Father Ted gift-wrapped: comedy gold, the frankly incensed and mirth

I hear confessions of Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, Fr Jack, Fr Dougal, Fr Damo, Fr Stone, Fr Ziggy, Eoin McLove and Terry McNamee, plus more secret lives, why some people hated Ted and miscellaneous Tedfoolery

In this clip Ted attempts to prepare Father Jack for the impending visit by the Bishop. Pics: Hat Trick

 

Earlier this year, I wrote a feature called The Secret Lives of the Priests in Father Ted. Of course, no sooner was it published than readers contacted me with more startling revelations about the secret lives of other characters, from the dipsomaniac TV host, Henry “I made the BBC” Sellers, to the lecherous milkman, Pat “Hairy Baby Maker” Mustard, which I am going to share with you today.

But this time, I have dug a little deeper, and invited into my Portaconfessional Father Ted co-creator and co-writer Arthur Mathews, Fr Jack (Frank Kelly), Fr Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon), Fr Damo (Joe Rooney), Fr Stone (Michael Redmond), Fr Ziggy (Paul Woodfull), singer and heart-throb Eoin McLove (Patrick McDonnell) and Terry McNamee (Gerard Lee), producer of the TV programme Faith of Our Fathers. Arthur and Paul shed new light on how the show came about and they and the others discuss their involvement in it and its legacy.

I also explore what academia has to say about the show – cheers, Google Scholar (Google what now?) – in particular, why some people hated Ted, as well as some appropriately bizarre Father Ted-related research.

In a world exclusive, I also reveal a suppressed front page of The Times from 1996, which purports to unmask the true identity of the role model for Father Jack.

Finally, in a multimedia bonus, I include some hyperlinks to rare Father Ted-related footage – a trailer to series three; Ted and Dougal on Comic Relief; Father Jack’s festive hit, Christmas Countdown; Fr Stone cropping up in the video to Thank You Very Much, Mr Eastwood - a hit song for Father Ted himself, Dermot Morgan; and Arthur Mathews and Paul Woodfull as part of The Joshua Trio, their U2 spoof. Be warned, scrolling straight to the end is a venial sin, the penance for which is to watch every episode of Ballykissangel. Twice.

They said that it couldn’t be done or, possibly, shouldn’t. That it was scraping the bottom of the font. Flogging a dead, albeit lovely horse. But here’s a festive helping of more Tedfoolery: from Mamma Mia to Gladiator, from Bloomsday to Barry McGuigan.

Be warned, it’s a big read (or perhaps I’m just too close to it). Small… far away… ah, forget it.

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MORE SECRET LIVES

Pat Mustard (Pat Laffan)

The lecherous milkman from Speed 3, he of the massive tool aka an unfeasibly large adjustabler spanner, which he asks Mrs Doyle to store in her, ahem, box, has previous as a lascivious reprobate. The dirty scut was also George “Snip, Snip” Burgess in The Snapper – spoiler alert – in which he is eventually revealed as the mystery father of Sharon Curley’s child and is threatened with garden shears by her dad (Colm Meaney). He also pops up in The Queen as the head ghillie and as Father O’Sullivan in Strumpet City.

Henry Sellers (Niall Buggy)

The TV host with an unfortunate weakness for the drink in the episode Competition Time – “I made the BBC” – was played by Niall Buggy, who also crops up as the priest in Mamma Mia, Father Alex. He gives good priest, having also played the role of Father Mackay in Brideshead Revisited; Father Dom in The Butcher Boy; the vicar in The Tale of Sweeney Todd; Father Healy in The Gathering Seed; and Father Brennan in Grease Monkeys.

Policeman who arrests Fr Todd Unctious (John Quinn)

John Quinn, who plays the policeman who arrests Todd Unctious in Christmassy Ted, pops up in the opening section of Gladiator as Valerius, having a jolly post-battle toast with Russell Crowe.

***

TRUE CONFESSIONS

Fr Ziggy etc. (Paul Woodfull)

How it all began: Father Ted live with Arthur Mathews

Father Ted was a character Arthur dreamt up back in the Hot Press days of 1987-1989. We both did the layout and design of Hot Press at the time and there was much time for mischief. The idea of The Joshua Trio came from those production weekends. I would sing U2 songs in various styles and then eventually Arthur suggested we actually do a rehearsal session and try playing them – so we did. Also on those weekends Arthur dreamt up a character called Father Ted, who he would perform for us in the office.

Arthur’s version of Father Ted was a kind of camp priest. Camp priests were something we all recognised but we wouldn’t have been aware that so many priests were gay at that time so it was a great observation on his part.

Eventually Arthur, myself and Graham Linehan put a comedy sketch group together called The Fun Bunch. We decided to do a sketch featuring his Father Ted priest character. It was in Graham Linehan’s kitchen in Castleknock where we were trying to think up a surname for Ted and then Graham came up with “Crilly”. My memory tells me we were convinced more or less immediately to go with that. And so Father Ted Crilly was born and first appeared on stage in a comedy night in The Project Arts Theatre. He went down well – my working-class priest, I recall, was less successful.

After that Arthur’s Father Ted would come out during the set of another musical comedy act I used to have called Tony St James and The Las Vegas Sound and give a sermon.

