Looking Back At FATHER TED - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At FATHER TED

Tony goes on, and on, and on…
Imagine, just for a second, a sitcom written by two people who really didn’t like sitcoms.

People who wanted, in essence, to make fun of sitcoms... through the medium of sitcom.

That sounds fun, doesn’t it?

Hang on, we’re just getting started.

Imagine this sitcom-satirizing sitcom revolved around three people, each of whom is so particularly bad at their job for various reasons that they’re exiled to a small island and forced to live together.

Yes, absolutely, it’s a kind of twisted parody of the idea of Hell. Or at least of the once-doctrinal idea of Purgatory.

Now you’re starting to get interested on a whole other level, aren’t you?

That’s essentially how Father Ted works. You start off thinking “What the hell is this?”

And then you start looking at it, and while you initially thought it was a bit of a broad sideswipe at traditional rural sitcoms (Last Of The Summer Wine, we’re looking at you), it quickly opens up the dimensions of its structure to you, and you come to see it as something much more interesting, much more dark, and crucially, much more FUNNY than you first took it for.

The essential premise of Father Ted is three useless priests, exiled by their church superiors to the almost-literal middle of nowhere (Craggy Island) for various crimes and/or misdemeanours.

Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan) is sent to the island for financial irregularities and for spending money intended to send a child to Lourdes… on a trip for himself to Las Vegas.

Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly) is a red-faced, filth-spitting force of animal nature, exiled for drinking, womanising, and basically being unfit for the company of humans, let alone to act in the capacity of their spiritual counsellor.

And Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon) is technically exiled for something described as “the Blackrock Incident,” which apparently ruined the lives of a bunch of nuns, but which, like the fishing trip of Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey, is never explained in any detail.

Like a lot of the most successful sitcoms in history (Blackadder, Only Fools And Horses, etc), the Fathers of Craggy Island are a representative triumvirate of difference – Jack is hideous, frequently monosyllabic, and barely classifies as human, Ted is reasonable and thinking, though frequently self-serving in his schemes, and Dougal is innocent almost to the point of doltishness, but as well-meaning and enthusiastic as a child making Mother’s Day breakfast.

This trinity of miscreant priests could have been very flat on the screen – growing out of a sketch for a series of mockumentaries on Irish lives by writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, the setting was outside the norm of sitcom success, and the characters were either unlikeable, dodgy, or permanently baffled by life. But it’s no exaggeration to say that in Morgan, O’Hanlon and Kelly, the production struck absolute gold three times over.

Ardal O’Hanlon, himself something of a sophisticate, plays innocent and baffled like no-one else in his generation – it’s not even a bafflement growing to panic at the edges, it’s just a joyous emptiness of comprehension that can make you laugh without his actually seeming to do ANYTHING. Writing scripts that give space for that sort of quality to come through, while also seeding plot points into imminent misunderstanding on Dougal’s part, and allowing for the vocalisation of the bafflement in dialogue with Ted, as he tries to explain things to this comprehension-vacuum on legs lets Father Ted milk O’Hanlon’s gift for comic cluelessness to its full potential.

You need only look to the priceless – though extremely short – “Small/Far Away” moment to experience what O’Hanlon brings to the show. While Ted tries to explain to him that toy cows are genuinely small, but the ones outside are not small, but far away, O’Hanlon’s Dougal is visibly unable to grasp the concept that there’s a difference.

See also the infamous chart of Things That Do Not Exist, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Beast of Craggy Island, and the easy reference art that Ted gives Dougal for Dreams (inside the head) and Reality (outside the head) and you get the basics of a character that grows more loveable, and yet more infuriating, over time.

Dermot Morgan’s Ted Crilly, as the title character, is understandably often the prime mover in episodes of Father Ted, and as such often its source of elemental energy. Ted, a generally reasonable man in fairly unreasonable – and sometimes wholly surreal – circumstances, strives like a latter-day Basil Fawlty to avoid embarrassment, mortification, or to some degree, the continuation of his exile in the weird world of Craggy Island. But he is also able, with something of an outsider’s worldliness, to set up some systems to milk, making his stay on the island a little more tolerable.

Morgan had been playing a character in his pre-Ted stand-up routine, called Father Trendy, and while Ted is by no means a particular outgrowth of that character – in fact, Morgan had to almost campaign to get Graham Linehan to agree to his casting – he is by far the most switched-on and modern of the three priests on the island. That means that while we can love Dougal for his cluelessness, enthusiasm and innocent helpfulness, and laugh at Jack’s fundamental awfulness, we most identify with Ted in his social, personal, and structural dilemmas within the church.

In fact, while all three are exiled to the island, Dermot Morgan makes the show very much Ted’s time in Purgatory, the other two being often experienced as trials, almost put there specifically to test his faith, his patience, and his sanity. As, if we get meta for a moment and view it as a constructed, written-down reality, they are.

