Father Ted is Channel 4’s greatest ever sitcom. There’s more than enough polling of comedy fans to back up that assertion, but the thing that makes it so significant is its timeless weirdness, that it is just as funny now as it was back when it first aired, from 1995 to 1998. These are the factors that make us both excited and cautious about the recently announced Pope Ted: A Father Ted Musical.
But more than that, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ show truly feels like a landmark. Across 25 episodes, it turns the sitcom formula on its head with its wickedly bizarre sense of humour, but has also come to epitomise the genre, as a comedy where its characters are trapped in a situation. It’s simply a tale of eejit Catholic priests on an island where all the crap priests get sent.
Considering they’re priests, Fathers Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), Dougal Maguire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly) rarely if ever seem bothered about religion in the show. But they’re all lumped in together in the pariah’s parish of Craggy Island, with their tea-obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn), and their misadventures are surprisingly wide-ranging.
With the recent announcement that Linehan and Mathews have reunited to write a stage musical, what better time is there to look back on the original run, its unique brand of utterly inspired comedy, and its afterlife as a beloved comedy touchstone.
“Down with this sort of thing!”
The show was initially conceived as an episode of a series called Irish Lives, which would have focused on a different Irish character in every episode, and would have had an episode centring on Mathews’ sketch comedy character Father Ted. When they were encouraged to adapt the episode as a full sitcom instead, they kept the same focus on what Mathews called “the strangeness and madness of Irish things”.
That sense of being trapped is all-pervading from the show’s very first episode, Good Luck, Father Ted, in which we immediately learn that Ted is obsessed with money and fame, going to extremes for the chance to be on television. The priesthood never really comes up much, but the first series was still controversial back on the writers’ home turf.
In Ireland, the church’s moral authority was being questioned in the 1990s, so Father Ted was something entirely new in Irish comedy. It’s often been likened to The Young Ones for the impact it had on Irish viewers at the time, as a show that dared to make fun of priests.
It seems as if being a priest is one of the only professions available to the male characters, so we end up with a huge range of weird and wonderful characters in the priesthood. In the first series, the more absurd spectrum of that runs from the ball-busting hypocrisy of Bishop Brennan, to the bookcase-climbing hysteria of Father Fintan Fay, aka “the monkey priest”.
But whenever their actual job strays into the picture, it seems to be a chore. Ted and Dougal take to the moral duty of protesting a controversial film called The Passion Of Saint Tibulus with no enthusiasm whatsoever, especially in comparison to their commitment to playing Elvis Presley in the All-Priests Stars In Their Eyes Lookalike Competition. The overall impression is of an island where there’s really not much to do except being a priest, but we still never see any of them at work, doing Mass, or much else that might be described as holy. It’s by no means a particularly probing take on the priesthood, which gives Linehan and Mathews licence to go absurd as they like.
The results are often hysterical, but underlying it all, there’s an affection for the characters that wouldn’t necessarily have come through in the writers’ initial concept of Irish Lives. Linehan has credited producer Geoffrey Perkins as a major influence on the show early on, when their influences were closer to those of Seinfeld, after there were disagreements about the choice of theme songs offered by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.
At an IFTA event in 2010, Linehan recalled: “Woman Of The World was kind of like a jaunty, plinky-plonky song, and we wanted that song. He gave us two choices: he gave us that, and Songs Of Love, and we wanted the plinky-plonky song because our idea was we were making fun of sitcoms. We were saying, you know, we don’t like sitcoms. This is a parody of sitcoms.
“And I remember Geoffrey looking really glum and sad about this, you know? And then he said, ‘Why do you want to make fun of your characters?’ He said, ‘People will love these characters.’ And that was just a real revelation for me, and after that, whatever he said went, as far as I was concerned.”