On one occasion he came out in a Tony St James Midnight At The Olympia gig and some lads were giving out, thinking he was a real priest, shouting “Not a ****ing priest!” They seemed happy when he produced a portable confession box and proceeded to talk about it.

He used to talk about a priest colleague who was on the missions named Dougal Maguire. He would talk about his concern for Dougal, who had been voted Most Unpopular Priest in Africa for two years running and was spending Christmas up a tree in the grounds of The Bob Geldof Centre, where he worked.

On another occasion in The Purty Loft in Dún Laoghaire I remember Arthur’s Father Ted singing I Don’t Have to Take my Clothes off to have a Good Time.

In fact, RTÉ was the first to broadcast Father Ted

Father Ted later featured in a short series myself and Arthur used to do called The Starship Roisin for The Ian Dempsey Show on RTÉ Radio in the late 80s. It was basically an Irish Star Trek. The captain was Captain Bono, Stephen “Spock” Roche was his Vulcan sidekick, there was Darina Alien the cook and Father Ted was the chaplain. The show, I think, was probably a bit too weird for that slot and when it was suggested that we take two of the characters to launch a spin-off called Tea and Toast with Tony and Ted, I vaguely recall Arthur reaching for his coat and that was the end of that. Pretty soon after that Arthur left Ireland to join Graham in London.

The Ziggy Priest

I played three different characters over the three series. I played the greyhound racetrack owner in the Rabbits episode; I played the taxi driver in Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse and the Ziggy priest in the Talent Contest episode.

When I played the Ziggy priest in the Talent Contest scene, which was filmed about three doors from my aunt’s house in Rush, I kept the make-up on and wore it that night for a bizarre gig I used to MC in the Ormond Multimedia Centre, which was a kind of cabaret with performance art, comedy and rave music. Basically, it was a spin-off from a rave night called Elevator, so there was a bizarre situation of trying to do comedy for an audience chewing their jaws off on ecstasy.

The Joshua Trio

The Joshua Trio was put together during Hot Press production weekends. Arthur was the drummer and my brother Kieran was the bass player (later on there were other members). We would do U2 songs in various styles – I would claim that Bono had appeared to me in a dream and wanted me to spread their music to a wider audience.

In the early shows there would be sketches written by myself, Arthur and Graham Linehan. This was in fact the first time that Arthur and Graham worked together. The sketch group, The Fun Bunch, we put together was a spin-off from all that.

One of the sketches was a Christmas special where a Joshua Tree (played by Graham Linehan) took us back to the first Christmas to visit the baby Bono and give him three gifts – a red guitar, three chords and the truth and we somehow lost the truth.

Another memorable occurrence was when I rode a donkey into the Baggot Inn.

Arthur and myself have recently written a musical, The Joshua Trio Story – A Journey around U2. Hopefully, someone might consider producing it. In the story Arthur the drummer is in fact a priest – Father Arthur.

***

A quick Q&A with Arthur Mathews, co-creator of Father Ted

Did you keep a souvenir from the show – part of the set or costume?

No. But I know Ardal has the painting of Ted and Father Stone.

What was your favourite line from the show?

With Paul Woodfull, I was watching famous archive footage of a very shaky-looking Adolf Hitler in 1945 about to send out 15-year-old boys to defend Berlin. Paul remarked, “It’s funny how you get more right-wing as you get older”. We put this into the show referring to an old Nazi priest.

And favourite scene?

Another Nazi one – Ted with the Hitler moustache – or Ted kicking Bishop Brennan “up the arse”.

What was the bit or bits you most regretted ending up on the cutting room floor?

Pat O’Mahony wrote on his blog that we cut him out of the Christmas Special because his performance was “shite”. (I don’t remember this, and I would never say “shite” because it’s a word I loathe), but just to please Pat, I’d put him back in.

How aware were you of the extent of abuse and so forth among Catholic clergy? Would the humour have been darker or the satire harsher if you’d known then what we know now?

We should have been harder on them possibly, although the tone of the show was quite light. They really did completely run the country for years. And when you think of it, the main reason they were able to do it was the threat of eternal damnation if you didn’t do what you were told. It really was that simple. As we can see with Isis at the moment, so much trouble in the world comes from either trying to please, or placate, ill-defined supernatural beings

How would you compare it to your other shows – Toast etc? Is there a common thread?

There’s an obvious thread of “surreal humour” in that things occur that couldn’t happen in the real world. This gives a wider canvas of comic possibilities to work from, but I feel you possibly sacrifice the depth that you have in, for example, Girls or Peep Show. (I recently watched all 56 episodes of Peep Show – it’s a programme I would love to have written for).

I think it’s worth noting that religion itself – with its angels, miracles, devils etc is by definition surreal and only loosely connected to the tangible reality of everyday life.

Is it still the one closest to your heart?

Obviously it’s “The Big One”, but I’m equally as fond of other stuff. I’m always pleased when people say they like a book I did called Well Remembered Days. One of the first comedy things I did was a Viz-like comic with Mick Nugent. Some of it is reprinted in Brian MacMahon’s brilliant Brand New Retro book.

Favourite episode?