As for Frank Kelly’s Father Jack, he’s subject to the most lazy supposition in the world – the notion that it’s easy to play awful people well.

It isn’t – and if Kelly had put less effort into his portrayal, Father Jack could easily have become an irrelevant cipher in the comedy. In Kelly’s hands though, he’s never that – he’s a force of human and animalistic nature, a swearing, red-faced, lecherous loon, ready and willing to explode any circumstance and bring outrageous chaos to any room. When, like Ted, you’re often trying to keep up appearances with church elders, Jack is a ticking time-bomb of filth and offence just waiting to go off – which, apart from anything else, makes him a great tool for comedy-writers.

And while the comedy centres on the three priests, it would be criminal to overlook the input of the fourth character in their cottage, Mrs Doyle, the old-before-her-time tea-obsessive housekeeper, played with conviction and verve by Pauline McLynn. While on the surface, she’s a willing helpmate to all the priests in her charge, squint just slightly and she acts as an object lesson in the perils of an over-enthusiastic helper. Her constant refrain when trying to get the priests to take something – “Ah go on, go on, go on…” blends a parental persistence that goes beyond Irish sensibilities with the kind of water-torture nerve-shredding insistence that could – like the other priests – have been put there just to make Ted’s time on the island a misery.

We mentioned at the start of this piece that Linehan and Matthews really didn’t like traditional sitcoms. In fairness to them, they didn’t WRITE a traditional sitcom. They wrote something that looked, on the surface, like it should have BEEN a traditional sitcom, but then threw in a whole range of other ingredients that lifted it above the norm.

It has dark humour (like Ted getting a fellow Father a mobile phone, then calling him on it while he’s driving, causing him to plummet over a verge). It has extreme surrealism and dream sequences worthy of the Goodies or The Young Ones (check out the Horse Song dream, or the Speed satire with Dougal driving a milk float at over 4 miles an hour). And it has a central dynamic that – as we’ve said – can be viewed with a philosophical interpretation as being almost a purgatorial testing ground, a proving ground for the fundamental goodness of Ted’s soul when tested by the company of two other priests who would *ahem* try the patience of angels.

If you want to get even more philosophical about it, you can see the three priests as examples of extreme innocence (Dougal), extreme worldliness (Jack), and Ted in the middle, trying to navigate a path between the two.

What Father Ted brings together is a collection of stunning characterisations, a semi-traditional sitcom setting, with lots of undercutting of that potential cosiness through its characters, its surrealist elements, and its philosophical underpinnings. That’s a potent combination, which is why it ranked as the second greatest British sitcom in history (just beneath Fawlty Towers) in a Radio Times poll in 2019.

While many people believe the run of Father Ted was cruelly cut short by the early death of Dermot Morgan shortly after the end of Series 3, the show was always going to end then in any case, as Morgan himself feared typecasting if he went on any longer in such a singularly memorable role and show. All offers to recast and carry on making the show in the wake of Morgan’s death were rightly refused, leaving Father Ted a polished three-series gem, complete in its own time, place, and characters.

Graham Linehan went on to create two other highly impressive sitcoms with three main characters – Black Books (starring Dylan Moran, Bill Bailey, and Tamsin Greig), and The IT Crowd (starring Chris O’Dowd, Richard Oyade, and Katherine Parkinson), and both of them more or less re-ran the Father Ted concept of three people existing in a practically purgatorial relationship, with one of them pinned into the time and place by the characters of the other two.

The fact that Linehan eventually evolved into the Twitter version of Father Jack, spitting offensive rhetoric at the realities of the 21st century, and particularly at trans people and their rights, tarnishes what was otherwise exceptional work.

That means it can be difficult to divorce the creator from the creation two decades into the 21st century – a dilemma, ironically enough, that would test a semi-rationalist Catholic priest stuck between innocent idiocy and offensive invective.

But before that deterioration into social media trolldom, in collaboration with Matthews, Linehan wrote one of the funniest sitcoms in British history. That sitcom is now on Britbox, and if you already have a subscription, you’re not technically supporting his current transphobia with any fresh finance – the televisual equivalent of buying JK Rowling novels second hand, so she gets no richer as a result of your purchase.

If you need a way to separate the work of Graham Linehan, which in the case of Father Ted is ridiculous genius, from the person and messages of Graham Linehan, which is ridiculous and harmful, you could argue that Britbox is your way to have your Father Ted, (which is transphobia-free, so you can remember the good times before anyone knew what was coming), without supporting the toxic messages its creator was subsequently to put out into the world.

Britbox – your ticket through a moral maze where geniuses turn out to be horrible human beings. Wonder if Ted would have had a better time on the island with a Britbox subscription.

We’re thinking he probably would.

Watch Father Ted today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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