At the risk of generalising both Father Ted writers massively, Graham Linehan tends to be influenced by the broad universe of popular fiction, while Arthur Mathews tends to draw on his own idiosyncratic experiences of Irish life. Linehan’s subsequent work has generally been more satisfying, with Black Books and The IT Crowd permeating the popular consciousness in a way that Wide Open Spaces or Val Falvey, TD could never rival. As a result, there exists a (perhaps unfair) tendency among viewers with moderate knowledge of both writers’ careers to simply attribute Father Ted’s success to Linehan, or at least marginalise Mathews’s contributions. The placement of Linehan’s name above Mathews’s in each episode’s credits hardly helps. In “Entertaining Father Stone”, therefore, we have an interesting case: an episode whose humour and subject-matter land firmly on Mathews’s end of the spectrum, exposing the viewer to the purest instance of Mathews’s inclinations that they will encounter in the show.
This episode also marks Father Ted’s first use of a cold open. In this case, we begin with a charming scene where Ted and Dougal discuss what their three wishes would be. Linehan and Mathews wrote many stand-alone sketches of this type simply as an exercise to help them find the characters’ voices, occasionally tacking them onto episodes as pre-titles sequences. Most of these scenes probably remain unperformed and unrecorded. In retrospect, they would have made excellent DVD extras or online vignettes – perhaps an entire series of Father Ted mini-episodes could have been released, providing a window on life between adventures on Craggy Island. Ah well. As broadcast, the opening has no connection to the story that follows it – at least not on an obvious narrative level.
The episode revolves around Father Stone, a depressing, taciturn priest who invites himself to a lengthy stay with Ted and Dougal. (This has been going on for six years, meaning that Ted has been on the island since at least the late 80s.) This one has the rare distinction of being a Father Ted episode based on a true story: two friends of Mathews’s were indeed plagued by an unwelcome acquaintance with whom they had nothing in common, but who insisted on visiting them nonetheless, cheerfully insisting that “we’ll find something in common” and brazenly cheating at golf. Comedian Michael Redmond is perfectly cast, so inexpressive and deadpan he comes to represent an almost cosmic fixity. He certainly has the right pedigree for Father Ted, having appeared in the video for Dermot Morgan’s single “Thank You Very Much, Mr Eastwood” a decade earlier, as well as creating the live show Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus.
When taken in the wider context of the Father Ted universe, “Entertaining Father Stone” is particularly fascinating for its suggestion of a Christian cosmology. Fast forward three weeks: when Ted’s party (the only scene with Linehan and Mathews on-screen together, fittingly) is ruined by Father Stone’s deathly presence, Ted breaks down, begging God himself to intervene. The writers, who were making this one up as they went along, realised that no real plot events had transpired yet in the episode, and so decided to resort to a very nearly literal deus ex machina.
The next morning, Ted and Dougal sneak off for a game of crazy golf – the one and only time this option is more interesting that staying at home. Father Stone follows them, but when they invite him to join, he is struck by lightning and paralysed. (Maybe that should be “deus ex machina pluviam” – a rain machine was used for the stormy golf scene, as the writers had not yet given up on their impractical idea that Craggy Island should have continuously terrible weather. Ardal O’Hanlon was so cold and miserable that he ended up knocking on the door of a random farmhouse and asking for a bath. Legend has it that they kept the bar of soap.) The priests take Father Stone to a hospital, apparently the island’s own, as Ted and Dougal’s conversations are interspersed with familiar faces passing through – a drunken Jack, the battered O’Learys bickering all the way to the emergency room.
Finally, the priests are ushered into the ward, where they meet the Stone family – a lovely mum, a fierce father, and a sinister granny who whispers “I know what you’re up to.” A print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper hangs pointedly on the wall. (When Kate Binchy, the actress set to play the mother, fell ill on the day of filming, the writers turned in desperation to the only other actress available at short notice: Pauline McLynn. Mrs Doyle had appeared in only a couple of scenes at this point, so they reasoned that they could get away with having a minor character who looks and sounds identical to her. McLynn was already in full make-up and costume when Binchy recovered, averting the crisis, but sapping the scene of its dreamlike weirdness.) Ted is shocked to learn that the blank-faced Father Stone adores him, constantly quoting him at home and literally counting down the days till next year’s visit (with a customised calendar, one of the show’s fun little bits of prop design, indicating that the episode takes place in November – again, this one was written chronologically, so it’s visibly a stack of inventions, each sequence tacked on to one written without it in mind). Breaking down under the guilt of what he’s done, Ted begs for Father Stone to be spared, and a moment later, his prayer is answered. The implication, commonly overlooked on the grounds that we’re watching a silly sitcom which was never meant to be analysed, is that there really is a God, and he really is answering Ted’s prayers in his time of need. The on-screen evidence for this idea is sparse outside this episode, but with Father Stone’s portrait hanging above the mantelpiece throughout the remainder of the show, it’s difficult to dismiss the events surrounding Ted’s divine experience. Granny Stone really does have the direct line.
Since Father Ted is clearly not intended to promote Catholicism (or any other religion) in any way, its internal affirmation of God’s existence must be taken as another aspect of its explicitly fictional mythos. God is no more real than Matty Hislop’s kitten, or the storm which caused Craggy Island’s west side to break away.
