He Just Couldn’t Stop Dancing (Think Fast, Father Ted)

purcell imageWith the parochial house roof giving way under the full brunt of the Atlantic weather, Ted asks Bishop Brennan for a prize to raffle off so that they can pay for repairs. They receive a car, which Ted promptly destroys in a misguided attempt to hammer out a dent. Resourcefully, Ted borrows a similar car from dancing priest Liam Finnegan and rigs the raffle so that Dougal wins, the plan being to return the car to Finnegan. When Finnegan has a heart attack, they realise they can keep the car, but their victory is short-lived – Jack trashes the vehicle while driving under the influence, and the ill-gotten raffle money is stolen by Father Billy O’Dwyer, one of the people they conned.

Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews wrote seven scripts for the first series of Father Ted. This proved something of a problem, as Channel 4’s order was for six episodes. One had to be postponed. “Think Fast, Father Ted” is that episode. Something of a relic, it’s a pristine example of the first series’s story style, entirely favouring quaint, priestly plotting over cartoonish chaos. The episode was pushed back for arbitrary reasons, with Linehan noting that it was even considered as a possible debut for the first series at one point – add another pseudo-pilot to the list.

The episode still feels like it would work as an introduction. It sketches out the traits of each primary character efficiently, and features several classic Ted-and-Dougal scenes. The rigged raffle is a good primer for Ted’s well-intentioned deceitfulness, and Dougal’s failure to recognise an upside-down number 11 is one of his more iconic moments. The writers are also unusually successful at integrating both Jack’s alcoholism and Mrs Doyle’s tea and sandwiches into the plot. Bishop Brennan is even introduced as a shadowy, unseen presence. The episode was written before the writers gave up on the idea of Craggy Island’s constant terrible weather, so it shares the first series’s fixation on rain.

For reasons soon to become clear, my memory of the episode is perhaps unduly dominated by Father Austin Purcell, a once-off character who marks the second of the show’s three variations on the “boring priest” theme. The first, Father Stone, bored through silence, barely speaking a word no matter the circumstances. Purcell is exactly the inverse: he bores through endless, interminable, mind-numbing chatter on such topics as boilers, envelopes, and different types of humming noises. (Imagining what might have happened if different combinations of Father Ted priests had met is a pastime of mine. Stone and Purcell would have made for a brilliant, if predicatable, crossover. Instead we have to console ourselves with the inaudible, out-of-focus conversation between Purcell and Billy in a later scene.)

The actor, Ben Keaton, a Perrier winner and soon-to-be Olivier nominee, is somewhat underused here, with less than four minutes of screen time. Having heard of a new Channel 4 show which was attracting many notable Irish actors, Keaton decided to try for a part in its second series. Linehan and Mathews, impressed by his audition for the dancing priest, promoted Keaton to the slightly more substantial role of Purcell.

Finnegan was inspired by Father Neil Horan, a real Irish priest and apocalypticist who “danced for peace”. The character’s casting process is an unusually storied one. In one of Linehan’s most baffling anecdotes, he recalls that a very young Aidan Gillen also auditioned for the part. Since the character’s only scene involved dancing, Linehan opted to dance with each actor, standing in for Ted while they performed their lines. Gillen became very embarrassed at having to dance, and ran out of the building – just ran straight out of the building. (He was somehow able to survive his Queer as Folk audition two short years later, so presumably there’s another side to the story). It’s a shame – the brief appearance of such a recognisable actor in Ted prior to his achieving fame would have made for a brilliant non-sequitur.

On the page, Purcell was not a well-developed character. Linehan recalls giving little direction, and probably requesting the lines be delivered in a monotone. Keaton filled in the blanks with his performance, conceptualising Purcell as a man so utterly fascinated by his own ramblings that he fails to notice the discomfort of those to whom he is talking. Purcell’s high, wavering voice fluctuates even between syllables, lending his words an idiosyncratic weight. Keaton gave Purcell a vacant stare, fixing his eyes on some point in the void, seldom making contact with those of his victims. The result is a strangely dynamic character, and a step up from most of the show’s trait-based guest priests. Keaton’s knack for improvisation is briefly allowed to shine in the credits scene, where the writers give him free reign – he added the parts about his favourite colours and building his house into a circle. Purcell expands on Jack’s recent trick of addressing the audience to end an episode, conversing with the camera as it pulls back through the fourth wall to reveal the tiny closet set standing between two immensities of darkness. An anomalously powerful figure within the narrative, Purcell never even bothers to influence the plot. He seems to transcend time and space, fiction and reality, even treating a couch throw depicting Jesus as if it were the genuine article. It’s fitting, then, what happened to the character later.

