Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Genius of Father Ted

Father Ted isn’t a dark show. Neither it is it necessarily a warm-hearted show (but sometimes it is both). It isn’t a show based explicitly around fashionable social issues (though so many perceptive comments on them can be found in it), or a show with roots in Shakespeare, Dickens or Beckett. Writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, along with their cast and directors Declan Lowney and Andy de Emmony, worked hard to make the funniest show you ever saw. Every atom - every guest performance, every throw-way line, every plot detail, every visual gag, every turn of the camera - is directed towards the mystifying process of being funny. The show understands that true comedy - something so funny it’s almost inexplicable - scrupulously honed and structured can take us onto a plane of delight which no other art can reach, and can give us an entirely new understanding of life and society.

To start with the impossible task of trying to capture Father Ted's aesthetic (and I can’t, of course. It just has to be watched), let’s consider the episode The Plague. Father Dougal Maguire has just got a pet rabbit. Father Ted Crilly warns him that it will have to be out of the way when the fearsome Bishop Brennan visits, because a while ago the bishop was stuck in a lift in a department store and some rabbits got in with him (“How did they get in?” asks Dougal “Must have burrowed in - you know, rabbits…” replies Ted) and started “nibbling at his cape and everything.” Just before the Bishop arrives, Ted and Dougal find the whole parochial house is swarming with rabbits. “Oh wow” says Dougal, “It’s like a big rabbit rock festival.” Ted then inadvertently points out a potential plothole: he considers sending the rabbits to the same pet shop Dougal bought his from. “No, Ted, it was a travelling pet shop. They won’t be back till spring.” Bishop Brennan arrives, and after intimidating Ted and Dougal, mentions the time he was in trapped a lift and a bunch of rabbits got in and “started nibbling at my cape and everything.” Later Ted and Dougal, hunting for the rabbits, find them in Father Jack’s locked room: “they must have burrowed in - you know, rabbits…”.

There is much in the writing I have just outlined that is uniquely and inexplicably funny (and I didn’t even get round to one of the rabbits being the spitting image of “that fella, Harvey Keitel”) but crucial to the genius of Father Ted, I think, is the way it embraces its lunacy and uses its own plot flaws as walls to bounce the comedy off. The two plot discrepancies here - the absence of the pet shop and the need to make Bishop Brennan coincidentally terrified of rabbits - perform the same miracle as rhyme and metre in a great poem. The writing and the actors actually revel in the unconvincing explanations, making them so gleefully funny they become rabbit holes down which we tumble, into a world where comedy doesn’t have to persuade you that life is like this to be hysterically funny, and where we can laugh at the absurdity, joy and sublimity of comedy itself as well as the brilliantly drawn characters and finely observed take on Catholic life. How sterile and cloying a show like Friends is by contrast, with no sense of its own ridiculousness, and an inability to consider the fact that its characters are anything other than lovely people. Similarly, the episode Escape From Victory, which sees Ted managing a geriatric football match, seems to be having fun with its own ludicrousness, supplementing its plot with notes on the nature of what comedy requires from such a plot. Ted's star player dies, so Ted visits the body in an open coffin at the wake. Cutting from Ted boasting of how they can't lose the game as long as they have him to a shot of him in an open coffin is a standard sitcom technique, but the script parses it with the following exchange. "So there‘s no way he‘ll be able to play?" asks Ted. "No," replies the Priest, and adds "he's dead." "It’s completely out of the question, then?“ replies Ted, and after a pause adds: “Is it - is it completely out of the question?”

