The differences between the first and second series of Father Ted are subtle. The storylines retain the same quaint nature, with most episodes still rooted in plausible priestly activities such as organising a raffle or dealing with visiting bishops. The cast are slightly more assured in their roles, with the scripts now tailored to their performances. Episodes like “A Song for Europe” and “Flight Into Terror” gesture towards the glorious excess of the third and final series, but as a transitional phase, series two is much closer to what preceded it than what followed.
“Hell”, the second series premiere, begins with Ted realising that it’s July the 19th – time for the priests’ annual holiday. Recalling that a friend has offered them the use of his caravan, they travel to the mainland and locate the mobile home. After a glimmer of hope, the holiday quickly devolves into a nightmare of boredom and terrible weather, with Jack disappearing, run-ins with a young couple who think Ted and Dougal are perverts, and the arrival of Father Noel Furlong, an immensely annoying priest who has also been promised the caravan.
The show’s use of dates bears a peculiar relation to real-world chronology. The three series were aired in 1995, 1996, and 1998. Whenever an episode makes a diegetic reference to the date, the current series’s broadcast year is always used. (“Lovely Girls Festival 96”, “It’s Great Being a Priest! ’98”, and so on.) The show establishes itself as following a contemporary timeline – no problems here. However, if we look at the dates themselves, time seems to break down. The holiday definitely takes place in July 1996 – we can see Ted’s calendar. Four episodes later, we have the Eurosong contest, set in May. Lent inexplicably follows after another three, with Christmas 1996 three episodes after that – and these are just a few examples. Like many British sitcoms, each series of Father Ted was written with an eye towards being able to shuffle the episodes and create a stronger broadcast order following production. While negligible in a more timeless programme, this practise creates a strange tension in Father Ted, a show which casually ties itself to specific times and places in mid-to-late-1990s Ireland. It seems that a specific calendar year is earmarked for each series, but that a series’s constituent episodes are free to jump about within that year in non-linear fashion. The only alternative is to conclude that time itself flows differently on Craggy Island – admittedly a valid reading, but not a subtext the show ever really explores.
Its origins lie in Graham Linehan’s miserable childhood holidays to the Irish countryside, but clearly “Hell” is an episode which wears its cosmological subtext on its sleeve. Its premise, practically declared by the opening shots, is to place the priests in a situation which is significantly worse than what they usually face. If Craggy Island is purgatory, a place where suffering holds some purifying purpose, then Killkelly is hell – an endless nightmare with no meaning at all. (The caravan park’s location is never mentioned in dialogue, but the booklet which informs Ted of the area’s two “places of interest”, St Kevin’s Stump and the Magic Road, reads “Things to Do in Killkelly”. Most of the episode’s location scenes were recorded in County Clare, and there is no suggestion of any correspondence with the real Kilkelly in County Mayo.) The idea of a plane of existence lower than the rock bottom that is Craggy Island is an interesting one, particularly given the choice to place it in what seems to be mainland Ireland. Clearly the writers do not mean to suggest that Craggy Island is some sort of lesser evil, or that Ireland itself is worse. After all, Mr and Mrs Gleason, the young couple holidaying in a nearby caravan, seem perfectly happy to be here, at least until the priests show up. No: hell is separation from God, in the same sense that purgatory is a process of cleansing. These are not simply physical locations, but spiritual states. As lunatic outcasts, Ted, Dougal, and Jack have no right to walk a land inhabited by normal human beings. Of course they suffer on the mainland – they’re like demons in popular fiction, who burn as they attempt to cross the threshold into holy ground. Normal society has become anathema to them. They have lost their grace.
Much like the solicitor Laura Sweeney, the Gleasons are perfectly normal Irish people whose enmity the Craggy Islanders manage to invoke through their own innocuous idiocy. Throughout their stay in “Hell”, Ted and Dougal manage to walk in on them, in various private situations, no less than three times. They respond to the first two offences by calling the gardaí. After the third, the husband chases the priests to their car, clings naked to the bonnet as they flee, and slashes their tyres once they stop. Besides illustrating that normal people can be driven to the point of madness by mere contact with Ted and his accomplices, the Gleasons serve as a perfect counterpoint to Craggy Island’s own John and Mary O’Leary. Seemingly the island’s only family, the O’Learys respond to anything the priests do or say with fawning, dutiful praise, concealing their marital difficulties with smiles and platitudes. The Gleasons, the only other prominent married couple in the show, instead respond to the priests’ bizarre actions reasonably and realistically: with concern, paranoia, and anger. Tellingly, their own relationship also appears to be much more solid. The brief interactions we see between them seem quite normal and natural, no doubt aided by the real-life marriage of the actors playing them. An image of the O’Learys untainted by Catholic indoctrination and repression, the Gleasons are a powerful elaboration on the satire the O’Learys embody.
In terms of popular consciousness, the episode’s most enduring contribution is the brief scene where Ted, bored out of his mind, attempts and fails to explain to Dougal the difference between the small plastic cows in the caravan and the real cows outside. Ted’s slow intonation, “Small… far away…“, is a stupidly logical but brilliantly simple piece of comedy, and has attained near-universal recognition within Ireland, rivalling even “Down with this sort of thing” and “Careful now”. In 1998, those two lines were immortalised as the only audio retained in the final episode’s closing montage; the status of “Small, far away” in Irish culture would only be acknowledged in 2011, when it was used as the title of a high-profile documentary film reuniting many of the show’s contributors to explore its creation and celebrate its legacy.
The greatest contribution of “Hell” to the broader show, however, has to be the introduction of Father Noel Furlong. A warped mirror of priests who act “hip” in an attempt to broaden their appeal, Noel is a flamboyant, obnoxious, all-singing, all-dancing priest. (The writers wanted to call him Father Noel Early, and were very proud of coming up with that name, but Channel 4’s legal team found that a real Father Noel Early actually existed somewhere.) In two of his three appearances, Noel is accompanied by St Luke’s Youth Group, comprising Gerry Fields, Janine Reilly, Nuala Ryan, and Tony Lynch; four tired, unenthusiastic young Catholics. Linehan and Mathews wrote Noel as asexual, but Graham Norton’s performance naturally added a strong gay subtext to the role – Linehan has described the resulting character as a man who has gone slightly insane as a result of repressing his own homosexuality. In other words, Noel is as much a victim of the system as those who are forced to to endure his presence. It’s another portrayal of the unnecessary harm and misery brought about by the Church’s archaic attitudes towards sexuality – a recurring theme in the show.
In a subtler fashion, Noel serves as a response to Father Brian Trendy, an earlier priest character Dermot Morgan created and performed for the RTÉ comedy series The Live Mike starting in 1979. Like Noel, Trendy parodied priests who affected “cool” personas. Despite sharing the same premise, the characters differ sharply in execution. Channelling progressive priest Brian D’Arcy, Morgan’s Father Trendy preached directly to the Live Mike audience, comparing religious life to mundane concepts such as motorbikes or fish, his increasingly far-reaching analogies and puns becoming a rich source of humour. (In a historical sense, the sight of Morgan as a young, black-haired, leather-jacketed priest is an otherworldly bonus – one can even imagine that it’s Ted as a much younger man, full of vigour and enthusiasm for religion, before he lost his way…) Noel, having already ensared a youth group, rarely mentions religion, instead revelling in what he perceives to be fun activities with his followers – sing-alongs, ghost stories, and screeching competitions. Initially, Mathews liked the idea of Morgan playing Ted, but Linehan was hesitant, concerned that Morgan would simply recreate his Father Trendy performance. Thankfully Mathews’s instincts proved correct: Morgan left the one-dimensional Trendy far behind, and went on to deliver one of the all-time great comedy performances. In a playfully metafictional way, Noel brings the show full circle, embodying the “trendy priest” role and allowing Morgan to define Ted in contrast to his earlier character.
The holiday from hell is a staple of British comedy, from the early Carry On films to the Likely Lads movie (which was the source of the caravan idea). In structure and subject matter, though, “Hell” bears the closest resemblance to Withnail and I, that 1987 cult classic and perpetual student favourite. Richard E Grant and Paul McGann portray the title characters, a pair of unemployed actors living in London during the dying gasp of the 60s counter-culture. They leave their London flat for a holiday in the country cottage of Withnail’s flamboyantly gay Uncle Monty, but their stay is beset by miserable weather, unwelcoming locals, menacing cattle, and the arrival of Monty himself, who makes lecherous advances toward Withnail’s unnamed friend. “Hell” is both simpler and more pessimistic. While Monty can only be made to leave by the duo’s fabricated romance, the priests ultimately rid themselves of Noel simply by walking away. At the end of the film, Withnail’s friend secures an acting job, and says his goodbyes at a train station, leaving Withnail to wallow in theatrical misery, unable or unwilling to grow up and get a life. Ted and Dougal have no such parting, with both priests returning home, broken and defeated but largely unchanged. The writers would progress to a more serious attempt at exploring the film’s cultural space with their 1999 sitcom Hippies. Created by Linehan and Mathews but written by Mathews alone, the show was not received well. Despite a strong central performance from Simon Pegg, it did not progress beyond its six-episode first series. The following year, Linehan would successfully channel Withnail’s squalor, alcoholism, and Byronic arrested development with his next sitcom, Black Books. In 2009, Mathews recycled the film’s story structure again for his first feature, Wide Open Spaces, which disappointed despite an original score by Neil Hannon and the subversive casting of Ardal O’Hanlon as the straight man.
While Ted and Dougal deal with the Gleasons and Father Noel, Jack has an adventure of his own. This subplot expands upon a single line in “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’” – an episode “Hell” implicitly invokes by virtue of the broadcast order. In that episode, Ted reminded Dougal to use Jack’s brakes when taking him near the cliffs, and said that “he was only just lucky the last time”. In “Hell”, we get an on-screen reiteration of that scenario – Dougal leaves Jack alone during a walk, forgetting to turn on his brakes. Unfortunately, he’s left Jack on the Magic Road; its inexplicable gravity causes Jack to roll backwards uphill and fall over a cliff, Larry Duff-style. Earlier in the episode, Ted describes the road as a “one of those bizarre natural wonders where everything’s gone haywire and nothing works the way it’s supposed to… it’s a bit like you, Dougal. Except it’s a road.” The road is positioned as an extension of Dougal’s strange idiocy; Dougal writ large. This creates a sense that Killkelly, and perhaps the mainland itself, serves to amplify the priests’ shortcomings; a farcical riff on the pathetic fallacy. Last year, Jack avoided a cliff, seemingly by sheer luck – perhaps even with assistance from the same force which resurrected him after his death in “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”. Here, in the normalcy of Killkelly, the priests have no such protection. They are out of their element, adrift in a world where they no longer have a part to play. It’s the first appearance of this idea, and it’s the seed which will grow to become Ted’s main character arc in the final series and, by extension, the show: his adaptation to Craggy Island.
“Hell” boasts the least conclusive ending of any episode in the show, choosing to stop significantly short of actually concluding either of its major plotlines. Typically an episode where the priests travel ends with a wrap-up scene back at the parochial house where they reflect on their experiences. After the vengeful, naked Gerry Gleason punctures their tyres, Ted and Dougal are forced to walk the rest of the way home. They think their luck has changed when a truck stops to give them a lift. (Why Craggy Island’s local madman, Tom, is driving a truck marked “Craggy Island Sewage Works” down country roads in the mainland is never explained.) While attempting to open the door, Tom accidentally sprays Ted and Dougal with a truckload of sewage. (This scene originated as a cruel joke: while recording the crazy golf scene under miserable weather in “Entertaining Father Stone”, Morgan joked that the writers would next cover the actors in sewage, so they did exactly that. The experience was more authentically hellish than intended, though: the slurry used for this scene turned out to be extremely cold, so the actors’ shocked, pained reactions are real.) Tom’s current job, and confusion over the controls, are set up in the opening scene – a moment of unabashed exposition which grants the finale a sense of gleeful inexorability. Since no allusions whatsoever are made to Tom in the 21-minute stretch which comprises the bulk of the episode, his scenes feel much like bookends, imbuing this holiday to hell with all the primal caution of a fairy tale. “Sorry about that, Fathers”, says Tom once the priests have taken the passenger seats. Dougal casts his eyes down, resigned, but Ted is a broken man. The weight of boredom, shame, irritation, and physical humiliation is too much for him. Ted’s face breaks as he blinks back tears. We’ve seen him defeated many times, but never crushed – Morgan’s performance reaches a rare level of honesty in this last moment. (Originally, this scene also showed the truck driving past a sign advertising Pleasure World, a 200-yard “adventure playground” with free entry for priests; it was meant as a final cruel joke, that the priests had been near a fun holiday destination the entire time, but the moment was deleted when it proved confusing on-screen.)
Leaving Ted to wallow in sewage, we cut to a white yacht drifting on a sun-soaked sea, set to an ethereal score. Stirs in a hammock on the deck, Jack is greeted by three beautiful, scantily-clad women. “Father, you’re awake!” exclaims one. “Thank God. It took us ages to pull you on board. Will you have something to drink?” In a moment echoing the final shot of “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, Jack again displays metafictional awareness, slowly turning his head to look directly into the camera. Rather than instruct the viewer to “Feck off!”, he grimaces in disbelief, as if questioning this new reality; asking the audience to affirm or deny it. From the abundance of Jack’s vices to the striking contrast with the preceding episode, everything about this ending suggests that Jack has somehow entered heaven. This was likely the writers’ intention, particularly considering the ironic counterpoint it would form to the episode’s premise. During all this hopping between metaphorical afterlives, Jack – the least redeemable of the trio – somehow skips a groove. Having established their own take on two distinct planes of the Catholic underworld, the show gives us its own version of paradise, and it entails allowing Jack to indulge his most irreligious desires in an idyllic setting. It seems that Father Ted heaven is sin without guilt. Had this been the finale, we would have been left with the strong implications that the three women were angels and Jack dead; however, it’s not, and the next episode restores him with no reference to his experience. There is a growing sense that Jack is somehow immortal; sadly this bizarre idea is never developed much.
The credits play over a flashback to an unseen moment where Ted and Dougal attempt to play hide and seek in the cramped caravan. It’s the first credits scene overtly shown out of chronological order – a technique which will be repeated several times in the second and third series, lending a reflective, nostalgic quality to the endings, and culminating in an extreme example with the finale.
By the next episode’s opening, the status quo has been restored. In an adventure which proves the priests’ darkest hour, perhaps it’s fitting that there’s no tidy closing scene on the Craggy Island: there is nothing to say. Still, one suspects that Ted, on some level, is beginning to realise there are worse places he could be.