They just don’t make sitcoms like Father Ted anymore. Sure, you can still turn on BBC1 during the week and catch a studio-filmed multiple-camera setup sitcom, complete with laugh track, but you’ll have to put up with an annoyingly voiced woman falling over or an unfunny Irishman dressed hilariously in drag. What you won’t find is a smart yet silly flight of comic fancy that feels both fresh and timeless all at once.
Between 1995 and 1998, Father Ted was a cultural phenomenon. It may have been tucked away on Channel 4, but this was a time when we only had four channels of note, and the show regularly topped five million viewers. The 1996 Christmas Special received the highest viewing figures for a non-film in Channel 4’s history at the time. Even people who didn’t watch the show knew about the drunken priest who yelled “Drink! Feck! Girls!”, and the insistent housekeeper determined to ensure visitors to the parochial house had a cup of tea. Look past the catchphrases and one-joke characters though, and you’ll see that Dermot Morgan’s Father Ted Crilly is one of the great TV comedy creations. Co-writer Graham Linehan has admitted that Ted is the only human and realised character in a show full of charicatures. Ted, exiled to Craggy Island by Bishop Len Brennan for financial irregularities (the money was just resting in his account), spends every episode wishing to escape from the drudgery of his rural posting, and trying to survive living with archetypal idiot Father Dougal McGuire.
Written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, Father Ted was probably my biggest comedic influence growing up. It made me want to write comedy, and is responsible for the tiny part of my brain that refuses to give up on this foolhardy dream. Running a film blog, I was tempted to pick one of the many great film parodies the show produced in its short three series run. Speed 3, where Father Dougal McGuire’s milk float (long story, but it concerns Pat Mustard and babies with mustaches) can’t drop below 5mph or it will explore; or Night of the Nearly Dead which replaces George A. Romero’s zombies with pensioners.
Ultimately though, I have plumped for an episode that resonates on a very personal level. Obviously, publishing this piece on the eve of Eurovision Song Contest 2013 is pure good fortune.
Song for Europe sees catholic priests Father Ted Crilly and Father Dougal McGuire entering Song for Europe, a Eurovision-style competition. As is often the case in this series, Ted’s competitive spirit is stoked into action by the news that his nemesis Father Dick Byrne is also entering. Dougal, as ever, gets a little carried away with the idea of fame and fortune, “Imagine if we won. We’d be like Nelson Mandela and his mad wife”.
The pinnacle of the episode is watching Ted and Dougal’s creative song writing process. From the suggestion of writing a song “about a lovely horse”, Ted has to remind Dougal that they’re not actually in love with the horse. Hours pass, and Ted explodes in a ball of rock diva rage shouting at Dougal to “Play the f**king note! No, not the f**king first one! The first one’s already f**king down”. With Father Jack and Mrs Doyle unimpressed by their efforts, Ted decides to steal the tune (or honour the memory) of a long forgotten Norwegian Eurovision b-side, and the magnificent My Lovely Horse is born.
And this is the real reason I chose the episode. Like the show’s title music, My Lovely Horse was written and performed by Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy. My favourite musician of the last twenty years writing a Eurovision entry for my favourite TV programme of the last twenty years. Pretty much every Divine Comedy gig I’ve attended has featured at least one request for My Lovely Horse from the audience, and after much fan pressure Hannon finally released it as a b-side on his Gin soaked Boy single in 1999. Here are the song’s lyrics in all their glory:
My lovely horse, running through the field
Where are you going, with your fetlocks blowing in the wind?
I want to shower you with sugar lumps, and ride you over fences
Polish your hooves every single day, and bring you to the horse dentist
My lovely horse, you’re a pony no more
Running around with a man on your back, like a train in the night…
Ted and Dougal make it to the finals of A Song for Ireland, where we get a glimpse of Ted’s pretty non-committal relationship with religion, and Catholicism in general. Flustered by the revelation that the show’s producer and presenter are homosexual partners, Ted desperately tries to make conversation, “Must be fun though. Not the… but the nightclubs and the whole rough and tumble of homosexual activity”. When the producer is surprised at a catholic priest condoning homosexuality, Ted tells his that “sometimes the Pope says things he doesn’t really mean”. To Ted, being a priest is just a job that fulfills a role on the island. Like being a milkman, or running the local shop.
Sadly, Dermot Morgan died at the shockingly young age of 45 before the final series of Father Ted was aired. While we will never know where his career would have taken his after Craggy Island, we can at least admire his genius in portraying a comic character that is right up there with the likes of Basil Fawlty, Mr Rigsby, and Norman Stanley Fletcher.