It’s fair to say that this is not the pinnacle of the first series. As Graham Linehan notes in the commentary, an episode centring on any kind of competition is terribly easy to write. The characters spend a few scenes preparing, they compete, someone wins, and someone loses. Its premise alone renders “Competition Time” unlikely to match the level of power and innovation found in episodes like “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”. As both writers have agreed, dressing your characters up in funny costumes is the sort of idea that normally isn’t wheeled out until your sitcom’s fourth or fifth series.
But weak Father Ted is still Father Ted, so there’s plenty to appreciate. This episode’s most important contribution is the introduction of Rugged Island and its inhabitants. As media-savvy audiences will infer from the name, Rugged Island is essentially a mirror image of Craggy Island, with its own parochial house: Father Dick Byrne, Father Cyril McDuff, Father Jim Johnson, and their housekeeper, who closely resemble Ted, Dougal, Jack, and Mrs Doyle respectively.
The idea of giving sitcom characters slightly darker reflections of themselves as rivals is not a new one. Perhaps the most well-known example, the town of Shelbyville in The Simpsons, was introduced as a dark mirror to Springfield in the episode “Lemon of Troy”, which aired two days after “Competition Time” in a peculiar instance of parallel imagination. (Shelbyville’s inhabitants include not only counterparts of major characters like Homer and Bart, but counterparts of secondary characters like Milhouse, Moe, and Mr Burns. With the Rugged Islanders appearing in no fewer than four episodes, it’s a pity that Father Ted never moved beyond the main cast – Rugged Island versions of Tom, or John and Mary, could have been great fun. And they say they wouldn’t have had enough material for a fourth series!)
According to Linehan, the Rugged Island concept originated while he and Arthur Mathews were meeting with actors for the lead roles. Though it’s unintuitive for the modern Irish viewer to picture any other actors in the lead roles, the reality is that several others gave very strong auditions. Maurice O’Donoghue came particularly close to winning the lead role of Ted, with Dermot Morgan’s previous priestly character, Father Trendy, working against him in Linehan’s mind (Linehan initially hoped that Mathews, having originated the role in stand-up, would go on to play Ted on the show). Most shows do not have places in their recurring casts for runners-up, but the writers took advantage of Father Ted‘s flexible logic, creating a new set of characters who would serve as doppelgängers for the main ones. As a result, we don’t have to imagine what it would have been like if O’Donoghue had been cast as Ted, or if Don Wycherley had won the role of Dougal – close facsimiles of these lost futures are made readily available to us within the show itself. (In fact, this is something of a trend within the show, with Mathews himself playing multiple Ted analogues.) O’Donoghue plays Dick as slightly more mean-spirited and opportunistic than Ted, and Wycherley plays Cyril as somewhat stupider and more naïve than Dougal, but these are superficial differences – the Rugged Islanders never do anything it’s entirely impossible to imagine their Craggy Island counterparts doing. Chris Curran seems like he would have made a perfectly solid Father Jack, though he doesn’t get much material to work with in the two episodes in which he appears. The Rugged Island housekeeper is unnamed and uncredited, has no lines and appears in only a few shots in this episode, but she’s a dead ringer for Pauline McLynn. Not to worry, though: Mrs Doyle will receive several other analogues throughout the coming series.
The episode’s plot revolves around Henry Sellers, a former BBC television presenter who comes to Craggy Island to judge an all-priests look-alike competition. (The concept was based on The All-Priests Holy Road Show, a real group of Catholic priests who toured Ireland in the 1980s with a variety show involving jokes and music.) Ted finds that both Dougal and Jack have inadvertently copied his idea of going as Elvis Presley. Compounding Ted’s consternation is the fact that he will be competing against his bitter rival, Father Dick.
Sellers is introduced in typical Father Ted fashion: first we see the priests watching his inane game show on their own television, and next he intrudes upon Craggy Island himself. But Sellers has a peculiar quality which distinguishes him from all of the show’s other television-related guest characters: he’s British, by choice if not by birth. Not only this, but he’s specifically and repeatedly linked to the BBC, the oldest, most prestigious entity in British television.
Despite having been scripted by Irish writers, populated by Irish actors, and shot on location in Ireland, Father Ted was produced by the British company Hat Trick for the British broadcaster Channel 4, with studio scenes recorded in London. Following the show’s initial broadcast, it met with backlash from Irish immigrants in Britain, who felt that they were being mocked by a British station; the Irish in Ireland were somewhat quicker to see the funny side, claiming the show for their own and single-mindedly dismissing any suggestion that it was anything but. Still, in the production sense, it’s every bit as British as Doctor Who, and even creatively it’s far more indebted to British television comedy than Irish – count the number of decent sitcoms produced by Ireland prior to 1995 and see for yourself. Don’t cast aspersions of Father Ted‘s genealogy down the pub, though, or you may find yourself on the receiving end of nationalist grumbling. Because, deep down, we all know that Ireland’s flagship programme – indeed, its flagship work of popular fiction – is impure, tainted by the influence of the ancestral enemy.