The first series has some time-honoured sitcom staples, such as the ever-present catchphrases and (by the writers’ own admission) a slight over-reliance on characters jumping out of windows to button a scene, but it’s all funny. Despite being more of a cult favourite at first in the UK, the first series went on to pick up British Comedy Awards for Best Sitcom and Best Actor for Morgan, and only became more popular in the course of its run.
“That would be an ecumenical matter.”
The show came back with ten episodes and a Christmas special the following year, marking the longest run of the show’s four years on the air. It opens strong with Hell, an episode that both stretches and compresses the situation, by taking the characters away from the parochial house, but putting them into the kind of soul-crushingly miserable caravan holiday that many of us recognise.
Also in the first episode, we’re introduced to Graham Norton as Father Noel Furlong, a recurring role that made him visible on British television ahead of his career as a chat show host. Just as Ted made a huge impact on the Irish comedy landscape when it arrived, it launched the careers of guest stars like Norton and Tommy Tiernan, who was more recently seen in another Irish sitcom on Channel 4, Derry Girls.
Series 2 introduces yet more endearingly weird characters as it goes on, with more classic one-liners and running gags. The most notable recurring bit in this series comes in the form of Father Larry Duff (Tony Guilfoyle), who encounters some catastrophe each and every time Ted decides to ring him on his new-fangled mobile phone, before changing his mind and hanging up anyway.
A Song For Europe is a fondly remembered highlight of this run, which was inspired by the direct correlation between Ireland’s success in the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1990s, and the budget problems that arose from having to host the event in successive years. Linehan and Mathews first met writing for Dublin’s Hot Press magazine and the latter had previously performed in a parody U2 tribute band called The Joshua Trio, so the musical parody is right in their wheelhouse.
It’s great news that Hannon is writing the songs for Pope Ted, because he also provided Ted and Dougal’s plagiarised contest entry, a catchy ditty called My Lovely Horse. The accompanying dream sequence music video is one of the highlights of the entire show, but it’s remarkable how this run in particular stretches the basic situation to hilarious extremes.
The makers of Lost could have taken some valuable lessons about how a show about people trapped on an island can do much more entertaining stuff than the premise suggests. There’s even a plane crash, almost. The finale, Flight Into Terror, brings several of the rogues’ gallery of mad priests together on one airplane as it runs out of fuel, having a competition to decide who should get the only two parachutes. Nothing about the premise suggests that this kind of episode should be possible, but its high-altitude high concept lays the groundwork for Series 3 in a big, bad way.
A Christmassy Ted came at the end of this run, and it’s long been a seasonal fixture of festive telly. More than 20 years later, it still appears on Channel 4 and More 4 every December, like The Snowman but with more lingerie-related intrigue. At 55 minutes, it’s the longest episode, and on the DVD commentary, Linehan remarks that he thinks it’s too long. Still, this weird and wonderful tale of heroism, villainy, “liars”, and “twats” is still rightly regarded as one of the best Christmas specials ever made.
“What situation could ever need a radio-controlled wheelchair, or a pair of joke arms? Only, I would imagine, a completely ludicrous one.”
Series 3 is completely ludicrous. It’s absolute dynamite with it, of course, and it often hangs a lampshade on its own success and warped internal logic to hysterical effect. This is the series where the first episode alone makes magic out of the apparently disparate elements of a perfectly square piece of dirt on a window, a hamster on a tricycle, and a shitload of Nazi memorabilia, and knocks us dead with the pay-offs.
Before the third series began, it was announced that it would be the final run. Morgan had announced his intention to step away from the character in order to pursue other projects, and avoid being typecast as Ted.
“I don’t want to be the next Clive Dunn and end up playing the same character for years,” he said.
With that in mind, the show is taking no prisoners as it pursues ever more absurd stories to the same endearing effect as ever. In the main, it’s a run of high-concept genre parodies that includes a monster movie about a rigged sheep competition, an unofficial Speed sequel set on an explosive-laden milk float, and a zombie movie featuring ravening hordes of elderly fangirls. And in between, there’s a bit where Ted has to kick Bishop Brennan up the arse. It’s deliriously funny stuff from beginning to end.