I always say Father Stone. It’s quite simple, and based on a true story. (Two friends of mine had an acquaintance who would come and stay with them every year and they couldn’t get rid of him). I always like depictions of social awkwardness and the difficulties of communicating with people. There’s very little plot – the twist is that Father Stone gets hit by lightning and has to stay with Ted and Dougal forever…

What for you was the secret of its success?

Casting was a big part of it. Impossible to imagine anyone else playing those parts. Graham and I were also in the right place at the right time. We were lucky that Seamus Cassidy commissioned it. There weren’t that many TV stations then – only the BBC, ITV and a recently launched Sky 1 in the UK. It would be harder to get noticed if it was on now… And there were some good jokes in it.

And finally, what are the chances of Father Ted – the Musical?

After I Keano, Paul Woodfull and I put our minds to The Joshua Trio Story, our U2 musical. (No one in Dublin will go near it because they’re afraid of offending U2 – maybe we might get it on in Norway or somewhere). We’ve also been working on a show based on the life of a Father Michael Cleary-type character. So a Ted musical is further down the queue. I worry it would “dilute the product” and come across as a bit of a cash-in. But there’s probably an audience for it.

Even if the chances are zilch, could you invent a couple of showstopping song titles for all our benefit?

Eh… Puttin’ On The Mass…. The Lady Is A Nun ….and something for Father Jack: Bewitched, Bladdered and Bewildered.

***

An even quicker Q&A with Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Dougal Maguire)

Did you keep a souvenir from the show - part of the set or costume?

It was hard to nab anything on the last day of the show because even though I was pretty sure we were never going to do another series, the producers might have felt differently and would have wanted to keep the set and props intact. So the only thing I managed to “borrow” was something small and replaceable ie the portrait of Fr Ted and Fr Stone that hung above the fire.

I was given Dougal’s delightful tank-tops which I reluctantly passed on to various charity auctions.

Favourite line?

It‘s a Dougal line. “The ants are back, Ted!” Probably the only non-sequitur in the whole series.

Fr Stone in Dermot Morgan's Thank You Very Much, Mr Eastwood

Father Ted series three trailer

Father Ted on Comic Relief

Favourite scene?

I love the melee at the priests’ sports day.

What was the bit or bits you most regretted ending up on the cutting-room floor?

I’m a big fan of ruthless editing except for “the ants are back” line so I don’t care about (or even remember) anything that was cut out.

How would you compare it to your other shows?

Although Father Ted is clearly better – funnier, more critically-acclaimed, ubiquitous – than most other shows I’ve been involved in, I didn’t necessarily enjoy doing it more than any other show. As an actor I love the whole process: the company, the challenge, the routine. What happens a show afterwards in terms of traction or success is sort of immaterial.

The secret of its success?

The writing was so good but it’s always a mystery as to why some shows soar and others don’t.

Father Ted – The Musical?

Totally opposed to it for selfish reasons. I can’t sing and I can’t dance so can’t really see where I would fit in.

***

Father Jack (Frank Kelly)

Did you know that Frank Kelly’s father was Charles Kelly, the cartoonist and senior civil servant who co-founded Dublin Opinion, a satirical magazine which was the Phoenix or Private Eye of its day, coming out monthly from 1922 to 1968? He was also a senior civil servant, serving as Director of Broadcasting and Director of National Savings.

“He was not very popular with Orangemen in the North,” Frank Kelly recalls. “He was condemned in Stormont as a subversive. The prime minister, Basil Brooke, wrote to my father telling him how much he had enjoyed his cartoon and requesting the original, which is now hanging in Stormont.”

Kelly is proud of his father’s prominent role in the Irish satirical tradition, holding politicians to account or up to ridicule. “Without that degree of subversive satire, we don’t have any wisdom and we‘re not protected, it‘s a very valuable thing.”

It’s a role he inherited and carried on. Long before Father Jack, he was a household name thanks to Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, a 1970s political satire on RTÉ. “I have a great fondness for it. You used to be recognised wherever you went, often by very irate TDs, who felt it undermined them because it was so subversive. It was an extraordinarily strong piece of satire. It was taken off by RTÉ and we don’t know why.”

Looking back on Father Ted, he says: “One of my stand-out memories was filming the consecration of the Holy Stone of Clonrichert up on the Cliffs of Moher, which was shot in the middle of a blizzard, with very high winds. I was the one nearest the edge and I nearly went over. It’s the nearest I ever came to meeting my maker while working.

“There was no improvisation of any kind allowed on the show. It adhered absolutely to the original script and that was the right thing to do because the writing was terrific.”

The secret of the show’s success for him was “the very close friendship between the cast. There was a lot of trust, we all loved each other. There was no big ego trying to take it over or cause trouble. Dermot [Morgan] was terrific like that, he never decided that the show was his, he shared it with the rest. If you had your lines he would never upstage you. He always appeared distant but that was because he was always thinking of the next gig.”

Of his long and distinguished career, he remembers spending an entire day locked in a cell with Michael Caine for The Italian Job; his bit part in Ryan’s Daughter, “the lanky corporal’s friend with no lines”; and playing the late British Labour leader John Smith in The Deal, “one of the most challenging acting roles”. He also played a priest in Lexx, “a Canadian cult sci-fit hing. He ran a pub and gave all the proceeds to charity, that‘ll give you an idea how off the wall it was.”

