This Is Really Top-Notch Stuff (Father Ted)

ted watchingHow can a TV show end shortly after its third anniversary, but persist at the heart of a national zeitgeist for decades? It’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer. In Ireland, at least, even the best shows have generally been consigned to the annals of history by this age; put out to pasture; allowed to fade gracefully, until they become something your dad used to watch “back in the day”. Like Hall’s Pictorial Weekly – once loved, now merely respected by a generation vaguely aware of it.

But Father Ted rebelled. It acquired a small, dedicated viewership with its 1995 debut, exploded in popularity with its second series in 1996, and came to a well-earned conclusion in 1998. Rather than fading into dignified obscurity, becoming a lost treasure to delight those few viewers lucky enough to stumble across it, Father Ted persevered. It put down roots, not just in the mid-to-late 1990s, but in the very present of our culture. It became the show against which every Irish comedy would be measured; the show which would appeal to the demographic of the Teletubbies as much as to that of The Angelus; the show that a broadsheet newspaper can quote in a headline, safe in the knowledge that everyone in the country will get the reference; the show that spawned Tedfest, the major annual fan convention that draws as many typical Irish adults as it does television obsessives. Father Ted is dead but somehow alive, a 1990s time capsule that’s nonetheless treated as contemporary by a nation, no longer produced but continuously repeated on RTÉ. Our collective consciousness has become its life-support system. No Irish person needs to seek out Father Ted – it’s all around us. By way of comparison, it holds a similar vaunted status within its national consciousness to that held by Doctor Who in the UK, but where Doctor Who maintains its status through endless renewal and change and the continuous production of new episodes, Father Ted is kept aloft by a simple unspoken collective agreement to focus intensely on its short three-series run.

Father Ted is a sitcom focusing on the misadventures of three outcast Catholic priests on Craggy Island, a fictional desolate rock off the west coast of Ireland. A typical story involves an endearingly silly external force interrupting the banality of the island, only for the priests to endure or defeat it through a daft plan, restoring the status quo (often at some cost). The writers: Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, who contribute a viciously funny pop sensibility and an indelible affinity for quaint Irish madness respectively. (As a Channel 4 production, the show is technically British, but that’s not considered polite to mention.) The players: Father Ted Crilly, a perpetually jolly and rather sad man who reluctantly performs his priestly duties despite his uninterest; Father Dougal McGuire, a young curate defined by his childlike nature and immeasurable stupidity; Father Jack Hackett, an elderly, violent, lecherous alcoholic who communicates primarily through exclamations such as “Feck!” and “Drink!”; and, complementing this holy trinity, Mrs Doyle, the tea-obsessed workaholic housekeeper. In modern Irish culture, these characters are as iconic and beloved as royalty, or gods.

It’s impossible to convey the subjective experience of great comedy, but perhaps the most unique aspect of the show’s reception is its inexhaustibility. The initial impact of a well-crafted joke, the interplay of tension and revelation, is naturally softened by years of familiarity and repeats, but like some sort of comedic Zeno’s paradox, it never quite seems to run out of laughs. On a more literal level, introducing new viewers to Father Ted has become a sort of generational pastime, and remains a refreshing way to see the show through new eyes.

On that note, it’s worth considering the show’s strange popularity with children. At first glance, it might not seem like a natural fit – why should kids watch a programme which ended before they were born, focused on the clergy, with cursing and drinking and violence? Yet watch it they do, almost universally, throughout the country. The show walks a careful line in appealing to younger audiences. Apart from the occasional bloody nose, the violence is mollifyingly cartoonish. Sex and sexual repression are recurring themes, but they are not explored too graphically. A handful of moderate curse words such as “feck”, “arse”, and “bastard” are common, but stronger language is avoided; indeed, on the rare occasion that someone manages to say “fuck” without being interrupted, it’s actually bleeped, the show meta-fictionally flaunting its own mildness. Ted’s mid-life woes ring true for older viewers, while their younger counterparts can enjoy the simple comedy generated by the wide-eyed Dougal and grotesque Jack. The consequence of these aesthetic choices is to create a genuinely family-friendly show – something you can watch with anyone aged nine to ninety, barring extreme sensitivity or intensely devout Catholicism. (It’s literally the only thing – not just show, but thing – that every member of my family unequivocally loves. As anyone who knows us will be aware, this is an astonishing feat of cross-demographic appeal.) And so it came to be that the Irish millennials grew up with this unique ecclesiastical comedy, watching it alongside traditional children’s programming and loving it in essentially the same way.

Part of the appeal slots into place when you consider Craggy Island’s relationship with Ireland. The mainlanders regard the island as an inconsequential little backwater. The last bastion against the misery of the Atlantic weather. Colourful but grey. A place where not much ever happens, despite the madness of the locals. Yet it’s a place with a distinctive warmth, an inimitable sense of humour, and an endearingly dysfunctional sense of community, all of which make it impossible for some people ever to leave. In short, Craggy Island is to Ireland what Ireland is to the rest of the world. It’s Ireland squared – our own nation and all its bittersweet absurdities and idiosyncrasies, distilled into a neat set of 25 episodes and reflected back at us.

No wonder, then, that the reruns keep rolling. Children keep watching. Ted’s misadventures keep playing themselves out, again and again, across our screens and our collective consciousness. Like myths being passed down from generation to generation, their details and meanings co-opted and reconfigured for the issue of the day. A show tethered to the time of its production, yet adrift in the present. A rallying cry for the self-deprecating Irish, making us the masters of our own image, puncturing the tensions of post-Catholic Irish life with its concerted but gentle buffoonery.

Nearly two decades on, and after endless re-watches, the episodes we have still feel like enough. Impervious to reality, their static shape can still fit our country’s amorphous culture. Maybe we’ll never make something quite like Father Ted again, but on the bright side, maybe we’ll never have to.

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