Many episodes of Father Ted work by bringing a bizarre why-shouldn’t-it-be-that-way logic to the surreal vistas Linehan and Mathews have dreamed up. Many sitcoms might alight upon the idea of a priest with a collection of Nazi memorabilia, but it's Father Ted that knows the funniest way to do this: first, establish the priest as a man of erudite references and well-stocked bookshelves. Then have him offer to show Ted his collection of Second World War memorabilia, which Ted's often heard of. Have the dignified and intelligent-seeming priest show Ted first one shelf of memorabilia, then a second, after which Ted enquires if he has anything from the Allied Side "No, I'm afraid that sort of thing wouldn't interest me at all." Surely the funniest possible way of parsing that gag. The idea of a Nazi priest becomes bizarrely mundane. Many sitcoms would be happy to have a comedy prop as obvious as a brick lying around the living room for an episode, but only Father Ted would have a character respond to claims that it brightens up the modern living room according to magazines with the retort "that may be alright for Will Self or one of those fellahs."

The episode Are You Right There, Father Ted? sees Ted, back from a stay at a better parochial house and deeply bored, put a broken lampshade on his head and do a Chinaman impression to amuse Dougal, only to find three Chinese people staring at him through the window. After their affronted exit, Ted, spluttering, demands to know who they are. Dougal replies that they must be part of that new Chinatown area on Craggy Island. Many comedy shows might have seen this as a source of comic mileage, but the joy lies in the way that the show enforces a sense of logic - why shouldn’t Craggy Island have a Chinatown area?

Another episode - Old Grey Whistle Theft - is a master-class in world-building, as surely as the work of Mervyn Peake or Tolkien. Mr Benson’s whistle is stolen, plunging Craggy Island into chaos. A simple enough idea, but the way this story is told gives it a grandeur unique to comedy. First the script establishes Mr Benson’s power, and the significance of his whistle. We see Ted trying to enjoy a picnic, and enduring an altercation with a rude couple who accuse him of taking their spot. An officious figure bursts out of a hut, blowing on a whistle. “Put the fork down!” he commands Ted, who drops his plastic fork like an outnumbered gunslinger as pastiche Spaghetti Western music plays on the soundtrack. Later we get Ted angrily wishing that someone would take Benson’s whistle off him, followed by a dramatic scene, shot from the unseen thief’s point-of-view, of someone doing just that. We then have some wonderful scenes of the resulting panic amongst the people of Craggy Island. The bored local policeman takes to circling the island in a helicopter, sniper rifle at the ready, while the man who runs the local shop explains to Ted that that would be on account of “this whistle ting”, and in turn proudly shows Ted the shotgun he’s bought and “wouldn’t hesitate to use it if anyone tried to take any of the whistles we have here.“ Ted then meets an old lady convinced that this will bring about a scenario similar to “that film, BoyZ in the Hood”, who goes home to lock herself in the cellar until the thief is caught, and he sees that the local paper has a a headline warning of anarchy and a special pull-out colour supplement on whistles. This magnificent exercise in absurd logic is balanced by an engaging, character-based plot, in which Father Dougal is led astray by a cool but wayward priest his own age (and who may just be the whistle thief). In Father Ted, you really do get everything.

However, the show’s sharpness cannot be underestimated. It’s affectionate towards Clerical life, but full of lines you’d never get in The Vicar of Dibley. Consider Ted's nightmare of being sacrificed to a volcano god in the episode Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse. He pleads with a tribesman to consider the Catholic way of life, but the tribesman replies "sorry, father, I never could get onboard with that stance on artificial contraception." Or that fabulous moment in Rock-A-Hula-Ted where Ted, after being asked about scandals in the Church, replies "Say there are 200 million priests in the world and 5% of them are paedophiles, that's still only ten million." Or, of course, Dougal's cheerful aside, when being mistaken for Ted, "personally I don't even agree with organised religion."

Key to this is the deft way the essential decency of the priests is juxtaposed with the misery inflicted upon them by the dullness of organised religion. The embarrassed silence in Flight into Terror when one of them, as it becomes clear their plane is going to crash and ideas are being pooled, suggests a moment of prayer, and the moment in A Christmassy Ted when Ted's likeable priest colleagues are staying over at Christmas and find they've missed the Christmas film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) but dutifully try and sit through the midnight mass before nodding off are rather poignant. Who could not be moved by Ted's friends standing up to the monstrous Father Finton Stack in New Jack City after he interrupts their attempts to watch a video with Ted with abuse. "I must say, I think you're a very rude man!" says one of them, to which the demonic Father Stack replies, while smiling sweetly, "If you ever say that to me again, I'll put your head through the wall." To Ted's distress and ours, they leave.

