It’s been fifteen years since 'Father Ted' first appeared on TV and Channel 4 recently celebrated with a whole night of Ted, including two new documentaries revealing everything about everybody’s favourite priest. The RTÉ Guide's Alan Corr is a fan.
"He’s a perpetually jolly and rather sad man who, through some terrible accident of faith, has found himself in the priesthood." Comedy writer Arthur Matthews is reading from a script bearing the date 1990 and the title 'Father Ted Crilly'. This document is as sacred as the Holy Stone of Clonrichert itself for it was the beginning of the idea that became 'Father Ted', one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history.
'Father Ted Crilly' was actually one of a series of planned mockumentaries written by Matthews and co-writer Graham Linehan about the lives of six fictional Irish figures but luckily comedy producer Geoffrey Perkins had a better idea. He convinced Matthews and Linehan to turn their mockumentary into a sitcom and the rest as they say is well, hilarity.
From the off, 'Father Ted' was different. Sure matters of the clergy and faith (or lack of faith) had been the butt of comedy before but Ted took a surreal approach to what is, let’s face it, a very surreal subject. It was slapstick, it was plain nuts, and it was very Irish to the extent that certain things can now be said to be "very Ted". Catchphrases such as "Go on, go on, go on", "Feck! Drink! Girls!", "That money was resting in my account" and even, "That would be an ecumenical matter" have entered the language and the show has arguably become the most beloved sitcom since Basil Fawlty ran amok in that hotel in Torquay and those friends sipped coffee in Central Perk.
It ended in 1998 after three series but it will not go away. It’s repeated regularly, a scheduling stop gap that everyone’s glad to see, there’s been an annual Ted Fest in Co Clare and to top it all, it’s been voted the Favourite TV Show of All Time by readers of the RTÉ Guide. No amount of repeats and revisits to Craggy Island can dull its brilliance.
Channel 4 recently screened a night of Ted and in among favourite episodes and scenes voted by viewers and the writers themselves, were two new documentaries which finally revealed the Genesis of one of the funniest stories ever told. In 'Small, Far Away' Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan boarded Ted’s original car, a battered blue Ford, and travelled back to Ted land in Co Clare to revisit the haunts they made famous. The duo, nervy, erudite Matthews and boyish Linehan, traipsed around The Burren, site of many a Craggy Island picnic, revisited that stark outcrop of a parochial house, and met many of the original cast.
"We wanted to make an Irish sit com with all the insanity of 'The Young Ones' and the cleverness of 'Blackadder' and 'Fawlty Towers' but with all the Irish madness," explains Linehan and like both those classics, 'Father Ted' needed a double act to produce the comedy gold. So in the grand tradition of Laurel and Hardy and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and with a range of eejits from Laika from 'Taxi' and Trigger from 'Only Fools and Horses' in mind, Matthews and Linehan invented Father Dougal Maguire. "Alongside the wily priest who would lie at the drop of a hat we wanted a gormless idiot who was the very model of innocence."
The final piece was Father Jack, the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed elder man of the house who was to become one of TV’s true grotesques. As well as that unholy trinity of Ted, Dougal and Jack, there was an endless procession of fellow priests including Ted’s arch enemy, Father Dick Byrne, the monosyllabic Father Stone and the Riverdancing-in-a-caravan Father Noel Furlong.
The show was not without its critics from those who thought it was anti-church (if anything 'Father Ted' humanised priests) to those who felt it was anti-Irish. Graham Linehan recalls appearing to defend Ted on Channel 4’s audience response show 'Right to Reply' and squaring off with a second generation Irish woman from Manchester who declared that the show ridiculed Ireland. "The initial response was just knee jerk," he says. "It was fear of being made to look stupid."
At the old parochial house, in reality an imposing pile on the edge of The Burren which now includes a tea room to cater for the constant stream of visiting Ted fans, original cast members gathered to reminisce. The ever-dapper Frank Kelly, who still owns Father Jack’s teeth, says he liked hitting Dermot Morgan over the head with a hammer while Ardal O’Hanlon says that playing football with tearaway cleric Father Damo was one of the highlights of his life.
"People still say to me you look like Dougal but the voice has been a bigger giveaway," says O’Hanlon. "I used to zone out about half an hour before performances. I’d become Dougal but not in any method-y way. It’s funny, once I put on the costume I used to become Dougal."
One of the most interesting interviews in 'Small, Far Away' was with Jim Norton, who played Father Ted’s nemesis, the glowering Bishop Lenny Brennan. "I did go to the Christian Brothers for my education and I met some very strange people indeed," Norton says. "I remember the sadistic, pitiless way they had of making fun of me so yes, Bishop Brennan was a great way of getting my own back."
Norton says he’s never actually watched the legendary episode where Ted loses a bet to his Father Dick Byrne and has to deliver a kick up the Bishop’s arse, which unsurprisingly, is Matthews and Linehan’s all-time favourite episode. "I’ve been in places and planes where it’s playing but I’ve never watched it," says Norton. "It’s too painful because we had such fun doing it. It was such a blast."
It sure looked that way. There are just too many nutters to mention (Pauline McLynn declined the chance to take part in 'Father Ted Night') but at the centre of the whole mad carnival was the brilliant and mercurial Dermot Morgan as Father Ted Crilly, the perpetually jolly and rather sad man who tried to make the best of his situation but was always let down by himself and his fellow exiles on the gulag of Craggy Island.
Matthews and Linehan agree that Ted was the most like them of the whole crazy cast. "He was influenced by a lot of priests I used to see when I was growing up," says Matthews whose own uncle was a man of the cloth. "That’s where his voice came from and he was the one me and Graham identified with the most."
'Father Ted' ended with an episode called 'Going to America' in which Ted got cold feet after taking up an offer to move to LA. On the very last day of studio filming in London, O’Hanlon, Kelly and Morgan threw their priestly collars into the audience. Morgan, at only 45, died of a heart attack that night after the wrap party but even today without those endless and very welcome repeats, you get the impression that he really is up there looking down on his creation.