His favourite role, he says, was when he “played a gay man in The Boys in the Band by Mart Crowley in the Olympia Theatre. It was very moving, long before gay liberation, very revolutionary. We had people sobbing, it was packed solid for a month. I remember Gay Byrne saying, ‘I don’t think Dublin audiences will want to see this kind of thing’. How times have changed.”

Another favourite role was Oliver in Da by Hugh Leonard, but my mention of Wikipedia’s claim that Leonard wrote the lyrics to Christmas Countdown, Kelly’s hilarious take on the 12 Days of Christmas, provoked a sharp reaction. “He did say that but he must have been off his head.”

Kelly has done six comedy albums but Christmas Countdown is his biggest hit, reaching No 8 in the Irish charts in 1982 and 26 in the British charts in 1984. It even has the royal seal of approval. “I had a letter from the queen’s lady in waiting thanking me for the pleasure my recording had given her over the Christmas period.”

It begins:

Day One

Dear Nuala,

Thank you very much for your lovely present of a partridge in a pear-tree

We’re getting the hang of feeding the partridge now,

Although it was difficult at first to win its confidence

It bit the mother rather badly on the hand

But they’re good friends now and we’re keeping the pear-tree indoors in a bucket

Thank you again

Yours affectionately, Gobnait O’Lúnasa

And goes downhill from there.

***

Fr Damo (Joe Rooney)

Twenty years later and after many appearances on various sitcoms, sketch shows and reality shows, whenever I’m in a bar and notice a few people nudging each other and glancing in my direction I know the inevitable will happen. One of them gathers enough courage to approach me and say, “I’m sure you get this all the time but who do you prefer, Oasis or Blur?”

I don’t mind at all. I see it as a compliment that a character who appears for roughly six minutes on a sitcom with so many brilliant characters is remembered so fondly. When I was asked to audition for the part I didn’t at first realise they wanted me to do it in a Dublin accent. I think Arthur (Mathews) had seen me perform with the comedy trad band, The Hairy Bowsies, as the drunken warbler Scribbler O’Donoghue alongside Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly (Paul Woodfull). Scribbler used to perform a gargling solo in the song Flow River Flow (Fuck Off To The Sea) and cajole the audience into singing along with the chorus of The Craic We Had The Day We Died For Ireland. Arthur was a big fan of The Hairy Bowsies and in the Father Ted episode, Song For Europe, one of the entries on the score board is You Dirty British Bastards – The Hairy Bowsies.

I have an inkling that the character Father Damo was inspired by Scribbler or that at least the idea that I could play the part was.

The first scene I did was calling to the door with the line, “Is Dougal in?” Just three words but I went over it again and again the night before in front of the mirror. I wanted to make a good impression with my first line; let them know I was the right one to cast. With that scene over, Ardal and me were asked to play football in the background of a scene where Father Ted talks to the Garda at the front door. It was then that I let loose all the tension of my first scene and all my comedic divilment came into play. The two of us did everything and anything to upstage the foreground scene. So when the scene was over they turned the camera on us and said, “Can you do what you were doing there again?” and so the football scene under the closing credits was born.

The only other scene I had to shoot in Ireland was the “Oasis or Blur” scene. I was really looking forward to this but it was over in two takes as far as I remember. I was hoping for close-ups, reaction shots, tracking shots, crash zooms etc so I could give them all facets of my acting skills.

The scene where the whistle is stolen was shot on a separate week. The payment structure was that if you did one day of a week you were paid a large sum but every subsequent day of that week you were paid a minimal amount so you were better off having one day on one week and one day the next week rather than five days in one week. Therefore they weren’t going to bring me all the way down to Clare to use my hand to steal the whistle, even though my hand acting is second to none. I don’t know whose hand steals the whistle but probably one of the crew. It could even be the cameraman.

Over in London there were five days’ rehearsal before shooting on Friday evening. I stayed with Graham and Arthur in Kilburn. I was so afraid of sleeping in I bought an alarm clock the first chance I got along with a small knapsack to carry my things around London. A man with an Irish accent purchasing a bag and an alarm clock could’ve been deemed suspicious in London around that time.

On the night of the recording I brought a VHS video camera with me and shot some footage backstage. I hadn’t looked at it since but when they were making the documentary Small, Far Away I mentioned the tape. I gave them the tape, not knowing what was on it, and they used a bit of the footage of Dermot Morgan messing around backstage. They transferred it to DVD for me so I could see it too. There was also footage of me sitting facing the camera rehearsing my lines in my dressing room. When I’ve done all my lines I lift my arse in the air and fart right into the lens. I can only imagine them sitting around the edit suite looking at this. Jaysus, the embarrassment!

***

Fr Eoin McLove (Patrick McDonnell)

When I first heard that Channel 4 had commissioned a sitcom about priests I understandably thought that it would be awful, but a minute into the first episode I could see that I’d been wrong.

Ted had already been broadcast when I first started doing stand-up comedy. Its impact on the scene at the time was enormous. Arthur and Graham (Mathews and Linehan, the creators of Father Ted) attended plenty of gigs around that time. I think it was Graham who first saw me perform at a venue on Capel Street. I got to know them and had an inkling that they might cast me in a future series but not a part as big as the one I got.