Yet while this is an affectionate show, it's not a sentimental one. Father Dougal is an idiot but no savant, (a sadly unfilmed scene in which he counts a spilled pile of matches like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, only to be told he wasn't even close, demonstrates just how much Linehan and Mathews understood these characters, even outside of the broadcast episodes.) Like Seinfeld, the show has the knack of allowing us to see the characters from a different light and realising just how far they are from nice people, without allowing the theme to dominate in an attempt to make it self-consciously 'dark'.

And then there's the cast. The late Dermot Morgan (I still remember the moment when I heard of his death in 1998 as if it were the loss of a family member) had an energy hard to describe, but what made him an ideal lead was his ability to play voice of sanity to Father Dougal's worst excesses and a wildly funny character in his own right, without the viewers ever seeing the join. He was authoritative when demonstrating to Dougal the difference between objects that are small and objects that are far away (toy cows helped) and yet joyously childish when trading insults with the Hubert Laneish Father Dick Byrne or hurling Trogg's tape-style abuse at Dougal when they try to record a Eurovision song. Has there ever been a funnier running gag than the references to what happened to "the money from that Lourdes Thing"? The joy comes from watching Ted's composure break every time someone brings it up: "that money was just resting in my account" is usually his response, and sometimes "it was a simple allocation of funds." It's our love of Morgan as a performer that makes the anticipation of his reaction as funny as the reaction itself. His performance conveys such a poignant sense of frustrated ambition. Consider his conversation with John and Mary in the episode Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading. "We're going to Rome, Father, we might see your friend." "Who's that, Sophia Loren?" gushes Ted. "The Pope, Father." "He's no friend of mine!" roars Ted, only to realise he's taken the joke too far. Morgan achieves something heartbreaking with these moments of thwarted joy.

Ardal O'Hanlon also gives the performance of a lifetime throughout these 25 episodes. Every facial expression and the delivery of each line works hard to uncover something new in the quest to make the stupidity of Father Dougal Maguire endlessly surprising, and to turn a trope derived from Trigger in Only Fools of Horses into a creation with a life of its own. In moments such as Dougal's blunt "What's wrong wicha?" when Ted tries to cheer up a suicidal priest, his "it was resting for a long time Ted - a good long rest" about the Lourdes money in Ted's account, or his realisation that one of the locals always wears a police uniform because he is a policeman ("I thought he was just having a laugh"), O'Hanlon conveys the sense of a gargantuan engine of imbecility. The sublime scene in the first broadcast episode, Good Luck, Father Ted, in which an animated cartoon is used to depict fantasy and reality switching places inside Dougal's mind (we see a sketch of someone's head, with 'reality' labelled outside the head and 'dreams' labelled inside it, and then we see the two switch places to jolly music as animated rabbits appear and frolic) is a synecdoche for Father Ted itself: the normal and the mad have swapped round, and what will be created for half an hour will be unlike anything you've ever encountered. As we've seen, there will indeed be rabbits running around; there will also be a hamster on a bicycle, a sequel to Speed on a Milk float, a group of priests trapped Vietnam-style in Ireland's biggest lingerie section, and a cameo by Richard Wilson.

