Hot Under the Collar (And God Created Woman)

andgodIf “Entertaining Father Stone” is the Father Ted episode which most fully reflects Arthur Mathews’s tendencies, “And God Created Woman” is the inverse: an episode entirely in Graham Linehan’s wheelhouse. They even mirror each other in the first series’s broadcast order. Linehan has said this is his favourite, but Mathews’s least favourite, of the original six. Clearly it represents the pushing of a boundary – the moment where one possible approach to the show is delineated, then evaluated.

It seems that the writers’ disagreement comes down to subject matter – the episode is about sex. “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” approached the subject in terms of the Church’s censorious attitudes towards the arts, and resolved with the unearthing of a hypocritical bishop’s “little mistake”, but “And God Created Woman” takes a different tack – an entirely empathetic one, rooted in the show’s only truly human character. Part of the writers’ mission statement for Father Ted was to create a priestly sitcom which avoided the scenarios such shows usually fall back on – to show priests between work hours, dealing with problems beyond confessions and Mass. Mathews thought the idea of a “Thorn Birds episode”, dealing with a priest’s bungled attempt at romance, was clichéd. Linehan considered it ground worth covering, and was pleased with the result.

Polly Clarke, a romance novelist whose work Ted enjoys, visits to Craggy Island. Becoming increasingly enamoured, Ted attempts to impress her, primarily by pretending to understand her intellectual jokes and literary references. She invites him for a drink at her cottage later on, and Ted, in a move irreligious even by his standards, deludes himself into thinking she might fancy him. When five of his adoring nun fans make their annual visit to the island, Ted realises that his hot date clashes with his next Mass. After disappointing the nuns with a six-second sermon, Ted rushes off to meet Polly, who reveals her decision to become a nun herself.

The episode makes its theme explicit with the appearance of the on-screen title – it’s difficult to think of a better one for a story about a priest dodging nuns in an attempt to break his own vows of celibacy. The subplot with the nuns is a good match thematically, and complements the main storyline well, casting a different light on Ted’s relationship with the women in his life. Linehan is particularly proud of this cohesion, though he says that he and Mathews still weren’t consciously writing to themes at this point – they simply included whatever felt right to them.

Ted genuinely seems to enjoy the attentions of Sisters Assumpta, Julia, Margaret, Concepta, and Teresa, even if he finds the entire scenario slightly perplexing. The writers modelled this dynamic on Going Live! – a magazine show with an interview segment where groups of children would ask pop stars or entertainers questions – and also mentioned similar children’s interviews hosted by Andi Peters as an influence. In the Father Ted version, Assumpta takes on the role of the presenter, confidently relaying the shy nuns’ questions and generally directing the flow of the conversation. Despite his general amiability towards the nuns, Ted does not treat them with much respect – once he becomes aware of his own scheduling error, he tells them that he will have to leave Mass early, concocting an implausible explanation which grows to involve fabrications such as the impending death of Old Jim and the recent deafness of Dr Sinnot. (The shier nuns are merely upset by Ted’s initial announcement, but for a moment, Assumpta bristles with a subtle, glowering menace – it’s easy to see why the writers had Rosemary Henderson reprise the role, with more substantive material, in the second series.) When Ted, caught out, claims that he had actually been thinking of two completely different people, the nuns readily accept his explanation, delighted beyond all reason at the prospect of getting to see their hero in action after all. It’s easy to imagine that this sort of treatment is what inspires Ted to embody Elvis Presley for the lookalike contest in “Competition Time”. Of course he’d see himself as a glamorous rock star – the nuns certainly do.

Amidst all of this, it’s easy to overlook Mrs Doyle. Like the nuns, she has made herself an indentured servant to the Church, but where the nuns are happy to chat with Polly, Mrs Doyle reacts to her with revulsion. The housekeeper dislikes all young women, but this intensity is unparallelled. The reason, it transpires, is that she once tried to read one of Polly’s novels, a sort of Fifty Shades of Grey for the Irish set. Mrs Doyle’s subsequent rant, in which she quotes the book’s more vulgar and racy passages with increasing disgust, is a highlight of the episode, with McLynn’s “‘Ride me sideways’, that was another one!” one of the greatest ad-libs in the show, visibly forcing Morgan to stifle a laugh. (While ushering her out, he also pulls the set door inwards by mistake, nearly damaging it – it’s a densely chaotic few seconds.) Though it’s one of her most quotable scenes, it does make her out to be some nightmarish worst-case scenario – a woman ensnared so deeply in the tenets of Catholicism that she has become a bitter grotesque, brief contact with a romance novel enough to send her into an indignant rage. Mrs Doyle’s vitriolic conservatism and seemingly traumatic past will be alluded to in later episodes, if never quite explored to their full potential.

Early in the episode, we have a fun sequence where Ted and Polly leave a book signing at the same time, only to bump into one another repeatedly, awkwardly saying goodbye again and again – a concept inspired by the writers’ experiences of meeting people at the BBC. (They also mention that her novel, Bejewelled with Kisses, was named after “A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses“, the title of Clive James’s review of Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz.) At one point, their cars become stuck in traffic, side-by-side. When the cringe-worthy gridlock becomes truly unbearable, Ted snaps and begins reciting a Hail Mary. The light instantly turns green. Despite Ted’s violent encounter with the driver of the car he subsequently ploughs into, this represents one of the very few instances in the show where Ted actually prays. Accepting the two miracles in “Entertaining Father Stone” as proof that the show’s world operates within a Roman Catholic cosmology, the fulfilment of Ted’s traffic-related prayer no longer seems like a coincidence. (On some level, this scene is lent an additional weight when you learn that it was the first recorded for the programme.) If Ted really did have three wishes, as that episode’s cold open suggests, it would be just like him to blow his last one – the only one he could really have chosen freely – in such a tragically stupid way. Perhaps he could have used it to escape his purgatory. After all, this is before he realises that he doesn’t want to.