By the same token, we see more of Linehan and Mathews satirising the form, with nods to their own storytelling conventions. For instance, the above quote comes from Escape From Victory, in which Ted spends much of the episode pondering where the pay-off is coming from out loud, but it’s still completely hilarious when it arrives.
All the while, the show delights in embellishing the ludicrous lore of Craggy Island, where “They’ve taken the roads in” is a phrase that makes any kind of sense, and a beast with four arses may or may not be roaming “the place where there would be moors”. But it’s the perfectly-cast characters who really allow the comedy to expand to such drastically surreal lengths without breaking, and that’s why watching the final episode, Going To America, is such a bittersweet experience.
The episode ends with Ted deciding not to pursue his dreams in Beverly Hills after all (though out of fear for his life, rather than any affection for Craggy Island or its people) and going home, while Dougal reminds him that he’s going to be here “forever and ever and ever”. It was always intended to be the last episode, but the circumstances of filming proved more final.
The day after filming was completed, Dermot Morgan suffered a heart attack at his home and passed away. He was 45 years old. It’s sad when anyone dies at such a young age, but the fact that his passing came right as he was moving on from his star-making turn, with so much more to give, is doubly tragic.
The episode ends with a montage of clips from the entire series, covering every episode in reverse chronological order, before the lights go out at the parochial house. It’s a fitting tribute to Morgan and to the show itself.
20 years since that final episode aired, the show is as beloved as ever. There are still TV programmes, websites, pub quizzes, wrestling events, and even a fan convention called Ted Fest, all themed around the show and its peculiarities. It’s one mark of a great fandom when it can keep going even without new material on which to thrive.
Like any successful show that makes it across the Atlantic, there have been rumblings of a US TV version over the years, with successive versions lining up Steve Martin (apparently a big fan) and John Michael Higgins (who made an odd statement about how the American version would be less harsh on religion) in the frame to play Ted. Graham Norton was tipped to play Dougal in one of them. Unsurprisingly, the show didn’t get its American-language translation, and never even got as far as most of the myriad attempts at redoing Linehan’s later show, The IT Crowd.
It’s interesting that Pope Ted will bring Linehan and Mathews back together again. After Ted, they went on to write the inspired sketch show Big Train, but went their separate ways by the second series. In Linehan’s subsequent sitcoms, especially The IT Crowd and the supremely underrated Count Arthur Strong, you can see the same sense of humour that made Ted such a surreally giddy delight.
When Linehan confirmed that the long-rumoured musical will happen over the weekend, he tweeted: “It’s the real final episode of Father Ted. This is true and not one of my stupid jokes, I promise. Didn’t want to do something until the right idea came along. This was the right idea. Arthur and I have been laughing our arses off while writing it. Just like the old days.”
Calling Pope Ted the “real final episode” might yet provoke a reaction akin to how Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, billed as the eighth story in that series, divided fans of JK Rowling’s wizarding world. As long as they don’t publish the script book at the same time as the play is staged, they should be fine. And as a different take on the characters, we’re mostly excited about this. If it were on TV, you couldn’t hope to replace the perfect casting of Morgan, or anyone else in the cast, for that matter.
Since the show ended, Ardal O’Hanlon has drawn a line under Dougal, currently playing DI Jack Mooney in Death In Paradise, and Pauline McLynn has firmly stated that she’ll never play Mrs. Doyle again, having last played the role in an Inland Revenue ad campaign in 2001, which saw her badgering viewers to “go online” to complete their tax returns. Frank Kelly sadly passed away in 2016, eighteen years to the day after Morgan did.
For as long as the show has been off air, the prospect of recasting these characters would probably be enough to make most fans shout “Down with this sort of thing!” Heretical as it may be to some, the musical can only add to the show’s amazing legacy. As long as we’re all repeating lines from it and laughing through our umpteenth rewatch, it’s impossible to diminish it.