Father Ted, A Legacy

“It doesn’t sound good, you know: three priests living on an island as a sitcom. If I’d heard about it, I’d hate it.”[1] Graham Lineham, the co-creator of the Irish sitcom Father Ted confesses, slightly apologetically. Nevertheless, twenty years since the last episode aired, its legacy lives on, from the unforgettable protest slogan “Down with this sort of thing” “Careful now”  which still finds its way on signs in protests on NHS cuts, freeing Julian Assange, and the 2010 visitation of the Pope in London, to an Irish band covering the famous My Lovely Horse song. What The Young Ones did to British comedy, Father Ted did to Irish comedy: in an almost punk-rock way, it kicked against the corseting idea of Ireland as a backwater – a remote, tranquil hinterland defined by cosiness and harmlessness.

With 25 episodes aired between 1995-1998, the sitcom revolves around the lives of three priests living with their housekeeper on Craggy Island, a fictional island off the Irish coast. The island is just as rugged and crappy as it sounds: plagued with permanently bad weather and rather eccentric members of the parish, it is not the most glamorous place to be a priest, but a perfect setting for comedy. Among other things, we encounter a womanizing milkman with a gargantuan libido and terrorist inclinations; a hyperactive priest turned youth leader (brilliantly performed by Graham Norton); and a Hound of the Baskervilles-like creature that terrorizes the sheep on the island (including prize-winning “king of sheep” Chris who needs rehabilitation treatment at the parochial house to recover).

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Even at home, Ted (Dermot Morgan) has to deal with all sorts of tomfoolery. If it is not the housekeeper Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn), the endlessly polite older Irish woman who is obsessed with giving everyone tea and food to a degree of self-masochism, Ted has his hands full with the buffoonery of his fellow priests. Like Ted, they were banished to Craggy Island, disgraced after a series of rather embarrassing incidents. There is Father Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon), Ted’s merry yet entirely clueless and dim-witted chaplain with a chronic look of befuddlement on his face, who once admitted that he believes more in Darth Vader than in God. He was sent to the island after an unidentified incident aboard a Sealink ferry in which the lives of a group of nuns were, so the story goes, “irreparably damaged”. After a disastrous wedding ceremony, the alcoholic priest Father Jack (Frank Kelly), allegedly the first priest to denounce the Beatles (“he could see what they were up to”), became the senior priest of the parish where he spends his time drinking and shouting around from his dirty old chair. As for Ted himself, he was stationed on Craggy Island after stealing a child’s Lourdes money so he could finance a trip to Las Vegas. A complete misunderstanding, Ted repeatedly insists, since “the money was just resting in my account”, another memorable quote from the series which the British public eagerly made use of when David Cameron fell victim to the Panama Papers scandal in 2016.

Living a quite surreal and unnatural life in celibacy (“the mad loneliness of men without women”, as co-writer Arthur Mathews calls it [2]), priests are quite an easy target and subject for comic relief. But Ted is not your stereotypically devout Irish priest – neither of the corrupt and dirty kind for that matter – but a well-rounded, fully formed character: likable, somewhat relatable, but dysfunctional and screwy enough to make for perfect sitcom material. By turns devious and cunning, he’s a decent enough man, a bit cheap, seemingly ambitious, but lacking the talent and the will to take on the work to fulfill those ambitions. Though with the right effort he could rise to become a bishop, Ted’s way too busy with earthly things (money, becoming famous, winning Eurovision) to bother for that sort of divine calling. He’s more the sort of man who taps his collar to get free admittance to the cinema, and escapes the utter absurdism that is his life by smoking a self-pitying fag every now and then.

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Though Ted became one of the country’s most lovable comedy characters to cross the Irish Sea, for Lineham and Graham creating the series was paired with the arduous task of “not letting down the Irish.”[3] A nation that “always felt secondary to England”, as Pauline McLynn puts it, the writers wanted to rid the world of the image of Ireland as a harmless, silly place that people make jokes about rather than enjoy jokes from.