Ted sustains two injuries in the episode. The first is a bloody nose he receives from the driver whose car he hits in his haste to escape Polly. The second is a cut on his left cheek, sustained when local lunatic Tom – Ted’s ride to Polly’s cottage – crashes his car while fleeing the post office he’s just robbed. Ted begins the episode incurring the wrath of one mad driver, and ends it colluding with another, his final goal a direct inversion of his original. A small, probably accidental touch, but one which subtly serves to reinforce Ted’s arc within the episode. (Incidentally, the character of Tom was inspired by the 1974 film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. One scene has the eponymous duo hitch a lift from an insane hillbilly, who soon crashes his car, then releases a herd of rabbits from the trunk and starts shooting them. An early draft of the episode’s script made the reference more explicit, with Tom opening his trunk to find rabbits, an idea that will resurface in the second series’s “The Plague”. The cut from Ted waiting for Tom’s car to it suddenly hitting him, on the other hand, is a lift from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where a swordsman attacks a guard via a similar cut.)

Generally speaking, the show’s avoidance of priestly trappings is transparent. Viewers accept Father Ted as it is presented, only noticing that they practically never see Ted, Dougal, or Jack perform their duties when this fact is pointed out to them. A curious effect of the rule is that the show seems to approach a kind of textual event horizon whenever clerical activities become part of the action. We see the moments leading up to Ted’s condensed Mass, but when he steps into the sanctuary, the camera does not follow. Instead, it lingers on the door, which doesn’t quite have a chance to close as Ted concludes his murmured sermon and rushes back. (The footage was slowed to get the effect just right.) The narrative takes us to the edge of a scene it has designated off-limits, to the point that a 1995 audience might think they’re about to see a priest in the show give Mass for the first time, then veers back. On a conscious level, the joke is that Ted’s sermon is very short, but on a slightly deeper one, it registers as a clever play on the show’s boundaries.

A charming detail in the moment preceding the sermon is the background music, which is a slow, faintly mournful version of the Father Ted theme, played clumsily – almost eerily – on the church organ. Many versions of the theme are used throughout the show – indeed, the following scene, where Ted hurries to Polly’s cottage, plays to a swinging Dirty Harry-style arrangement – but this is the first indication we have that the composition exists diegetically, as something which the characters can experience. As it turns out, it’s the music Ted hears while preparing for the Masses we never see him perform. (Presumably whoever’s playing it is just a massive Father Ben fan.)

Ted finds that Polly has invited him not to a romantic drink but a nun-filled house warming. (She has a print of Wassily Kandinsky’s Swinging on the wall – before the second series begins, Ted and Dougal somehow acquire it for their bedroom, where it hangs for the remainder of the show.) As the guests file out at the end of the night, Polly asks Ted for a word in private. He responds with hubristic hope, but it becomes increasingly clear that she is oblivious to his desires, having brought him here to ask for guidance regarding a dilemma she has reached. Polly settles on a Frostean metaphor: she stands at a crossroads, and must choose between a bright, busy city and a quiet country road. Having made her choice, she seeks his approval. Ted is crushed when she reveals the nature of this decision: she is going to become a nun. His potential lover has renounced her sexuality entirely to become just another in his multitude of chaste admirers. Perhaps this can help to illuminate the writers’ disagreement over the episode: in a sense, Polly’s crossroads mirror Linehan’s and Mathews’s differing conceptions of the show. After all, she’s a writer, too. Linehan favours the busy road, a sprawling action romance complete with a plot that seems snatched from a tabloid. Mathews prefers the country trail, which leads to quainter, quieter parts – the sort of place you’d meet someone like Father Stone. “And God Created Woman” is an episode which comes down firmly on Linehan’s side.

Both writers agree on one thing, though: the terrible sadness at the heart of the episode, which is that Ted and Polly really would have made a lovely couple. Their interactions are clouded slightly by Ted’s dishonesty about his literary expertise, but beneath this adolescent posturing, we can sense a genuine warmth and affection between them. (A plausible reading is that she sees through his ruse immediately, and simply decides to play with him, enjoying his flusterment.) It’s a credit to Dermot Morgan and Gemma Craven that they manage to sell the audience on the possibility of their characters’ attraction within a few brief scenes. Ted and Polly would have been very happy together. For a moment, it seems that even the forces of heaven might favour their union – when they meet in the parochial house, his response is to question God’s motives in a serious aside, and hers is to joke that someone is trying to keep them together. Instead they are driven apart by the compulsions of organised religion. She wants to be with Ted, but she makes the mistake of changing her own lifestyle to match his, rather than letting him renounce the choices which have led him to this place of misery.

“In twenty years’ time, when I’m looking in my prayer book, I’ll probably still be thinking about Father Ted Curley!” laughs Polly. Something in him breaks. “Crilly. Father Ted Crilly. Nice to meet you.” He forces a grin, shakes her hand, and leaves without a backward glance. There’s work to be done – Dougal has gotten his head stuck in the couch again.

It’s difficult to believe, but now, it really has been twenty years. One wonders if, somewhere out there, Sister Polly has kept her promise. If she still thinks about Ted. If he still thinks about her.

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