A return to Craggy Island

Fri, Dec 31, 2010, 00:00

Fifteen years ago, ARTHUR MATHEWSand Graham Linehan gave the world Father Ted. While filming a documentary, they returned to the comedy’s home. Is the parochial house still standing, is the lovely horse alive and just where did their inspiration come from?

DURING THE summer, while filming a documentary about Father Ted, Graham and I went back to Co Clare for the first time since we stopped filming there in 1998. We drove around the locality, visiting some of the locations which hardcore fans of the show would probably be familiar with. In Kilfenora, the roundabout (not a real one – but lovingly manufactured by the show’s art department) which Dougal drove around and around in order to give Ted time to come up with a way of defusing the ticking time bomb on board his milk cart, still exists. It now rests at the other end of the town, outside Vaughan’s pub, where we also filmed some scenes, and went for the odd drink or two at the end of the day.

Strangely, it’s not the fake roundabout’s final resting place. Once a year it’s taken out for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, where, suitably, it’s marched around, before being returned to its central location outside Vaughan’s. The “Auld Circle” is now a decade and a half old, and in need of some repair. (“Save Kilfenora’s Father Tedroundabout!”)

We also returned to the caravan park near Lahinch which we used in an episode called “Hell”, where Ted, Dougal and Jack go on holidays and end up staying in a tiny caravan with a Youth Group under the “care” of mega-eejit and folk-singing obsessive Father Noel Furlong, played by Graham Norton. (Father Noel was based on a real-life priest encountered by my friend and occasional collaborator Paul Woodfull during his youth-club days. This uber-enthusiastic cleric was very excitable and said things like: “God, I went mad last night! I mustn’t have got home until about half ten!”)

Very strangely, most of the youngsters we met in the caravan park seemed to know that Father Tedhad been filmed there. We met a very nice lady and her dog (the dog, I’ve been told, has sadly died since). She told us she had spent her holidays in the caravan park for almost two decades and knew the exact location of the caravan.

We continued on our trek back to our base at Ennistymon, where the cast and crew used to stay at the Falls Hotel. In the grounds outside, along the river which runs through the town, we were reunited with the actual horse (and owner – the horse needs supervision) from the My Lovely Horse video featured in the “Song For Europe” episode. (We based the video very closely on the Swarbrigg Brothers’ promo for the very fine That’s What Friends Are For Eurovision entry from 1975.) The horse is in good shape, and I can honestly say has aged less than any of the other cast members.

Our final destination took us to the site of “the Parochial House”. A remote spot, it always seemed to take an age to drive there, and as we pulled up in our Ted-alike car (not the real one, but a similar model, apparently used by the Garda during Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in 1984), the house seemed unchanged. It was a lovely day, though, sunny and warm, unlike the harsh, cold days of November when we were filming the show there. I have vivid memories of a large room in the house which boasted a huge fireplace. I remember Dermot Morgan in a large throne-like armchair which he would sit in-between scenes, chatting away, doing impressions, telling anecdotes. As the saying goes, Dermot was always “on”.

Even today, numerous visitors call to the house in search of the Spirit of Ted. They mostly congregate at the gates, although some have been known to march in, bold as brass, through the front door.

Cheryl and Patrick, who own the house, seem resigned to it all. Cheryl, a native New Yorker, does afternoon teas, which have proved popular with the stream of Ted tourists. During our visit, a family called around, and were obviously surprised to find a film crew present. Amidst the teas and buns and Ted talk, one of the junior female members of the family, probably too young to remember the show when it was first broadcast, suddenly admitted: “I just don’t get it!” It’s my favourite part of the documentary.

Later, we were joined by Frank and Ardal (Pauline, probably worn down by too many “Go on, go on, go ons” over the years, didn’t want to take part in the programme). We discussed the show, and what it meant to us, and how it had changed our lives, and we remembered Dermot, and the show’s original producer, Geoffrey Perkins, who has also since died. We owe them both a lot.

Even though we wrote 25 episodes, it’s often hard to remember how and when we came up with individual ideas. Some things do stand out, though. I had two friends who had met each other while studying at teacher training college. They had subsequently married, but even though their college days were years behind them, they had stayed in contact with a fellow student. Or rather, he had stayed in contact with them. In fact, they couldn’t shake him off. He would come and stay with them every summer, which was always a prospect they dreaded. In order to make the long, dreary days of his visit go a little faster, they would sometimes play golf.

