A Ted talk

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

One of the problems with growing older is that every time an anniversary – of something you love or that’s important to you – crops up, it affects you like a punch to the solar plexus.  “Jesus, is it really ten years since they released that album?”  “Bloody hell, no!  It can’t be 15 years since that movie came out!”  “What, 25 years ago that happened?  25 f**king years?  No!  Surely not!”  The result, once the initial wave of shock has passed, is that you spend five minutes studying your ravaged face in the mirror.  Then you spend the rest of the day in a daze, reliving fond – though now bitter-sweet – memories from long ago.

 

And the same thought keeps flashing inside your head: “Aw!  I was so young then!”

 

I had an experience like that recently when I read in the Guardian that this month is the 20th anniversary of the debut, on Channel 4, of Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ much-loved situation comedy Father Ted.  Yes, that surreal and slapstick-ridden saga of three hapless priests and their demented housekeeper living on a remote Irish island is now two decades old.

 

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

 

The very first episode of Father Ted reached our TV screens in April 1995.  Which was the year of the Oklahoma Bombing, the Tokyo Subway gas attack and the Unabomber; of Jacques Chirac becoming French President, Nick Leeson bringing down Barings Bank and O.J. Simpson being acquitted of murder; of the disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the feud between Blur and Oasis and the release of the world’s first full-length computer-animated feature film, Toy Story.  It was that long ago.  Now please excuse me while I go off and stare at myself in the mirror for five minutes.  Aw!  I was so young then…

 

Okay, five minutes have passed and I’m now back at my keyboard.  The thing with Father Ted is that the show feels like it’s never left us.  This is despite it running for just three series, plus a Christmas special, and notching up just 25 episodes.  Also, the fact that its third season would be its last was tragically underscored when the show’s star, Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack just 24 hours after the final episode had finished filming and two weeks before Channel 4 began to show the final season.  Thus, even before Father Ted had ended its TV run in 1998, fans were sadly aware that it was all over.

 

However, those 25 episodes have seemingly spent the last decade being broadcast on an endless loop on Channel 4’s digital / Freeview subsidiary More 4.  If you desperately need a Ted-fix, it seems to be there for you most evenings.  And every Christmas-time, Channel 4 still gives a prominent festive airing to the 1996 Christmas special, the one where Ted and gormless sidekick Father Dougal and half-a-dozen other priests get trapped inside the ladies’ lingerie section of a giant department store.  I suspect this is the only TV programme some people in Britain watch at Christmas-time.  These days, it’s the only thing I ever watch at Christmas-time.

 

So why was Father Ted so good?  There are many factors that can contribute to the success of a TV sitcom.  And if you wrote those factors down in a list and started ticking off the ones that apply to Father Ted, you’d probably find at the end that you’d ticked all of them.  For example…

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Being trapped

The clue is in the term itself: situation comedy.  The more limiting the situation the characters are in, the more they get on each other’s nerves and the more comedy is generated as a result.  See Slade Prison in Porridge (1974-1977) or the World War I trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989).  Father Ted’s setting isn’t quite as claustrophobic as those.  But the Parochial House is pretty bad – with Dougal practising his relentless buffoonery, Father Jack sitting drinking and swearing in the corner and Mrs Doyle torturing her charges with endless cups of tea.  And the wider environment, Craggy Island, isn’t much better – it’s populated by misfits like Tom, the village idiot / truck driver / pest-control officer / armed bank robber, and John and Mary O’Leary, the shop-owning couple who when they aren’t grovelling to the priests are busy trying to murder each other.  The place is maddening for someone with Ted’s intelligence and aspirations.  Which leads neatly to…

 

Frustrated aspirations

Many great sitcoms have a lead character or characters who believe they’re capable of greater things but are continually thwarted by their circumstances and the less able souls around them.  Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962-1974) was forever trying to climb the social ladder but was held back (1) by his being a rag-and-bone man and (2) by his wheedling, devious and utterly exasperating old dad.  The elderly leads of Dad’s Army (1968-1977) were brave former soldiers desperate to do their bit for King and Country against Hitler, but because of their age and infirmities they had to make do with playing at being soldiers in the local Home Guard unit.

 

Ted’s aspirations aren’t complex.  He’s a regular bloke pining for money, comfort and an easy life (as in the episode Going to America) or for the love of a good, preferably beautiful and wealthy woman (as in the episode And God Created Woman).  Fulfilling those aspirations isn’t going to be easy, though, as Ted – despite his apparent disinterest in religion – has somehow ended up becoming a priest.  The fact that the community of priests that Ted belongs to consists mostly of idiots doesn’t help, either.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Recognisable characters

Obviously, it helps a sitcom’s success if viewers can identify with its characters.  Ted is a recognisable everyman figure, but the show’s other characters – though drawn with hugely-broad brushstrokes – are hardly ones that people in Ireland, south or north of the border, are unfamiliar with.  You don’t have to wander far on the Emerald Isle before you encounter an amiable young dimwit like Dougal or a cantankerous old drunk like Jack.  As for Mrs Doyle, I seem to remember Northern Ireland being overrun with types like her in my childhood – ladies of a certain age, both Protestant and Catholic, who’d treat their guests to an almost psychotic level of hospitality.  If you set foot in their parlours and didn’t immediately consume a gallon of tea and several kilos of their best cakes, buns and biscuits, they’d take it as a mortal insult.