I auditioned twice for the role. The first time Graham thought I could just improvise with no script and just be Eoin. I couldn’t. I was given a script for the second one and had a ball.

I don’t remember much from filming in Clare because I was hung over most of the time. I do remember one of the old biddies pinching me on the arse as we filmed the shots outside the parochial house. The old women in the studio were nearly all English and hadn’t a clue what the show was about.

I remember going into the studio for the dress rehearsal and seeing the set for the first time: that blew me away. It looked amazing, not unlike my own home in Louth.

I suggested playing him as being very detached from the rest of the people in the room. When we filmed those scenes Frank Kelly told me to face the camera and project more but I thought it was better for Eoin to disengage totally from the other characters, even if it meant turning my back on the action.

The jumper cake tasted awful and the cake-soaked jumper was incredibly heavy. Lifting that was the hardest thing I had to do during rehearsal.

I got a bit of a rash on my back and arms from eating the jam from the pot (I react to strawberries). Oh, how I suffered.

I was buzzing at the start of filming in the studio but after three hours I was bored out of my mind. I could barely stay awake for the final scenes in the bathroom and when I’d stolen all the trinkets from the front room.

I watched the episode when it was first broadcast in my brother’s house in Castleblayney. I was still there on the Sunday night when it was repeated. He suggested we go to his wife’s uncle’s pub, Junior’s, to watch it. This was an old man’s bar with a yard for a gents’ and a house toilet for a ladies’. I remember that no one in the bar laughed at all and that I felt very conspicuous sitting there with an embarrassed grin on my face. Monaghan was a very conservative place back then (I was raised in the far more progressive county of Louth) and there was a palpable sense of discomfort laughing at priests. I had an awful sinking feeling when it was over and wasn’t sure how the silence might be broken. I needn’t have worried. Junior immediately switched the television off and asked me: “How much did you get paid for that?”

It was only when I got back to Dublin that I realised the impact of being on the show would have. As I stepped off the coach on O’Connell Street someone immediately recognised me. A few steps later I heard someone shout, “I’ve no willy”. Almost 18 years later I still regularly hear that.

The scripts read very funny. It was such a privilege to be one of the first to get to read them. The lads were on fire at that time. In the past scriptwriters often had a productive decade or two but separately they have continued to thrive; Toast of London has been brilliant this year.

My son got into it a few years ago and I rewatched every episode. It hasn’t dated at all. My kids are slightly embarrassed by my portraying such a despicable character. The ‘I’ve no willy’ line has followed them around as well.

I’ll always be associated with the character. When The Savage Eye came out I remember being approached on Henry Street by a bloke who said: “Loving the Savage Eye, Eoin!”

I passed Daniel O’Donnell in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre one day a few years ago. He and Majella were wandering around looking very happy. I thought of approaching him but felt too shy. I wonder if people shout “I’ve no willy” to him? I’d say they do. Hopefully.

***

Father Stone (Michael Redmond)

Dermot Stone to Father Ted about his son, Fr Stone, after he is struck by lightning: “Now Father, I’m sorry for him causing you all this trouble. God forgive me for saying this but wouldn’t it have been better if he had been killed!”

My first recollection of any connection to Father Ted was some time in 1993. I was performing in a stand-up show featuring Irish comedians at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London with Ardal and Dylan Moran and I remember after one of the shows two guys approached me and said they were writing a sitcom based on Irish priests on a lonely island off the west coast of Ireland and that they had me in mind for one of the parts. I can’t remember exactly how long it was after that, maybe six months or so, that I found myself auditioning for the part of Father Stone in front of Arthur and Graham and the producer, Geoffrey Perkins. I can recall that Arthur and Graham were laughing a lot as I auditioned, but Geoffrey Perkins not so much until I responded to the Father Ted line “So, you are going to leave?” and I replied...“Well, yeah, if there’s a fire!”

I felt very very relaxed filming the episode I was in because I’d been mates with Dermot from our days in Dublin and I’d played the role of Barry McGuigan’s father in his video, Thank you very much, Mr Eastwood. I also knew Ardal from the stand-up circuit and Geoffrey Perkins, who was a producer on Friday Night Live on which I’d performed a stand-up set. Also, it was the first series of the show and nothing had yet been aired on TV so there was no big pressure. I don’t think any of us had any idea of the huge success it was to become.

It wasn’t until a few years later, probably around 1996, that I first personally became aware of the impact of the show. At the time I was living in London in a flat above a restaurant in which my then girlfriend worked. There was access to our flat from a hatch in the ceiling of the restaurant which my girlfriend usually used to get back into the flat after work as the area around the back of the restaurant was dark and a bit dodgy. Anyway, late one evening she rang me and asked if I could come to the hatch and drop down her packet of cigarettes which she had forgotten to take with her to work. I gathered her cigarettes and went to the hatch and opened it. In the meantime, she had been distracted by some customers and wasn’t there. But one of the tables in the restaurant was situated directly beneath the hatch door and there was a couple seated at it having their meal. The noise of the hatch door opening had alerted them and I will always remember the bemused face of the bloke looking upwards at what probably looked like my disembodied head peering down at him from above and after a few seconds he said, with a look of awe on his face, “Jesus...it’s Father Stone!”