During one stint on the fairways my friends discovered that their unwanted guest had repaid their hospitality by cheating (he’d deliberately stood on their ball). Later, in the pub, he would invariably fail to get his round in. What a rotter. My friends finally had enough of him. When he rang up one year to give them the details of his arrival later that summer, they finally cracked. “Please don’t come! We have nothing in common!” they pleaded. But the fiend wouldn’t have any of it. “Look, we’ll findsomething in common!” was his uncompromising response.

This story greatly amused me, so we used it as the basic idea behind “Entertaining Father Stone”, where a really boring priest (played by Michael Redmond) visits the parochial house. A lot of it is rather quiet, and not typically frantic. Nothing much happens in “Father Stone”. It’s quite a simple plot. All the “boring stuff” – Stone’s non-interaction with Ted and Dougal – was quite fun to write. We just needed a twist. Finally we came up with the idea that while out playing crazy golf Father Stone is hit by lightning, which would then mean he’d have to spend his long period of convalescence with Ted and Dougal, thus making the situation even more unbearable.

I particularly like this episode because I’m acutely aware of social awkwardness and the difficulty of talking to people you have nothing in common with. I remember once being alone in the living room with my elderly uncle, who was a rather intimidating priest based in Tullamore. (Uncle Paddy, in a long life as parish priest in rural Ireland, took many photographs of his parishioners and other priests and nuns. I’ve always loved them, and – along with a heady dose of Radharc documentaries, which, sadly, we were refused permission to use clips from in the programme – they very much formed my perceptions of priests as I was growing up.)

During this particular visit, my mother and sister were probably in the kitchen “making the tea”, so Uncle Paddy and myself were alone watching television. He was about 70 years old and spoke fluent Latin and Irish. I was working in Hot Pressat the time and going through a heavy Smiths phase. We didn’t have much in common. Then, very unexpectedly, and extremely alarmingly, I became aware that what was on the television screen in front of us was Prince in concert. The impish entertainer was probably about to launch into “Sexy Motherfucker”. I had better say something. However, Uncle Paddy beat me to it. “That fella there,” he said, as he stared grimly at the screen in front of us, “what the hellis going on in his mind?” I literally had no answer. But it was a funny situation.

Graham and I would sometimes come across plots or ideas when we were watching comedy programmes and reckon that it was so good it must have been something that happened in real life. You couldn’t make it up.

Graham’s mother was entertaining a guest once and left this visitor in the sitting room while she went to the kitchen to make some tea. In an adjacent room was a piano. She suddenly heard very strange, discordant music coming from the room. She didn’t know quite what was happening until she realized that a cat had leapt on to the piano, and as it scarpered across the keys, had caused the crazy piano playing. The thought then occurred to her that her guest must have thought that it was she who was responsible for the mad sound. Graham later put this into an episode of The IT Crowd. It’s a very Seinfeld moment. We were, and are, big fans of Seinfeld, and it was one of the major influences on Father Ted.

In 1996, a few months after the horrific Dunblane massacre in Scotland, someone who lived in the village wrote to us. She said that she was so shocked and upset by the atrocity she thought she’d never be able to laugh again. But, after a while, she saw an episode of Father Tedand she laughed. So she wrote to thank us.

I think that, in general, although Father Teddoesn’t appeal to everybody’s tastes (Michael Grade, the head of Channel 4, famously didn’t like the show at all), there now exists a kind of general fondness for the programme, especially in Ireland. Obviously, I don’t think older people or members of the clergy thought when they first saw it, “This is just what we’ve been waiting for – this is great!” But when viewers who stuck with Ted, Dougal, Jack and Mrs Doyle got used to the sheer silliness of it all, they probably began to enjoy it more.

I heard once that nuns in Canada picketed a TV channel which was showing the programme. I always enjoyed things like that. But one of my favourite reactions came from someone who phoned up an RTÉ radio show which Graham and I were being interviewed on. The listener was quite serious, and accused us of something along the lines of “anti-Irishness” (!). We used to get that type of criticism occasionally: “The show portrays the Irish in a bad light” etc. We listened to his comments and were quite non-confrontational and polite to him. I think this might have disarmed him a little, as his final comment was: “But, you know, it’s good to see you two doing so well in England.”

I liked that. Very Irish. Very Father Ted.

Small, Far Away: The World of Father Tedis on Channel 4 on New Year’s Day at 10.05pm as part of the station’s Father Tednight, which begins at 9pm