The other two members of this magnificent quartet are Frank Kelly as Father Jack Hackett and Pauline Mclynn as Mrs Doyle the housekeeper. Again, it's hard to paraphrase the joy we experience whenever they appear, and the endless affection their performances inspire. In the case of Father Jack, the septic, encrusted alcoholic of unfathomable age, the delight comes from what you don't expect him to say. We all know he's going to smash his way through the parochial house living room window to make his exit, punch Ted when he tries to stop him drinking and drink toilet duck when no booze is available. However, who would have expected him, after angry demands for an apology for telling Bishop Brennan to "feck off", to hold out his hands like paws and croon "I'm sooooo, sooooo, sorrrry" and make a bizarre ingratiating gesture somewhere from the backwaters of sarcasm which can only be described as rabbit-like? (Rabbits, incidentally are getting to be something of a motif). Who would have expected Jack of all people to be the one that defeats Bishop Brennan by finding a tape of him playing on the beach with his illegitimate son, or to frolic with puppies and children when a seasonal change comes upon him?

The perfect Father Jack scene occurs in the episode Speed 3 when Jack takes a liking to the aforementioned brick, attaching a lead and taking it for walks. "I LOVE MY BRICK", he intones, with a struggling but unmistakable sincerity. Ted finds this touching: "perhaps we're seeing another side to Father Jack - a more caring, compassionate..." At this point, of course, the brick strikes him upon the head: "Ah, feckit!" snarls its owner: "Fed-up with [adopting another bizarre version of a sarcastic tone] breeiiiiiiicck." Again, the notes in that little piece of music are exquisite.

Mrs Doyle is the final cog; with her in place the show is perfect. As with Jack, it's the audience's anticipation of how Pauline McLynn will handle these moments that takes centre stage here. The dainty way her legs wobble as she tries and fails to climb rather than fall down from the windowsill after putting up the Christmas decorations, the look of High Tragedy on her face when Ted buys a tea-maker and her 'test' after making sandwiches (she selects one, takes a bite, contorts her face while desperately beating her neck and chest and then announces "they're fine") Her initially simpering and then demonic exhortation when serving tea - "Go on, go on , go, on guan guan guan GUAN!" - has rightly joined catchprase history, but Linehan, Mathews and McLynn pushed it further in the scene where Mrs Doyle approaches Father Finton Stack - a priest with a predilection for the Ghetto-blaster - and, drowned by the endless rap music, produces cascade of cardboard placards upon which these words are emblazoned in felt-tip. It's a lovely moment of dumbshow (each "go on" has its own card), and comes just as we were wondering how Mrs Doyle might react to the unexpected and boisterous presence of Father Stack in the household.

There's so many supporting characters to praise: John and Mary, Tom, Father Larry Duff, Father Noel Furlong. Each one gets funnier the more you get to know them, and each one lends their performances their own distinctive sound within this comedic orchestra. John and Mary are a married couple who run the local shop. Whenever we meet them, they are usually mid-way through a hideous row, trading blows as well as insults, but when Ted or Dougal show up they instantly put up a facade of sweetness. "Hello, Father!" says John when Ted enters the shop while Mary is forcing his head in a bucket of water, "Mary was just washing my hair." Several novels' worth of detail about the duplicity of marriage, the torture of Catholic sanctions on divorce and the different relationships between the private and public faces of marriage and religion are conveyed in scenes lasting barely five minutes, simply by the accumulative effect of having those two characters return every other episode.

Father Larry Duff is built around a straightforward running-gag premise: Ted gives him a call on his mobile whenever he's in need of guests, as "Larry's tremendous fun." During, immediately after or as a result of the phone call, something terrible happens to Larry. Yet consider two of these scenes. In one, Ted is trying to get rid of the aforementioned rabbits and remembers that Larry often mentioned that one of his all time fantasies was to have a few rabbits running about the place. Ted phones Larry, who replies that having a few rabbits around the place was indeed one of his all time fantasies. Ted explains his problem. "Ah, sorry Ted, I don't think I'll be able to take them," replies Larry, "I thought the rabbits idea was a bit far-fetched, so I got twelve Rottweilers instead." the camera pans back. There are hideous dogs flanking him. "I'd take them, but I think the Rottweilers would upset them."' After hanging up, he simpers at one of the dogs: "Oh you're a bad dog - don't you look at me like that! You're a very bad dog...." He then screams as, offscreen, the Rottweiler attacks his outstretched hand. We know why that is funny, but why is it so funny? It's yet another way of making the standard comic situation sublime by acknowledging its contrived nature (note the way Larry instantly uses the same phrase "a few rabbits around the of my all-time fantasies", transforming it from an incongruity into a given) but Larry's sheer presence, with actor Tony Guilfoyle's beatific face and his way of delivering his lines in a chirpily over-enunciative tone, gives us the sense that as the plot is handed over to each of these characters, it becomes funny in a different way. The characters are like different valves on an organ.

