Seems about time to celebrate this masterclass in surreal satire from that there Ireland. This was a wonderful show full of biting humour, warmth, and weirdness.
A Brief History of Father Ted
Running from 1994 through to 1998, the three season run unexpectedly catapulted the show’s stars to major stardom.
Created and written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, it follows the exploits of three hapless and hopeless Roman Catholic priests.
During the course of the series, they get involved in many casually surreal happenings.
Stationed on Craggy Island in a parochial house off the coast of Ireland, their general misadventures paint a clear picture as to why they’re kept away from everyone else. We have:
- Father Ted Crilly: Played by Dermot Morgan. An intelligent priest who tries to be kind and moral, but he’s actually dubious and dreams of fame and wealth. He’s on the island seemingly due to shifting money from a parish into his account. As a result, he finds he’s pretty much the only half normal person on the island and is left to react to the madness around him.
- Father Dougal McGuire: Played by Ardal O’Hanlon. Dougal is an imbecile with obvious learning difficulties. He’s blissfully naive and well meaning, but does have a childlike mischievousness that often lands him in trouble.
- Father Jack Hackett: Frank Kelly played this lunatic. Hackett is a violent and drunken priest who’s clearly on the island due to various lifestyle disgraces. He’s often catatonic and usually converses by bellowing either, “Drink!”, “Feck!”, “Arse”, or “Girls!”
- Mrs. Doyle: Played by the fabulous Pauline McLynn. She’s a tea obsessed housekeeper who’s incredibly repressed, a workaholic, and prone to sudden angry outbursts. Particularly when trying to force anyone to drink tea.
Creator and writer Linehan said he and Matthews exaggerated the personality traits of the priests they grew up around in the 1960s and 1970s in Ireland.
The show was a huge hit. Season two is, for us, the very best of the lot—the standard of writing very high. The performances excellent. Behold!
That’s from Tentacles of Doom, our favourite episode. Where three bishops visit and things go predictably wrong.
Series three arrived in 1998 under a cloud (more on that later), with a slight drop off on the quality of writing.
Plus, flanderisation was starting to kick in with the characters.
Series three was always intended as the final season, anyway, so it went out on a high. Plus, there was a brilliant Christmas special in 1996.
Many of the actors enjoyed lesser opportunities going forward, not on the level of a smash hit like this though.
The show’s creator and writer Linehan went on to write the hit series the IT Crowd (one we think is overrated).
And more recently has, bizarrely, become involved in an ongoing social media battle about his views on transgender.
This has become such an obsessive topic for him, it seems to occupy all of his time—and he was banned from Twitter for “hateful conduct” in August 2020.
So, we’re not quite sure what he’s doing. But it’s led to him being seen as a divisive figure.
The Best Bits of Father Ted
The show’s structure was to follow around Ted as he attempts to deal with the lunacy of his colleagues. And anyone else on the island.
Principally, he acts as a father figure to Dougal. Whilst with Father Hackett, he tries to view him as a type of wise elder-statesman.
But Ted, primarily, wants a more exciting life than priesthood. And craves any sort of avenue for dramatics, or whatever will eventually get him off the island.
During the Christmas special, for example, he and other priests get stuck in a lingerie department in a superstore.
Panicking, it turns into a Platoon-type escape to safety to avoid any sex scandal news in the local newspapers.
Lots of the situations Ted finds himself in generally involve trying to deal with being a priest, although it’s clear his religious commitments are wavering.
He’ll often use the excuse of having “a bit of a pray” to escape certain events so he can attend others.
Meanwhile, he tries to keep Dougal out of trouble. But must also deal with the parochial house’s resident drunk.
Father Jack is one of the driving forces of humour on the show. The decrepit, perpetually inebriated maniac is belligerent, devious, and vulgar.
He was played by Frank Kelly, who was a notable Shakespearean stage actor in Ireland for much of his career.
Plus, pretty much the only actor on set with any prior industry experience.
It’s kind of ironic, then, for all his Shakespearean might he became best known as the foul-mouthed drunk off Father Ted.
Although he seemed to take this outcome in good cheer, regardless of the amount of times fans asked him to roar, “FECK OFF!”
Meanwhile, in her mid-30s at the time of the first series, Pauline McLynn was dressed up to look older. And particularly frumpy.
Her role required a surprising amount of physical humour, as Mrs. Doyle regularly puts herself in dangerous situations around the house.
Most commonly, she can’t climb off the windowsill and plummets downward. As you can see above. At one point she also falls off the roof and down some stairs.
There’s actually a level of slapstick violence not too far removed from other great 1990s UK sitcom Bottom.
But yeah, worth flagging up a few more funny Mrs. Doyle moments.
What appeals about the show to this day is just how charmingly funny it is, in its bizarre little way.
A lot of the people on Craggy Island are pretty abhorrent. Not all of them, but most seem to be hiding one thing or another.
And this is where the clever writing comes in. The little details and minor characters, such as married couple John and Mary.
They put on a front whenever Father Ted is around to keep up their religious commitments, but are intensely violent towards each other whenever he’s not.
Revisiting this show for our review, we were struck by its inventiveness with the writing and clever use of mundane situations.
Which Linehan and Matthews subverted by adding in the awkwardness of priesthood in certain social situations.
There’s a lot going on in the show. Its structure is unusual through its use of surrealism, social commentary, and deeply entrenched Irish ideologies.
It’s almost a surprise Father Ted was such a smash hit outside of Ireland. But it sure took off big time.
There’s just something rather timeless about seeing Father Jack bellowing “DRINK!” at the top of his lungs.
It’s just that hilarious edge that carried it on a wave in the late 1990s. Which, unfortunately, ended on a very sad note in early 1998.
A Tribute to Dermot Morgan
Unfortunately, we can’t think of Father Ted without remembering the show’s leading actor and his fate.
The Irish stand-up rose to fame later in life, but felt pleased his perseverance was finally paying off—many new projects were available, even with series three of Father Ted set to be the last.
On a family holiday to Paris in 1999, one evening we remember watching an interview with Morgan on French TV (subtitled into French).
We think that says a lot about the show’s appeal. It crossed over to France to become a hit—and we know people who are big fans of it in North America and beyond.
Fans of the show include Steven Spielberg, Madonna, Jim Carrey, Cher, and Bono.
But watching that French TV interview was strange—as if Morgan was still around and hadn’t suddenly died of a heart attack on February 28th, 1998. That was a day after the crew filmed the final episode for season 3.
The series was delayed for a week from airing and then ran from March-May 1998 with that news hanging over it. And he was only 45.
Living in London at the time, and with three kids (two from a previous marriage) he was looking for financial security for them. And had a film script completed and another series available to star in.
On the night of his death, he’d apparently seen a giant poster for series three of Father Ted on a billboard. And he commented to his wife that he’d finally “made it”.
So, it’s all very sad. And a real shame we didn’t get to see his other projects.
And in a bizarre twist, Frank Kelly died aged 77 in 2016—on the very same day 18 years after the death of Morgan.