Re-conceptualising Father Ted as a programme following the misadventures of incompetent priests within a Catholic universe, we must reconsider some of our basic assumptions about the series. What roles do the central characters fulfil in this worldview? What is the true nature of Craggy Island? Well, it’s a place where those who have failed and fallen to sin are banished, condemned to suffer until they have paid their dues. This concept, as it turns out, is already part of Roman Catholic cosmology. It’s called purgatory.
Now, it’s entirely possible that the writers never intended a purgatorial subtext. Considering how often one comes across similar “edgy” reinterpretations of TV shows online, and how trivially easy it is to construct these, I’m hesitant to even go there. However, the show’s roots in Roman Catholic faith combined with Craggy Island’s diegetic status as a place of punishment give the idea a verisimilitude that most of those tedious “Ash Ketchum in a coma” derivatives don’t have. The threat of purgatory is something burnt into the unconscious minds of countless Irish children, its promise of a cruel but limited sentence of torment to be endured for each and every sin somehow making it more tangible and immediate – more frightening and real – than the abstract eternity of hell. Under this reading, all of Craggy Island’s logical absurdities, not to mention its wildly inconsistent geography, begin to make a kind of twisted sense. After all, Catholic doctrine states that purgatory is more a process than a physical place. Why should it follow our rational perception of reality? In one commentary, Linehan notes a similarity between the unchanging setting of Craggy Island and the deprecated Catholic teaching of limbo, but this seems to miss the mark – limbo is primarily a compromised afterlife for those cursed by bad luck, such as unbaptised babies, not a punishment.
Of course, Craggy Island is an engine of suffering for all its inhabitants, not just the priests. And so a new vision of Father Ted begins to come into focus: a show which follows the trials and tribulations of a community of venial sinners in the process of being purified through their suffering in a surreal netherworld.
But what about Craggy Island’s paradoxical relationship with Ireland? The narrative treats the quaint little rock as both a direct analogue for Ireland and a distinct entity, allowing the writers to play with recognisably Irish concepts without making fun of the Irish in general. How does this trick fit with the purgatorial reading? To suggest the country itself as an avatar of purgatory is extreme, even for a people known for their self-deprecation. We can conclude, then, that Craggy Island is a uniquely Irish purgatory. The nation’s drain. The place where our redeemable sinners must endure the cleansing fires of banality until they reach the end of their sentence.
Mathews, who grew up surrounded by priests, has acknowledged that he was always fascinated by “the strangeness and madness of Irish things”. But how far can we take this idea? How strange and mad is Mathews’s unbridled vision of this world?
On second thought, maybe it’s not that unique. Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, one of the canonical texts of Irish comic fiction (and one of the great works of proto-postmodernist literature), articulates a vision of Ireland that flits between playfully surreal and existentially disturbing, revealing in its final pages that its protagonist’s strange experiences were just the beginning of a hellish afterlife to which he has been condemned as punishment for a murder he committed at the novel’s opening. Linehan and Mathews had not read O’Brien at the time of the first series’s broadcast, but many have found echoes of his work in the show’s cadences and dreamlike logic, even if that influence is derived only via intermediaries or cultural osmosis. Ted viewers will find much that’s familiar in O’Brien’s nightmare alternative Ireland where nothing ever changes; where physical logic turns fractally incomprehensible; where you can come but you cannot go; where authority is boundless and boundlessly useless. (Incidentally, sales of The Third Policeman soared when the book was featured briefly in a 2005 episode of Lost; this seems instructive, even if Ted skipped that final twist – YouTube mashups notwithstanding.)
In the opening scene, Dougal asks Ted what his three wishes would be. While he waffles about world peace, an end to hunger, and “more money for hospitals and that type of thing”, we cut to a fantasy sequence where Ted dances with a group of women at a disco. When Ted is asked a similar question in “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, this sequence is repeated and expanded, with Ted winning a heap of cash on a roulette wheel and frolicking in it with his female companions. But is this really a fantasy? In “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, we learn that Ted was sent to Craggy Island as punishment for stealing money from a Lourdes charity and spending it on a trip to Las Vegas. It’s not too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that these fantasy sequences are actually flashbacks to previous events: that Ted’s deepest desire is still to return to the night of hedonistic avarice which earned him his stay in purgatory.
By this logic, “Entertaining Father Stone”, an episode where God really does grant two of Ted’s wishes, becomes an interrogation of Ted’s development and the stage of his purification. In one of his darkest moments, Ted callously invokes the wrath of God on the innocent Father Stone – an act he recants primarily to allay his own guilt. While it is clear that Ted has changed his mind, the extent to which he has truly learnt the error of his ways remains unclear. The fact that he has made only two requests of God – two wishes – by the episode’s ending leaves us with a lingering sense of anticipation. What will Ted’s third wish be? Will he find forgiveness and transcend purgatory, or remain bound up in the drudgery of Craggy Island until the end of days?
In the understated post-credits scene, Father Stone finally smiles. Perhaps he knows how his visit to the island has affected Ted. Perhaps not. It is, after all, like trying to read a brick wall with a moustache.