(In “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’”, there’s even a hint that British institutional malpractice may lie at the root of all the show’s strange goings-on, with Ted mentioning that English ships often dump nuclear waste very close to Craggy Island. Since the island is stated in the same scene to be near Galway, the English are going to quite a bit of effort here, so this can’t be ignored; that the radiation works as a counterpart to Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Hellmouth or Torchwood‘s Cardiff Rift seems possible. As with the implication in SpongeBob SquarePants that Bikini Bottom is below Bikini Atoll, the dark truth is left unspoken, but it’s accompanied in this case by the spectre of Sellafield.)
In this sense, “Competition Time” can be seen as the show’s attempt to deal with its own identity issues. To accept and transcend its dubious heritage. To exorcise its demons. What better way to end this dispute than to collide Father Ted with an icon of British television and see how it fares?
On the priests’ television, Sellers appears as a grinning, squeaky-clean game show host; like Terry Wogan or Eamonn Andrews, he’s the light entertainer who’s long since outgrown his Irish roots. But, as we’ve seen with Bishop Brennan, Craggy Island is not a safe place for authority figures with shameful secrets. We learn that Jack has drunk an entire bottle of Toilet Duck, causing him to experience nightmarish visions. Perceiving Sellers as a malevolent being, he flees the parochial house in terror at his mere greeting. After Ted persuades Sellers to consume a single sip of sherry, the presenter instantly becomes a rampaging beast, trashing the living room and raging about his dismissal from the BBC before jumping through the window and running off into the night. It transpires that Ted has just given a terrible alcoholic his first drink in a year. The next morning, the priests enlist the aid of the local Sergeant Deegan. In a nearby wood they locate Sellers, wandering about, clothes in tatters, gnawing on a lump of unidentifiable meat. No sooner has the sergeant gunned him down with his tranquiliser rifle than Father Jack bounds into view, his cassock perfectly intact, a fierce light in his eyes – so much madder, and so much better. The sergeant offers to shoot Jack, too, but Ted stops him, saying that Jack will find his own way home. As the trio gaze on the wild priest, something changes deep within the sergeant’s eyes. “Beautiful,” he says.
Jack and Sellers are never compared directly in dialogue, but the parallel is crystal clear. Even the soundtrack underscores this, eschewing the usual Neil Hannon music in favour of two classical compositions: Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” for the assault on Sellers, and Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood” for the admiration of Jack’s majesty. Neither of them know it, but these drunkards have become drawn into a kind of battle – not a contest of strength or wits, but of the culture that bore them, and how well it has equipped them to deal with extremes. A test of character. Competition time.
Sellers takes a deeply British approach to his alcoholism: he keeps it secret, doing his level best to suppress it and carry on, business as usual – stiff upper lip and all that. Jack’s approach, as we all know, is effectively the opposite. Decidedly unselfconscious, he has long since abandoned any pretence of normal humanity, instead indulging in increasingly extreme drinking activities. (As we see two episodes later, even literally fatal binges can’t keep him down for long.) Scandalous and improper, Jack’s an Irish wino through and through. And, as it turns out, he’s all the stronger for it. In his Toilet Duck-induced frenzy, Jack achieves a surreal, primal dignity in the eyes of the Craggy Islanders. For all his standing, this is something Sellers can never match. Beneath his wig, he laughs to hide the tears. Jack has need for neither.
Upon seeing Jack slumped and hungover in his chair, Ted is struck by a bolt of inspiration, realising that the solution to the Elvis paradox is simply to embrace it. For the climactic look-alike contest, Dougal performs as the young Elvis, Ted as the comeback special Elvis, and Jack as Elvis in his final days (possibly a parody of Shay Healy and Niall Toibin’s 1977 musical The King). Sellers is seated alone at the side of the hall, overseeing proceedings in a manner mildly evocative of Niall Buggy’s earlier role in Zardoz, another triumph of rural-Irish surrealism – the man behind the curtain, here reduced from master manipulator to befuddled arbiter. The Rugged Islanders have already performed as Diana Ross and two of the Supremes, with Sellers awarding them nine marks out of a possible ten. (Most of the other “lookalikes” are inexplicably dressed as generic clowns, though I choose to believe that the background priest in the shiny golden jacket with the large purple collar is attempting Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) The script specified “Hound Dog”, “Guitar Man”, and “My Way”, but since the production could not afford the rights to actual Elvis songs, they had Neil Hannon compose quick pastiches for Ted and Dougal, and used choral music for Jack. Sellers is visibly unsettled at the sight of Jack, who stares with mild confusion at the burger Ted has placed in his hand, a spent cigarette hanging from his mouth. Nonetheless, he awards the Craggy Islanders the full ten marks, ensuring their victory over Rugged Island, and giving the show one of its very few unambiguously happy endings.
Sellers’s final rating is a moment of catharsis. By raising that score card, he admits that the priests have found a place for Jack’s alcoholism; a means by which to integrate him into the workings of their twisted community, not despite his flaws but through them. The final scene, where Sellers again sips sherry and leaps through the window while Jack sleeps peacefully, only serves to underline this conclusion. Craggy Island – no, Ireland – has ruminated Sellers. Found lacking the character needed to thrive in this place, he is ejected. Back to Britain, and back to a career hosting facile game shows while struggling to stay on the wagon.
Yes, Father Ted is a British show. But there are truths beyond mere nationality.