“What was the first episode of Father Ted?” This may seem like a simple question, but, fittingly for Father Ted, it’s not that straightforward. The first thing to understand is that no pilot episode was ordered to test the waters, as is common practice – the entire six-episode first series was commissioned together, entirely on the strength of the scripts. “Good Luck, Father Ted” has the distinction of being the first to air, but its place in the schedule was a late decision – “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” was originally planned for the debut slot. The series finale, “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, was actually the first episode to be scripted, and on a more frivolous note, the car accident in “And God Created Woman” was the first scene to be recorded. (Yes, I’m a major nuisance at pub quizzes.)
One fun side-effect of all this shuffling about is that there are now several episodes which can be considered “the first” in a meaningful sense. To understand “Good Luck”, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s an episode which was written to be generic but forced into the role of a series introduction when the writers had second thoughts. Arthur Mathews would have preferred the original plan, but Graham Linehan explains he had misgivings about starting with an episode which self-consciously and obviously recites backstory. While “Tibulus” is undoubtedly the stronger script, it’s also rather more specialised, and would have given first-time viewers a somewhat distorted impression of the show – the sharpness of its focus on the church’s attitude towards sex and censorship is atypical of Father Ted, and viewers could easily have been left thinking that Bishop Brennan would feature in every episode.
Compared to this, “Good Luck” serves as a better induction to what watching the show will actually be like. Its plot-driving guest stars, the Faith of Our Fathers documentary crew, are clearly not part of the show’s regular formula. Instead the crew serve three specific purposes, each part of the audience’s induction: to establish Ted’s mild immorality via his selfish desire for fame and the exclusion of the others from the documentary; to showcase the series’s gently dismissive attitude towards religion; and to illustrate one of the show’s basic tensions, which is the relationship between Craggy Island and Ireland. It’s perfectly natural that the first episode of Father Ted should culminate with Terry MacNamee – a rational intruder in a place where rationality breaks down – attempting to have a meaningful theological conversation with Dougal. This is a standard Father Ted episode, laid out for the audience as neatly as Dougal’s Dreams/Reality diagram. Even the nondescript title, “Good Luck, Father Ted”, helps to efface the episode’s very identity, underlining its typical nature. (When the third series was announced, Gerard Lee, who played Terry, wrote to Hat Trick and suggested an episode where we learn that his character never managed to escape the island, and is now wandering around, dishevelled and insane, interviewing crows and sheep. The writers had their own ideas, but no-one can take this image away from us – a worthy addition to the expanded universe.)
Despite its essential status as the standard episode, “Good Luck” still has a few kinks to be ironed out. The running joke where Dougal looks out the window and sees bizarre weather or giant ants never takes off. Ted, Dougal and Mrs Doyle rolling up their sleeves to overpower Jack feels like a joke from a slightly different show, as does the Deliverance montage, which corresponds to a stereotype of country people that’s unfortunate in a way the show rarely is. (And it’s a little strange, in the early episodes, to see Mrs Doyle with that mole on the right side of her lip – it will switch to the left when she’s mildly redesigned after the first series, perhaps in a nod to Prince John in Robin Hood: Men in Tights.) Sadly we never get another animated sequence like the brilliant glimpse into Dougal’s rabbit-infested mind. But these stylistic dead ends have the sense of a show figuring out what it wants to be, and do not feel like they interfere with the episode’s core goals. On some level, audiences will allow for a debut episode to be slightly off-kilter.
Another oddity is that the on-screen title includes quotation marks, making it unique even among the episodes following the “X, Father Ted” format (the writers originally wanted to title every episode this way, in tribute to the Mr Moto films, but soon ran out of ideas). The only significant precursor that springs to mind is David Bowie’s “Heroes”, where the punctuation is intended to bestow a degree of irony and ambiguity. But where Bowie titled his album after its lead single, Linehan and Mathews titled their debut episode after a seemingly insignificant line spoken by islander John O’Leary, elevating it to a tentative word of encouragement for their fledgling creation. Good luck, Father Ted.