I found the part of Father Stone very easy to act as it was not far removed from my stand-up persona and I think Arthur and Graham clicked into that, which was great for me.

I’m still performing stand-up, mostly around Scotland, and waiting with bated breath to hear back from Channel 4 on a pilot sitcom script they commissioned me to write. The script is based on a radio show I wrote for BBC Radio 4 called Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus. The premise of the show is that the Holy Family, so called, were originally Irish and that Jesus had an unfortunate older brother, Eamon, who never got a look in but he wasn’t prepared to sit back and accept his inferior role in the family. It is not simply a parody of biblical times but a story based on sibling rivalry but in this case the more successful sibling is not only the younger one but is also The Messiah. Here’s hoping!

***

Terry McNamee (Gerard Lee)

So then, I was Terry McNamee, presenter of Faith of Our Fathers in episode one, series one. Close Ted watchers may notice that Dermot calls me Gerry in one phone call. There are two possible explanations: 1) It’s my name (!) and 2) The character was originally written as Gerry McNamee, but there was some concern at the time that there was actually a guy called Gerry McNamee working in RTÉ, and nobody wanted to ruffle any feathers (well, not his feathers, anyhow), so it was changed late in the day. Anyhow, the Gerry wasn’t picked up by continuity, and I’ve never heard anyone mention it since!

Hard to think that it was shot late in 1994, around Portrane in north Co Dublin. My recollection is that it couldn’t have been wilder or stormier if they’d gone to the Great Blasket. At the time of the first broadcast, early in 1995, I was doing a play in the Tricycle in London. Zara Turner was in the play, and also in Ted, so we watched it in snatches between scenes on a very tiny portable TV in the green room of the Tricycle!

These and other fascinating facts can be spun out at length and ad nauseum at the merest drop of the littlest hat.

I can say without fear of contradiction that I’m the only actor in history that ever had to compete for screen time with Pat Shortt’s arse. I’m assured he was wearing what used to be called “an athletic support” when he dropped his trousers to show me the dog-bite on his buttock that allegedly looked like a face, (not Bishop Brennan’s, I presume) but I couldn’t confirm what he was wearing, as I was too busy acting – sorry, I mean grimacing – to notice the finer points of what he presented. I’ve worked with Pat a few times since, on Mattie and Killinaskully, but that scene in Ted is like a dark chapter in our shared history that we just don’t talk about.

Despite the wind, (climactic, not Pat’s) I recall that my tie refused to co-operate during the shot on the island phone, so they taped it down to keep it lying over my shoulder.

Given that this was the very first episode of Father Ted, I guess I was just happy to be working, and none of us had any inkling about how it was all going to play out over the following years. When I heard there was going to be a third series, I wrote to the production company to try and persuade them to have my character reappear. My idea was that Terry McNamee had never managed to get off the island, and that we’d encounter him like some kind of deranged and dishevelled Man Friday, interviewing crows and sheep. Alas, they didn’t buy it!

My original audition was for the part of Father Dick Byrne on Rugged Island. That role went to a fine actor, Maurice O’Donoghue.

In the first few years I got occasional cheques arising from video/DVD sales etc, but the amounts gradually diminished till I got a cheque for £1.25, although this was in sterling. My plan was to keep that one and frame it but, well, I think during one prolonged spell not working it was gathered up with the last Green Shield Stamps and Butter Vouchers and cashed in.

I still get asked on the odd occasion, “Were you in Father Ted?” I do some work with acting students in Inchicore VEC, and it always adds big-time to my street cred with them. I recall a newly-wed Welsh couple, total strangers, asking me in the Palace Bar (can’t think what I was doing in there) several years ago, and they were so chuffed to have met one of the actors from the show, they said it made their honeymoon! All their workmates loved the show, and they couldn’t wait to get back home to tell them all about the encounter.

A very shifty bloke stopped me on the street a couple of years ago, and I thought “Oh, here we go, wallet and watch”, but he just wanted to know if I was in Ted. I swallowed hard and squeaked a high-pitched “Yes!” after which he managed a sort of pre-orthodontic Shane MacGowan smile and shuffled off. Heady days, indeed.

Ted has been great, and I‘m enormously proud to have been in it. Next best thing to being in Fawlty Towers, I guess.

***

How The Times of London allegedly unmasked the inspiration for Father Jack

I have in my possession a framed copy of the front page of the London Times from June 29th, 2006, by coincidence my last day on that paper, which, under the splash headline “Feck, feck, feck!! It‘s the real Father Jack”, purports to reveal “the foul-mouthed role model behind the drunken, violent, nun-fearing Father Jack Hackett”. According to reporter Sean O’Hehir, he was “a renegade Roman Catholic priest hiding in England poorly disguised as a journalist” which “The Times has discovered by reading other newspapers”.

The Times, of course, has a rather sketchy track record when it comes to denigrating distinguished Irishmen – ask Parnell – so this story, hidden now behind a pay bar, must be taken with a pinch of salt, a dash of lime and a shot of tequila.

The alleged inspiration for Fr Jack was, the paper alleged, “soi-distant senior sub-editor Martin Doyle” who fled Ireland, “hounded out for bringing Holy Mother Church into disrepute over his column in The Universe (incorporating the Cathar Digest and Inquisition Review) entitled Confession or Kickabout: Football, drink, Arse, Girls”.

As a disguise, he “apparently believed that abandoning his fine head of hair and reinventing himself as the bald Fenian man would cover his tracks, if not his pate”.

As evidence, the paper offers “the lost year in France, where his command of the language of Voltaire was polished to the point where he could say Boissons! Cul! Le feck! like a native” and various uncorroborated drink-related incidents including “a Christmas party mixing good wine and bad poteen” at which “he plunged into a neighbour’s vodka fountain” and “the party where he reversed the proportions of vodka and cava for a cocktail with hilarious consequences”.

“But at last he was unmasked by his wife. “More tea, father,” Mrs Doyle asked. “Ah, go on, go on, go on, go on.”

“Feck off he replied. “Drink, drink, DRINK.”

***

The money was just resting in my account

How much money has Father Ted made? How many DVDs have been sold? How many times has it been screened?

A sppokeswoman for Hat Trick, the production company behind Father Ted, said: “Over the life of Father Ted, there have been three different publishers so it is very difficult to track the amount of DVD sales which have been made (and we do not keep an up to date record of this information). However, we are able to guesstimate (and I should stress that it is a “guesstimate”) that there have been approximately 2 million DVD sales in the UK and Ireland. This comprises DVD in all guises and formats, including box sets, as well as VHS.

“Unfortunately, all information about how much the programme has made needs to remain confidential!”

Spoilsport! But at least she replied, unlike Channel 4.

***

Down with that sort of thing, or I hear you’re a self-loathing Uncle Tom now, Ted – the people who hated Father Ted

Everybody loves Father Ted, right? Wrong. A sizeable number of Irish people, especially among an older generation of Irish emigrants in Britain and elsewhere, didn’t just find it unfunny – they found it deeply offensive, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, as racist as a Bernard Manning routine from the whitest Seventies.

Academic Lance Pettitt wrote a chapter about Father Ted, More Jocular than Jugular, in his book, Screening Ireland: Film and TV Representation (Manchester UP, 2000), in which he addressed the controversy.

He recently sent me a clipping he kept from the letters pages of The Irish Post in 1995 and 1996 – I was its arts editor at the time – in which my championing of the show was met with howls of outrage. Thanks, Lance, the wounds had almost healed.

“Martin Doyle and Graham Linehan perform some incredible mental gymnastics trying to justify the odious Channel 4 programme Father Ted,” wrote Teresa Sheehan of Manchester. “However, they are utterly unconvincing in their eforts to deny its racism. ‘The way we see it is it’s a caricature of a stereotype. If you exaggerate something until it’s bizarre, hopefully people won’t take it too seriously.’

“That is a vain hope indeed.The reality of the way Father Ted is received by British audiences is that it simply reinforces their deepest anti-Irish prejudices according to which the Irish are violent, stupid, drink-addicted morons ... The images peddled by Father Ted set us back years to the days of ITV’s The Comedians when other Irish people such as Frank Carson made a living out of pandering to British prejudices.”

In truth, Ted is much closer to the tradition of Dave Allen and his mocking of religious foibles and hypocrisies, though of course he too was anathema to some.

Y Hindle, also of Manchester, asked: “Doesn’t Martin Doyle understand the linkage between the racist depictions of the Irish in the media and the other reports I have identified? In depicting the Irish, for British audiences, as pathetic, irrational figures of fun, one fuels the racism of those who would taunt lonely Irishmen ... Martin Doyle’s article was utterly contemptible.”

For Dennis Keegan of Cheshire, “Father Ted is but a modern expression of the same kind of offensive caricatures. Far from subverting sterotypes, Father Ted simply reinforces the three dominant stereotypes of the Irish that have prevailed in this country for centuries, namely the Irish are stupid, drunken and priest-ridden. The fact that this racist depiction is perpetrated by Irish people is despicable. Uncle Toms, indeed, who pander to British racism for profit. Shame on them!”

As Donald Clarke of this parish reported, the same suspicion was prevalent in Irish America. “In 2001, following complaints from Irish Americans, WGBH-TV, a Boston TV station, felt compelled to pull the show from its airwaves. ‘It panders to crude and archaic anti-Irish stereotypes, a formula not unknown to British television,’ C J Doyle, of the Catholic Action League, whinged.”

In his book, Pettitt, now director of the Centre for Irish Studies at St Mary’s University, London, addresses these criticisms. Father Ted “was securely Irish, but expressed a strand of expansive, confident identity associated with the Irish in mid-1990s Britain. It addressed the derogatory stereotypes endured over generations by the Irish in English society, exaggerated them and sought to explode them ...

“The programme’s secure sense of expatriate Irishness did not insulate Father Ted from criticism from Irish viewers in Ireland, Britain and the USA, who claimed it was ‘offensively disrespectful of our clergy and Roman Catholics in general’, disgusting and degrading to the Irish people”.

Pettitt makes the point, however, that “Father Ted is overtly non-realist, reflexive and ludicrous in its caricature. As Liam Greenslade has pointed out, ‘there is a huge difference betwen being laughed at by the colonier and re-possessing those jokes for your own purposes’.

