Donald Clarke: Down with that sort of thing: ‘Father Ted’ at 20

At the time, the sitcom seemed to reflect a happy confidence in our eccentricities

Many of the best jokes in Father Ted defy lucid summary. But we'll give it a go.

The titular priest says goodnight to Father Dougal and switches off the light. Seconds later, after turning the lamp back on to wind the clock, Ted catches Dougal stretching himself into a new day. "No, Dougal. It's not the morning yet," our hero groans.

It's never 20 years since Father Ted first screened on Channel 4. You'd have to be Hitler or one of them mad fellas to believe that.

Surely, we're still adjusting to the series' interment in the same Temple of Quotability as This is Spinal Tap and Withnail and I. It's true. Good Luck, Father Ted did first touch down on April 21st, 1995.


I have a very clear memory of (as we didn't then call it) the series premiere. Situation comedies usually take a few episodes to bed in, but I was immediately convinced that Ted was going to work.

The characters' key comic traits were precisely drawn and the reasons for their confinement were simple to grasp. Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, the recovering Hot Press journalists who devised the show, were aware that many of the best sit-coms press incompatible characters into inescapable traps. Graham and Arthur went one step further and placed the priests and their housekeeper on an actual island.

Absurdly baroque

Eager consumers of contemporaneous comedy, they shamelessly extracted a key trope from

The Simpsons

and made it their own. As in the animated series,

Father Ted

frequently cuts to one absurdly baroque visual gag and then cuts back again without ever returning.

But the lads also devised some of their own comic grammar from scratch. No other sitcom had such fun exploiting the absurdity of its own contrivance. Consider, for instance, the black rectangle on Ted's window that helps transform him into a version of Hitler just as he seems to have escaped accusations of racism. Isn't that terribly convenient? That's the joke, you eejit.

Little of this was, of course, apparent from the first episode. But the show was bloody funny. Nonetheless, I was utterly, immovably convinced that nobody – that's nobody – in the United Kingdom was going to get it. It was just too fecking Irish.

Look, it's the great Frank Kelly from Hall's Pictorial Weekly . We remembered Dermot Morgan playing a trendier priest on Irish TV 20 years earlier. Heck, I even knew somebody on the show. Not to worry. There was no danger of Pauline McLynn triggering poorly concealed fury in her pals by becoming Big in Britain. Did you not hear me? Nobody in the UK was going to get this.

Obviously, endless Irish personalities had become successful across the water, but – like African-American musicians in the Motown era – they tended to accommodate themselves (often brilliantly) to the ruling elite’s prevailing sensibilities. Think Terry Wogan, Frank Carson or the magnificent Dave Allen.

Father Ted was raw Delta Blues. Father Ted was South Bronx Hip Hop. Father Ted was … Okay, this analogy is already beginning to creak at the corners, but it was really fecking Irish. That's the point. Jesus, is that Des Keogh?

I was living in London at the time. It quickly became apparent that British audiences were more flexible than I had suspected.

The only bafflement concerned the word "feck", which was heard as a heavily accented version of – as Mrs Doyle later had it – "the bad F-word". Otherwise, the show's combination of Celtic exoticism and universal social discomfort seemed to slip down with ease.

Irish advance


Father Ted

proved one of the key forces in forwarding the unexpected advance of Irish culture that had begun with (or merely coincided with) the 1990 World Cup. Irish pubs were hip. Riverdance was everywhere. The Cranberries somehow broke America. We got rich for a while. “Crack” was now spelt differently.

Linehan has since argued that, following the awful revelations concerning the Catholic Church, no comedy series could now take such a benign attitude to the priesthood.

At the time, however, Father Ted seemed to reflect a happy confidence in our own eccentricities. Nothing demonstrates such relaxation more than an ability to poke fun at oneself. Indeed, you had to go to America to find anyone taking offence. 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.

You know where we’re going with this. Down With That Sort of Thing! Be Careful Now! Tiny bits of the Linehan/Mathews psyche must have rejoiced that they’d finally managed to offend the right people. You haven’t arrived as an Irish artist until you’ve been banned.