For those familiar with the show’s history, the documentary storyline is also appropriate on a purely symbolic level. In reality, Linehan and Mathews did not originally intend Father Ted to be a sitcom. The initial plan was to produce a six-part fake documentary series called Irish Lives, with each episode visiting and interviewing a different fictional character somewhere in Ireland. One episode would focus on Father Ted Crilly, a character Mathews had created for a stand-up routine he performed while gigging in The Joshua Trio, his U2 tribute band. (Perhaps the U2 poster seen above Dougal’s bed is a subtle nod to the distant, obscure origins of this universe.) Geoffrey Perkins, the producer, suggested that Irish Lives be scrapped in favour of a sitcom adaptation of the priest episode, and Father Ted as we know it was born. Faith of Our Fathers is a holdover, a remnant from an entirely different conception of Father Ted. Of course this episode would be broadcast first: it marks the show’s triumphant transition from the original iteration we will never see to the phenomenon we know and love. The sense of consolidating and building on Irish Lives is complemented by the voice of Mathews, the original Father Ted himself, ringing out over the Funland intercom, ushering in this glorious new vision of Irish absurdity.
Funland, a parody of the Irish fair Funderland, is the episode’s big set piece, and allows a convenient introduction to the madness of Craggy Island’s people. We see them half-heartedly engaging in inane activities such as “Freak Pointing”, “Car Rides”, and “Goading the Fierce Man”; “Duck Startling”, “Hen Chariot”, “The Pond of Terror”. The islanders derive no enjoyment from these attractions, but participate in them again and again, simply because there’s nothing better to do on this forsaken rock. A handful of numb locals stationed throughout the field provide these impossibly dull services to the milling masses. Some even become part of the attractions bodily, one man endlessly turning the “Whirly-Go-Round”, another standing atop a step ladder, looking “fierce” so that anyone who pays 10 pence can “goad” him (which is where Linehan’s first on-screen cameo comes in). It’s hedonism with boredom in place of pleasure; a warped reflection of a Hieronymus Bosch tableau.
This episode also gives us our first look at a narrative pattern which will recur several times throughout the show: the idea of television as an interface between Craggy Island and Ireland. The show has a broader fascination with the media and popular culture, but it’s the plain old telly that manifests most often, serving both as Ted’s immediate short-term escape from his tedious surroundings as well as a symbol for his ultimate dreams of freedom, which are presented as interchangeable with the glamour of showbiz. Characters who appear on the television will generally find themselves on Craggy Island shortly afterwards, becoming ensnared in its absurdities. A little oddly for a debut, this episode goes furthest of all down this road, not only featuring television-related characters but structuring an entire storyline around one of Ted’s many efforts to get on television. (The dramatic irony, of course, being that Ted will never find out that he already is the nation’s most beloved television character.) Father Jack’s first action in the episode – and the series – is to smash the television with a wine bottle, a blunt statement on his attitudes towards the outside world. (Incidentally, the voices heard talking about jumpers in the programme which angers Jack are those of Linehan and Mathews. One of the problems with analysing Father Ted is that the symbolism occasionally reaches fractal levels.)
When Ted sneaks off to Funland to meet the television crew, so self-absorbed he fails to even register local lunatic Tom’s murder confession, he finds Dougal and Jack frolicking about, having absconded from their prescribed walk to the cliffs. Dougal insists on visiting a fortune-teller, and an overrun filming schedule results in the sky morphing to a strange and ominous twilight before changing back to mild afternoon as Ted stumbles out of the tent, apparently marked for death. Neither time not geography have permanence here. Mistaking Dougal for Ted, the documentary crew interview him instead, while Ted accidentally ascends to the heavens while trying to rouse Jack from the Crane of Death, which he’d mistaken for a bench. “Father, how would you say that people’s religious beliefs here on Craggy Island have been affected by the advent of television, and greater access to the media in general?” The question is buried under audience laughter, but in many ways it’s the core of the episode, and a mission statement for Father Ted itself.
As Ted attempts to conceive some means of escape, Jack knocks him to the ground. He recovers just in time to see Dougal’s interview broadcast, albeit still wrapped in mummy-like bandages. In the first episode, showing Ted with an uncharacteristically cartoonish injury is a miscalculation, as is displaying Dougal’s face with Ted’s name underneath. These aren’t harmful missteps, however, just quirks that the years have smoothed into the fabric of the show. The episode ends with a freeze-frame on Jack smashing the television again, his myopic vision of Dougal on television coming full circle, and the fourth wall throws its hands up, not bothering to show us what happens next. Why should it? This is Craggy Island. This is purgatory. Nothing ever changes here, so the story ends where it began, loops within loops eternal.
If you want to see what happens next, just wait till RTÉ airs the episode again.