“Examined in the context of postcolonial theory and TV sitcom history, Father Ted’s significance makes clearer sense. Its broadcast came in the wake of several notable controversies in the early 1990s concernin g the church.With its moral authority in Ireland under question, many of the certainties that had underpinned Irish society crumbled away. Through its comedy, Father Ted was able to catch a growing sensibility amongst the laity within Ireland and and the Irish diaspora in the mid-1990s... While Father Ted contained an underlying satirical current, it was formally a relatively safe way of exploring change. It can be viewed as a way for Irish society to get used to the church in a new era and, according to one view, probsbly did the church ‘an unintentional service, providing a release for the resentment it has provoked in recent times’.”

Pettitt acknowledged, however, that “the culturally specific vernacular of Father Ted could not only be misread by English viewers – reinforcing exixting prejudices – but by first and second-generation Irish viewers in Britain and the USA who held simplistic notions of how popular media sterotypes circulate. Such complanants failed to see that there were alternative approaches to positive imaging and, indeed, that self-directed humour and satire may well be indicative of assured selfhood and a collective cultural maturity.

“However, many Irish viewers did read Father Ted correctly, taking up the ludicrously dysfunctional types and the surreal humour with relish, locating the programme within a tradition of literary satire and parody associated with Swift, Joyce and Flann O’Brien.”

Eh, what he said.

It’s a sympathetic view supported by Pat Brereton in his essay Religion in Irish Cinema, in the Jesuit publication Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, who refers to “the more benevolent and surreal comic critique of clerics in the television cult series Father Ted, where priests are continuously used as pathetic but usually humane figures of fun”.

Pettitt also introduced me to the joys of Google Scholar – who knew? – where I came across such joys as “It’s a priest thing, you wouldn’t understand – Father Ted goes to Italy: An empirical study on the perception of subtitled humor by R Antonini”; “Satirical humour and cultural context: with a note on the curious case of Father Todd Unctuous”; and “Taking Blood Pressure – No Laughing Matter”, in which 16 volunteers had their blood pressure taken whil watching Father Ted. “Background: Humour is used commonly to relax subjects when their blood pressure is being measured. However, the short-term effect of laughter on blood pressure is not described. Conclusion: Laughing has an acute effect on systolic blood pressure. Patients should not be encouraged to laugh when their blood pressure is being measured.” Again, who knew?

I also came across this stray gnomic reference, the meaning of which I suspect will haunt me for the rest of my days. “However, in all the compendious commentary on SDL, I have yet to find a formal acknowledgement of Father Ted’s brilliant anticipation of V&L’s retrotastic achievement.”

An American Jesuit priest named Stacey Baird wrote his dissertation on Father Ted, A Televisual Representation of Roman Catholic Priests. Read it here – no, I insist.

***

Craggy Island – more Bloomsbury than the Blaskets

Ireland’s islands have long enjoyed a great literary reputation. Think of JM Synge on Inis Meain, Liam O’Flaherty and Breandan Ó hEithir on Inis Mor, Peig Sayers and on the Blaskets, and Heinrich Böll on Achill, but they are all in the ha’penny place compared with the Craggy Island literary set. Who can forget Polly Clark from And God Created Woman, or rather Mrs Doyle qoutng liberally from her works: “Eff you! Eff your effing wife! I’ll stick this effing pitchfork up your hole”, oh that was another one, oh yes![...] “Bastard this” and “Bastard that”, you can’t move for the bastards in her novels; it’s wall-to-wall bastards![...] You bastard, you fecker, you bollocks! Get your bollocks out of my face! [...]“Ride me sideways” was another one!”

Edna O’Brien, of course, was from Tuamgraney in Co Clare, just up the road from the parochial house, and an obvious inspiration for Ms Clark. But you are no one on Craggy Island if you haven’t a book to your name. Ardal O‘Hanlon is the author of Talk of the Town, an impressive coming-of-age novel set in his native Monaghan. Pauline McLynn has written 10 novels, including Something for the Weekend and Missing You Already. Frank Kelly has just brought out his memoir, The Next Gig. As well as Father Ted: The Complete Scripts and The Craggy Island Magazine, co-written with Graham Linehan, Arthur Mathews has written Well-Remembered Days : Eoin O’Ceallaigh’s Memoir of a Twentieth-century Catholic Life; Angry Baby: Ireland‘s Youngest Political Activist Speaks Out; and The Book of Poor Ould Fellas, with Declan Lynch. Linehan has also written The Ladykillers, a novel based on his stage version of the classic screenplay.

Look closely at the remarkable video below of the first, very drunken, Bloomsday celebration, and see if you can spot a young Father Jack along with Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Anthony Cronin. And is that Senator David Norris urinating in public against a wall on Sandymount Strand? No. No, it isn’t.

***

Massive missive is over. Go in peace.

Thanks be to God (says you).

***

VIDEO LINKS

Comic Relief 1997

Trailer to series 3

Fr Stone aka Michael Redmond in Dermot Morgan's hit video

Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown

The Joshua Trio, featuring Arthur Mathews and Paul Woodfull

The Joshua Trio #2

The Joshua Trio #3

The first Bloomsday, possibly featuring Father Jack

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