 

A family unit

Many successful sitcoms are about families.  Many others feature a set of characters who interact in family-like ways.  Their relationships are recognisably parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife, etc.  Thus, in The Thick of It (2005-2012) we have an abusive father (Malcolm), a well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Nicola), a bratty child (Ollie) and a dotty uncle and aunt (Glen and Terri).  And the family dynamic doesn’t necessarily require the presence of both genders.  In the all-male Porridge, there’s an overbearingly strict father (MacKay) and another well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Barrowclough), plus two sons chaffing against their parents’ authority, the streetwise older brother (Fletcher) and the naïve kid brother (Godber).

 

Thus, in Father Ted, it isn’t difficult to see how Ted, Mrs Doyle, Jack and Dougal fill the roles of stressed-out dad, hectoring mum, sozzled old granddad and naïve young son.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Work

Some of the greatest sitcom characters, in Britain at least, are defined by their jobs – world’s worst hotelier (Basil Fawlty), world’s worst office manager (David Brent), world’s worst D.J. (Alan Partridge).  Meanwhile, sitcoms like The IT Crowd (2006-2013, written by Linehan) and Black Books (2000-2004, with both Linehan and Arthur Mathews contributing to the scripts) show the endless jealousies, rivalries and antagonisms that arise in a workplace.  These are invariably petty conflicts that outside observers, i.e. the sitcom audience, find both ridiculous and hilarious.  It’s a variation on the first item on this list, being trapped.  You don’t want to spend 40 or more hours every week with these losers and misfits around you.  But you signed the job contract and they’re your colleagues.  You have to.

 

Ted probably isn’t the world’s worst priest.  (That title may well belong to Dougal or Jack.)  He is, though, tortured by his work situation.  He has to deal with the army of oddballs who make up the local priesthood – bores (Father Paul Stone), annoyances (Father Noel Furlong), delinquents (Father Damo Lennon), bitter rivals (Father Dick Byrne) and utter sadists (Father Fintan Stack, the priest who plays his beloved jungle music really loud).  He also has to deal with the idiocies of the organisation that employs him – such as the All Priests Over-75s Five-a-Side Football Championship, the All Priests Stars in their Eyes Lookalike Competition or the church hotline that puts you on a hold while a real nun sings Ave Maria down the phone-line at you.

 

Lies that escalate

Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) mined comic gold from the deceptions of Basil Fawlty.  His attempts at, say, hiding a dead body from the hotel guests or hiding a pet rat from a hotel inspector would trigger chains of events where confusion escalated into embarrassment and then into disaster.  Similarly, Ted is forever trying to lie his way out of tricky situations.  How can he hide the fact that he’s just destroyed the car that was going to be the prize in the big fundraising raffle from his parishioners?  How can he hide the fact that the Parochial House is infested with rabbits from his bellicose superior, Bishop Brennan, who’s coming to visit and who coincidentally has a massive rabbit-phobia?  Predictably, each lie ends up causing him a hell of a lot more trouble than the trouble it was originally meant to avoid.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Catch-phrases

It’s an easy route to comic success.  Load your comedy show with catch-phrases and hopefully the public will be shouting at least some of them on the street the next day.  It often works, though.  Look at how The Fast Show (1994-1997), The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002) or Little Britain (2003-2006) quickly imprinted themselves on the national consciousness.  Father Ted, of course, is choc-a-bloc with them – Jack shouting, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!” or Mrs Doyle going, “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on, go on…” or Bishop Brennan bellowing, “Crill-eee!”

 

Even one-off lines from individual episodes have passed into everyday usage – “Down with this sort of thing!” (from The Passion of Saint Tibulus) or “That would be an ecumenical matter!” (from Tentacles of Doom).  Indeed, just the other day, while I was having lunch with someone, I suddenly found myself intoning: “There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island.  And I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”  At which point my girlfriend told me not to order another pitcher of beer.

 

Of its time

Dad’s Army couldn’t have appeared at any period other than the 1960s / 1970s.  World War II still loomed large in many people’s memories but sufficient time had passed for its awfulness to feel less pronounced, so that it was the right moment for a sitcom making gentle humour out of it.  The Office (2001-2003) was perfect for the early noughties.  Tony Blair and the Nu-Labour government were at their peak and Britons were supposed to feel good about themselves – the economy was booming but everyone now inhabited a nicer, more civilised, more PC and touchy-feely environment.  But the suspicion – which the show confirmed – was that, under the surface, working practices were just as callous, exploitative and horrible as they’d been before.

 

Similarly, Father Ted couldn’t have arrived at any time other than the mid-1990s.  Ireland had become more cosmopolitan and streetwise and it now had the confidence to poke fun at its old stereotypes and clichés.  Sadly, this was also before the dark secrets of the Catholic Church came tumbling out of the closet.  Indeed, Linehan, interviewed two years ago in the Independent, said he wouldn’t have penned a series about loveable buffoonish priests if he’d known what he knows now about the industrial levels of child abuse perpetrated by his country’s clergy: “I could never write Ted now because I’d be so angry my fingers would go through the keyboard.”

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/graham-linehan-ive-come-to-hate-the-church-8665386.html

 

Come to think of it, modern-day Ireland would be a lot more at ease with its religious heritage if the Catholic Church had been staffed purely by the likes of Fathers Ted, Dougal, Jack, Dick Byrne, Noel Furlong, Fintan Stack and so on.

 

(c) Hat Trick Productions

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *