As the first series reaches its conclusion, Father Ted opts to raise the stakes, making its first real engagement with the threat of total narrative collapse. In this instalment, the danger is not just to the characters, but to the very feasibility of the show’s continuation – and, because it’s a series finale, that threat is very real.
In the preceding episodes, the show had only dalliances with this type of storytelling. “Entertaining Father Stone” featured a character who blocked the flow of Craggy Island misadventures, but made it clear that his presence was temporary (if comically protracted). “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” had Bishop Brennan threaten to pack the priests off to dangerous Third World parishes, but this possibility was eliminated within moments. “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, then, is the first Father Ted story which feels like a genuine attack on the basic engine of the show: it kills off Father Jack.
To recap: the episode begins with Ted and Dougal discovering that Jack has died after downing a bottle of floor polish. They learn from a solicitor that Jack owned half a million pounds in savings, but has specified in his will that they must both spend a night with his body before they can claim it, owing to his apparent fear of being buried alive. The priests comply, discussing religious and philosophical matters to pass dark hours in the crypt. The next morning, they are frightened out of their wits when they discover Jack wandering about – the effects of the floor polish have inexplicably worn off, returning him to life.
In a subtle manner, this episode also functions as a coda to “And God Created Woman”, continuing its exploration of Ted’s relationship with the women in his life. The opening scene with Sister Monica illuminates Ted’s attitude towards his nun fans, with Ted and Dougal agreeing that Monica, being a nun, does not make them nervous the way “real women” do. This twisted perception might help explain Ted’s dismissive behaviour towards Assumpta’s troupe – they’re only nuns, and therefore do not require the same level of respect as Polly Clarke. A real woman. When solicitor Laura Sweeney arrives with Jack’s will, Ted dismisses Monica out of hand (only a nun). The following scene is his most damning failure to date. In a moment of cringe comedy worthy of David Brent, Ted (abetted by Dougal) refuses to believe that this “lovely girl” could possibly be a solicitor, and insists that she stop joking about. Representing an escalation from the previous episode, it’s the first moment of genuinely uncomfortable misogyny from our lead characters. Sharper still is the reaction of Mrs Doyle, who stifles a nasty laugh at Laura’s indignation. It’s another clear sign of how deeply Catholic doctrine has insinuated itself into Mrs Doyle’s psyche: after a lifetime serving an enormously reactionary and patriarchal organisation, she’s so far gone that the idea of a young woman with a law degree leaves her giggling. Polly, at least, had written something Mrs Doyle found offensive. Laura’s only crime was wearing a skirt. The show’s satirical examination of the priests’ relationship with women, in particular Mrs Doyle, will reach its devastating conclusion in the second series with “Rock a Hula Ted”.
It would be impossible to deduce this from watching it, but “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” was the first episode Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews wrote for the show. The scene where Ted discovers Jack’s body is lifted, with some modification, from one of their scripts for Irish Lives, the rejected mockumentary anthology series which evolved into Father Ted. In that script, Jack really was just a dead priest. (Much to their later embarrassment, the writers unconsciously copied this scene from “The Kipper and the Corpse”, a 1979 episode of Fawlty Towers where Basil Fawlty initially fails to realise that one of his guests has died during the night. Even the detail of the body’s head nodding forward is inherited.) The Irish Lives concept may have been recycled more obviously with the visiting Faith of Our Fathers television crew back in “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’”, but it’s only here that we get to see some of the original text in action. The first scenes written with the sitcom format in mind were the conversations between Ted and Dougal in the crypt. While subtler than the scenes which sketch out the characters in “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, they serve well to establish the central dynamic between Ted’s world-weary religion and Dougal’s childlike naïveté.
Considering the show’s generally hazy logic, as well as the fact that Frank Kelly plays his character’s body in several early scenes, a sharp viewer in 1995 could well have predicted Jack’s climactic resurrection. (Indeed, Kelly can clearly be seen breathing several times, though this is a difficult mistake to complain about considering what happens later.) Still, the resolution would not necessarily have been an obvious one. A notable precedent is provided by Only Fools and Horses: in the 1985 episode “Strained Relations”, the show’s own “grumpy old man” character, Grandad, died and was replaced with a newly invented brother in Uncle Albert. For much of its running time, “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” threatens to change the core cast on the same scale; to reconfigure the very foundations of Father Ted. The deductive viewer’s mind might leap forward to the potential second series, which now looms with strange possibilities – will Jack be replaced by another elderly priest? If so, will he be nicer? Nastier? Will Jack appear in flashbacks? Dream sequences? Will Kelly star as Jack’s brother? Can the series even continue without one of its main characters? As it turns out, the show will have to face similar questions, but not until the end of its third series.
Ted makes two literary references in the crypt – unusual, as he is not generally portrayed as a well-read man. The same slow, gentle, otherworldly version of the Father Ted theme is used in both moments, linking them intuitively. The first, “And in the happy no-time of his sleeping, / Death took him by the hand”, is a quotation from “Asleep”, a 1917 poem by English writer Wilfred Owen. The poem’s first stanza describes the shooting of a soldier in his sleep; Ted replaces the word “heart” with “hand”, lending the line a more applicable (and perhaps evocative) quality. The second stanza escalates in scope to discuss Owen’s uncertain, vaguely nihilistic reflections on death and the afterlife. The closing lines, “He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold, / Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!”, suggest a belief on the part of the poet that the soldier is better off dead than enduring a life of misery. In our case, the irony is that the dead man really is merely asleep (though “Alas!” is not quite what he exclaims upon waking).
The second literary reference is a monologue which occurs near the episode’s conclusion. Waking early, Ted looks out the crypt’s window. “It’s beginning to snow again. The flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. It’s probably snowing all over the island. On the central plain. On the treeless hills. Falling softly upon the graveyards. Upon the crosses and the headstones. Upon all the living, and the dead.” This speech paraphrases the final scene of the 1987 film The Dead, where Gabriel Conroy gazes through a window and contemplates the death of Michael Furey, a young man with whom his wife had once been in love. (The film is based closely on James Joyce’s short story of the same name, which in turn is based on real events, though Linehan and Mathews have stated that the film was their point of reference. All the same, it’s another unusual moment for Ted, who failed to understand a Joyce joke only one episode ago. In reality, the writers just haven’t gotten to grips with the characters yet, but the scene is all the more striking and profound for it. If we want an in-story explanation, perhaps Ted’s been catching up following the Polly Clarke debacle.) Ted’s version skips or blends several lines, as if recalled imperfectly from memory. A reference to snow falling into the River Shannon is omitted, subtly switching the “island” mentioned from Ireland itself to Craggy Island – a change underlining the degree to which the priests’ island is simply an echo, a phantasmagorical cathode-ray tube reflection of our own.
Several episodes take on a tragic dimension in the light of Dermot Morgan’s untimely death, but aside from “Going to America”, “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” is by far the most affected. Today, Ted’s meditations on life and death hold a haunting, disquieting power over the audience. During the final monologue, a snow-swept montage is superimposed over Morgan’s wistful face: a churchyard, gravestones, crosses. Atypically graceful, cinematic editing techniques lend a dreamlike feeling. Jack becomes Ted, and Ted becomes Morgan, all one in loss and pain. As the otherworldly score crescendoes, anticipating some unknowable apotheosis— “Shut the feck up!” Jack barks, and Ted faints for the second time this episode, not from joy but terror. In an instant our thoughts return to May of 1995. Having been stretched to breaking point, the show snaps back to its status quo. It has contemplated its own inevitable death, weighed its options, and decided to live another day.
The closing scene, where Ted and Dougal discuss Jack’s fortune and decide to buy more floor polish, is perhaps a touch too dark, with its implications of murderous intent on behalf of our characters. Like Ted’s sombre Joyce recitation, this can be attributed largely to the writers’ unfamiliarity with the characters at this stage – by the second series, it’s impossible to imagine them even flirting with the idea of killing Jack, but like the Doctor’s attempt to murder an inconvenient caveman in An Unearthly Child, the dissonance is more a symptom of a new story finding its feet than a (deliberate) attempt to establish a character arc. Nothing ever comes of it – not that the audience ever expected it to. They’ve just seen what happens when someone dies in Father Ted: not so fast. In the last shot, Jack wakes again, looks directly at the camera, and tells the audience to “Feck off!” – a warped answer to Hartnell’s famous aside in “The Feast of Steven”. Jack seems to have achieved some level of metafictional awareness following his experience on the other side.
Acting as a counterpoint to all this mounting strangeness, the customary credits scene is simple and pure. It shows Ted, Dougal, Mrs Doyle, and a reluctant Jack setting out from the parochial house together. When they stop to bicker about something, Jack makes a break for the house, and the others rush to catch him. The details and chronology of this particular escapade remain immaculately, transcendentally undefined. Evoking the Birds of a Feather credits, it’s a perfect vignette, the uncluttered theme music conveying textures and impressions which dialogue never could. There is something so complete, so quintessentially Ted about this shot that it attains an inarticulable kind of nostalgic sadness, like an old photograph of a family that is no longer complete.
The post-credits scene, where Dougal arrives in Ted’s Las Vegas fever dream, whispers in his ear, and pulls him away from the dance floor, initially seems like such a non-sequitur that it actively defies any kind of interpretation. Of course, that only makes it more interesting. Perhaps, like the soldier in Owen’s poem, Ted is sleeping; dreaming. Dougal assumes the role of Death, telling Ted that his time has come, and taking him by the hand, leading him away – away from the female admirers he never respected, away from the technicolour rays, and into the embrace of the void; an Irish priest foresees his death.
To understand the episode’s title, one must first be familiar with the Roman Catholic concept of indulgences: the faithful Christian’s exemptions from punishment for venial sins, gained by performing certain prayers or deeds. The sale of indulgences for money, as practised by the Catholic friar Johann Tetzel, was the central objection of Martin Luther, whose subsequent publication of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 led directly to the fracturing of the Church and the formation of Protestantism as an alternative religion. The episode’s title paraphrases “Eternal Rest”, an indulgenced prayer whose entry in the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum reads as follows: “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.” This is followed by a note: “Partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory.”
As I have suggested previously, Father Ted can be viewed as the metaphorical story of three priests suffering in purgatory for their sins. In this light, Jack’s demise becomes his salvation: escape from Craggy Island, ascension to a higher plane. Perhaps the Toilet Duck was no mistake. And just as Ted reaches the point where he can accept this shattering change to his world, it is undone. Jack has been judged imperfectly purified. Against all logic, he is revived, cast back down to his miserable existence, his time not yet served. Mere death is no escape from this place. The show’s cyclical structure refuses to accept such a violation. It’s as if the universe itself, unable to bear Craggy Island’s loss, bends the laws of physics and biology to extend the run of the series. And that moment is suitably momentous: when Ted faints in terror of Jack reborn, the screen warps and sways strangely – it seems that two shots were blended together to solve some technical issue, but the effect is unseemly. When Dougal, before losing consciousness himself, asks Jack what just happened, it’s weirdly the only time in the entire show that Dougal and Jack actually interact. Just for a moment, everything is in flux, and anything is possible – divine intervention as the solution to narrative collapse.
But purgatory is not a cyclical process. The lost souls trapped there may suffer for aeons, and perhaps on those cold, tremulous nights, when indulgences are sparse, it seems that an eternity stretches before them. This is also an easy assumption for the audience to make, as the show aligns our perspective closely with that of those same sufferers. Still, purgatory is defined by its transience. All of its inhabitants can be redeemed, and in the end, they will be. From a broader perspective, the cosmology of Father Ted is teleological in nature. No matter how many of the cycles of suffering we call “episodes” they endure, we know that it cannot go on forever. Eventually the priests will pay for their sins. They will earn their eternal rest. But that’s another story.