesn't now; 20,000 doesn't sound like social responsibility. It's not a big number.
"And, so, I wanted to inquire what had happened, because, as a nation, we prided ourselves on our emergency aid in moments of international crisis, but we were coming up short."
Described as "warm and touching", the modern sitcom essentially taps into the heart of the home.
And living with the family, while he waits for his application to be processed, asylum-seeker Sami learns more than he expected about the people he's staying with, himself and his own family.
While Katy and her son John (Oaklee Pendergast) quickly warm to their new house guest, it's fair to say Peter - a Brexit-supporting anti-immigrant - takes a little longer to accept him.
"I like playing frustrated men. It's always a delight," quips Jones, whose credits also include award-winning dark comedy Hunderby and, more recently, hit film Stan & Ollie.
"Peter's a complicated character. He should know better, he's smart enough to know better, but he says things about immigration and about a lot of aspects of life which probably, 10 years ago, he wouldn't have said.
"But we're in a climate now where Peter can get on his high horse and say these things and so he does and he suffers the consequences.
"I think I concluded with Peter, whatever he does think about immigration, it's all transference and it's all projection of his own feelings of inadequacy, because he feels like a refugee in his family."
Is he channelling anyone in particular?
"If I'm honest, no," Jones responds with a laugh. "I'm possibly channelling myself to an extent - not politically, but I have twin three-year-old girls and sleep deprivation can make a man do some ugly things. Being at the end of one's tether is something I sort of relate to."
He adds: "Also, I was looking back at the writing and I wrote the first draft of this just before my kids were born and my character's fraught relationship with my stepson, John, I'm sure, is some sort of Freudian fear of the relationship I was about to have with my unborn children. The fear of where you fit in as a father. So, maybe there was a touch of that."
As to why the 'hero house' is situated in Dorking - a Surrey town 21 miles from London - he says: "I may be entirely wrong about this, but it strikes me as a sort of white, suburban area, where middle-classes retreat to get away from 'it all' in London.
"And it felt nice to kind of drop our hero in the middle of this culture, where he would possibly feel a little more adrift than somewhere like Camberwell, for instance, or central London, or south-east London, where the connections and communities for someone like Sami would be possibly more available.
"In somewhere like Dorking, he would be out on a limb and in sitcoms you always want to imprison your characters a little bit, because you get better results."
Does he hope the show will challenge people's opinions?
"There's always a danger, if you announce you're writing a state-of-the-nation piece," adds Jones, who admits a story is already in place for a second series.
"I don't want to sound too grand in my ambitions for this thing, but the words that kept coming up through the production were 'tolerance' and 'empathy'. They were the two words we kept returning to.
"And I think, in the month where we possibly leave Europe, it's a reminder that those two aspects are important in life.
"If the show can remind people that we have international responsibilities, just as we're about to up anchor and drift into the great unknown, then, yes, that would be my ambition."
As for the response? "It's a comedy and we want people to wallow in it," Jones says simply.
"It's taking on some possibly lofty subjects for 24 minutes, but I think a lot of people are trying that at the moment."
Home, Channel 4, Tuesday, 9.45pm