Produced by the British company Hat Trick Productions and broadcasted by the equally British Channel 4, it was almost unavoidable to address the elephant in the room in the shape of Irish stereotypes. Wanting to avoid anything that reeked of paddywhackery[4], Lineham and Mathews used the stereotypes to their own advantage, taking them to such an extreme that they disarmed any condescending undertones by exaggeration. And so their take on the typical Irish drunk, Father Jack, is someone who drinks everything he gets his hands on, from whiskey to floor polish and Windolene. An old priest on the edge of retiring, Father Jack is selectively deaf, only capable of hearing anything that concerns alcohol or women. His only verbal contributions to the series include “Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls! What?” With a milky left eye and a face full of spots, dirt, and wrinkles collected over the years, he is a grotesque and revolting figure[5] who, in his extremities, is an almost satirical joke on the stereotype he represents.

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And so Father Ted replaced, as Lineham says in an interview with The Guardian, “the old hackneyed Irish joke with Irish humour.[6] The series became a tour de force not only in Irish comedy but in their culture as well. Lineham recalls an Irish fan who told him that the series was their punk rock: “I loved that. Before then there’d been no mirror that reflected Irish people and their sense of humour back to themselves.” Indeed, using Ireland’s oldest institutions, priesthood, the series tackled topics of political correctness, racism, sexism, homophobia, and class that no other comedy dared to touch.

Criticism on Ireland’s racist and xenophobic tendencies is perhaps best explored in the episode “Are You Right There Father Ted?” in which Ted accidentally offends the surprisingly thriving Chinese community on Craggy Island by doing a racist impression of a Chinaman, coincidentally just when a Chinese family pays a visit to the parish. Ted is met with some justified outrage from the community, but there are also a lot of voices who are quite happy with following him in this line of thought, which echoed the anti-immigrant sentiment of Ireland in the 1990s. To make amends for this misunderstanding, he invites the family over, only to scare them away when a smudge of dirt on the parish window forms an accidental Hitler moustache on Ted’s upper lip. This could have happened to anyone, really. Even Nigel Farage, talking to the BBC in response to statements from his former teachers who called him racist and fascist at school, has had experiences with some unlucky pixilation errors. As a final move away from his accidental racism, Ted organizes a festive evening to celebrate Craggy Island’s cultural diversity. After his speech on the “greatness” of Chinese culture, he concludes with “The Chinese: A Great Bunch of Lads”, a line which was also proudly shown on the Irish colours when the British and Irish Lions played against Hong Kong in 2013.

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But the tale of the unlikely comedy that took over the world has a rather sad conclusion. Only a day after the shooting of series three wrapped, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack – an entirely wrong ending of a comedy that, while kicking some sacred cows up the arse, never resorted to cynicism and always kept the cruelty of life gleefully at bay. A couple of weeks before his death, Morgan had said that he no longer wanted to continue playing the role of father Ted out of fear of being type cast: “I don’t want to be the next Clive Dunn and end up playing the same character for years.”[7]

So another season was never going to happen. But letting Ted and Morgan go must have been hard for everybody. In the final scene of the last ever episode, we were originally supposed to see Ted jumping from the ledge of a building, depressed from the cancellation of his move to America. Instead, Lineham and Mathews put in a series of the funniest bits from every episode, an honorific mosaic to Morgan’s comedic genius. Put in reversed order, the montage gives the illusion that Ted stays on Craggy Island until the end of day. Indeed, even reaching the far corners of 2018, it seems that Ted will stay there for a long time to come, forever ingrained in Irish and British cultural memory.

Endnotes

[1] Linehan, GrahamMathews, Arthur (2012). Father Ted DVD Commentaries (Podcast). London: podcasts.com. Archived from the original (mp3) on 3 July 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2015.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/apr/20/father-ted-legacy-20-years-on-up-with-this-sort-of-thing

[3] Linehan, GrahamMathews, Arthur (2012). Father Ted DVD Commentaries (Podcast). London: podcasts.com. Archived from the original (mp3) on 3 July 2015. Retrieved 19 June 2015.

[4] A stereotyped portrayal of Irish people as overly talkative, unreliable, alcoholic, etc.

[5] Frank Kelly, the actor who fulfils the role of father Jack, even had to eat and sit alone on set because no one could stand looking at him.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/apr/20/father-ted-legacy-20-years-on-up-with-this-sort-of-thing

[7] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/61112.stm

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