‘Fathers… finish your breakfast and come outside for your daily punishment.’ Steve Clarke applauds a comic gem
Father Ted is one of TV’s greatest British sitcoms – up there with other giants of the genre such as Fawlty Towers, Gavin and Stacey and The Thick of It. It is plain loopy – daft, surreal, edgy in its debunking of the Church and blessed by four timeless characters.
This quartet were delivered to the small screen fully realised in the first episode shown on Channel 4 in 1995: the utterly gormless Father Dougal McGuire; the debauched Father Jack Hackett; the obsequious housekeeper from hell (sort of), Mrs Doyle; and the eponymous Father Ted Crilly, vain and hapless.
Ahead of its time, Father Ted is no cosy, suburban sitcom poking gentle fun at well-meaning vicars fond of a pre-dinner nip of sherry. Father Jack is a sex-obsessed, uber-sozzled priest, an alcoholic sometimes in the full grip of delirium tremens. He rarely says anything apart from: “Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!”
There is a lot of the anarchy of The Young Ones in Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ comic masterpiece. The show’s reckless attitude to the Catholic Church would have been unthinkable in the wake of the child abuse scandals that have rocked the institution in recent years.
Slapstick is often a vital ingredient in comedy. In Father Ted, made by comedy powerhouse Hat Trick, slapstick is given a surreal edge in, say, the episode (the writers’ favourite) in which Ted kicks the pompous and tyrannical Bishop Brennan in the arse.
Or as the insanely clumsy Mrs Doyle again falls out of a window or lurches into a door, the contents of her tea trolley scattering across the cluttered and moth-eaten sitting room.
The set itself is a joy, shabbier even than its occupants.
All great sitcoms are based on characters that jump out of the screen. Father Crilly, scheming, always on the make and yet ultimately kind-hearted, is brilliantly portrayed by Dermot Morgan, who was a celebrity in Ireland but largely unknown in the UK until Linehan and Mathews came knocking at his door.
Crilly is another sitcom lovable rogue, but this time a wayward priest whose innocent love of money is set at odds with the teaching of the institution that employs him. He has been banished to Craggy Island, the show’s windswept, rain-sodden location, for “financial irregularities”.
Father Ted’s sidekick, Father Dougal, zestfully played by the Irish stand-up Ardal O’Hanlon (spotted by the writers performing Shakespeare) is empty-headed in the extreme, a dunce’s dunce.
As for Pauline McLynn’s matchless portrayal of Mrs Doyle, let’s just say it’s comic heaven when she appears in the sitting room brandishing yet another pile of sandwiches higher than a baptismal font. “Go on, go on, go on,” she urges, pressing the food on her unholy employers.
With Father Ted, less was more. Sadly, the show ran for only three series, leaving audiences wanting more. Ever since, the 25 episodes have been on more or less permanent repeat, a staple of UK Gold and latterly shown by All 4 and BritBox.
The series’ demise was caused by the untimely death of Morgan, perfectly cast as the eternally put-upon Father Ted. He died from a heart attack, aged 45, the day after recording the final episode of series 3. Twenty-five years later, his legacy as the Catholic priest with a dodgy past is secure.
All this plus a cast of minor characters who, in a lesser show, would have received star billing. There’s boring priest Father Paul Stone, who can’t stop talking, the alcoholic and self-regarding TV presenter Henry Sellers, and hyper Father Noel Furlong, played by a man who would go on to become one of TV’s biggest stars, Graham Norton.
Even when coronavirus is beaten, Father Ted will still be making us all laugh. A tonic for tough times.
Father Ted is on Channel 4 and also available on All 4 and BritBox.