The second scene, in Old Grey Whistle Theft, sees Ted phoning up Larry to ask about a picnic they've planned. Larry, held at gunpoint, tells Ted they won't be able to make it: "You know Father Williams who was driving us? Well, they found a big box o' machine guns in his house." Ted is astonished. "Well, you think you know someone..." sighs Larry. As Ted rings off to continue with the episode's picnic plot, another priest makes a run for it and, as Larry looks on, a soldier opens fire, and we cut back to Ted. A tough little vignette about the relationship between faith and violence in Ireland, rendered extraordinary by being put into the mouth of the serene Father Larry Duff. The phrase "Big box o' machine guns" becomes poetry.

This celebration wouldn't be complete without discussing the extraordinary performance of Jim Norton as Bishop Brennan. Appearing in just three episodes, the Bishop is responsible for ensuring that these three failures of priests are kept hidden on Craggy Island. Norton is playing a familiar figure (Superintendent Chalmers in The Simpsons comes to mind), but brings such ferocious energy to the screen that he never seems to be playing the straight man, even though ostensibly his role is to find out what Ted, Dougal and Jack are up to and get angry. The episode Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse, in which Ted, having forfeited a football game with Father Dick Byrne, has to carry out the mission of the episode's title as a result, is built around an inevitable outcome: of course Bishop Brennan will realise that Ted kicked him up the arse, but when this moment comes, it's frightening. The sight of Bishop Brennan's cape flowing like Batman's as he runs towards the Parochial House howling for Ted's blood is hard to forget, and while the episode has gained much comic mileage from seeing how many times it can use variants of the phrase "kick him up the arse", hearing the Bishop use them himself is sublime, as if the same joke the episode has been giving is being sung in yet another key:

What brings me here, Crilly? Well, I suppose I would have to say the company, hah? The fresh air, the view from my window of that great pile of sludge - but number one on the list would be the matter of you kicking me up the arse - yes I think that is the one I would prioritise. Don't try my patience, Crilly! You kicked me up the arse: try to deny it and I will have you fed to the dogs!

The other reason for Bishop Brennan transcending the role of mere foil is the little touches of dignity and verisimilitude that Norton embellishes him with. There's his reaction to Dougal calling him Len, his occasional profanities (Don't call me Len, you little prick!", "you address me by my title, you little bollocks!"), his reaction when Ted suggests a moment of prayer (“No! I don't want - allright then, alright carry on, carry on“), his snarl of "what are yeee looking at?" after shoving the Pope aside in his realisation that Ted DID kick him up the arse, his witty moments of sarcasm ("Ah, the Kraken awakes," he sneers when Jack comes out of his slumber). My own favourite is the look of uncharacteristic amusement on his face whenever his PA - renowned as the most sarcastic priest in Ireland - displays his talent ("Did you come by car?" "No, we flew in from Southern Yemen."), even gesturing towards him and looking at Ted with a "doesn't he just kill you?" expression on his face. This is the kind of little touch that makes Father Ted endlessly rewatchable: its strong gags and characters are parsed by notes of verisimilitude, like lines of poetry made to scan in surprising ways.

Father Ted is the greatest comedy from this side of the Atlantic, and along with Seinfeld the greatest comedy of all time. That's the closest I can come to explaining why.