In late 2013, a few friends and I emailed Keaton, inviting him to participate in a panel discussion at the University of Limerick. Literally within seconds, he had accepted the offer with enthusiasm, and the following February I had a chance to interview him about his experiences on the show firsthand. The panel was an invaluable resource for this essay, but it was only the beginning. I later learned that Keaton had been considering a foray into the stand-up circuit for some time, needing only an approach. When he became aware of the affection with which people recall Purcell, he realised that he had found his angle. Since then, Keaton has written new material for the character and performed gigs as Purcell in comedy venues throughout the UK, in full priest costume. He has also set up a Twitter page for Purcell, and a website where fans can purchase customised Purcell video greetings. Purcell occasionally refers to his housekeeper, Mrs Ryan, who holds the prestigious distinction of being the only character added to the Father Ted universe in 2014. (The site even added a brief audio clip with a conversation between Purcell and Mrs Ryan, which probably constitutes the first Father Ted audio drama – you can hardly imagine how happy the fact that “Father Ted audio drama” is now a tangible concept makes me.) Purcell has taken on such a life of his own in the last couple of years that, for those who are familiar with Keaton’s recent work, “Think Fast, Father Ted” now feels like some kind of strange Father Ted/Father Purcell crossover special. Later in 2014, Keaton emailed us, informing us of the character’s revival and offering to return to Limerick and host a pub quiz entirely as Purcell. Naturally, we were over the moon. The quiz, “Arse Biscuits”, took place in the university’s Scholars Club bar that November. A combination of stand-up, improvisation, and audience interaction, it was an unforgettably surreal experience. Keaton pushed Purcell in a slightly darker direction to suit his own comic sensibilities, expanding the character as all good spin-offs do. The night culminated in a “confession raffle”, where the attendees wrote their best sins on pieces of paper for Purcell to criticise them aloud. Afterwards, he ambled about the pub, signing autographs, posing for pictures with fans, and chattering away as only Purcell can. The quiz had well over a hundred participants – those who didn’t arrive in time crowded near the doorway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the one Father Ted character who managed to cross the boundary into reality. That night, Craggy Island was real. And Cook Like a Priest is just so staggering that it requires an essay of its own.

Despite Purcell’s runaway success, he is not the episode’s focus. In his three brief scenes, he has next to no impact on the main plot, serving more as a kind of wonderful window dressing. So what is “Think Fast, Father Ted” really about? One strong thread is the idea of heritage. Ted is able to twist Bishop Brennan’s arm and secure the car only by using the weight of the island’s history in his favour, citing the lack of raffle prizes since the two bags of coal in 1964. Billy is not so lucky. His father and grandfather before him died penniless, losing everything to the neon claws of their gambling addictions. At first, he rejects Ted’s proffered raffle ticket, adamant that he will not suffer the fate of his forebears. Within moments, his resolve breaks, and he purchases 2,000 tickets, risking money borrowed from shady contacts to do so. Before the night is out, Billy is reduced to begging these mysterious underworld figures for more time, only to be refused, doomed to an unspecified fate. Then he sees the raffle money sitting unattended. His inescapable ancestry transforming him from affable disc jockey to thief on the run, Billy is the only character with a clear arc of development in the episode – viewing him as the main character is unintuitive, but not illogical. Still, there are hints he is not the only one burdened so by his heritage – Purcell still struggles to recall his own father’s advice regarding lagging and other forms of insulation, the implication being that he is not the first in his family line to suffer his particular affliction.

These stories of fathers and sons who are slaves to the same cruel cycles tie into the episode’s broader thematic concerns, which crystallise in the closing scene. With the roof still leaking and the money and cars gone, the main characters sit in the living room, rain pouring on their heads just as in the episode’s opening – back to square one, another cycle completed. Ted snipes that everything will be all right as long as a tree doesn’t fall on the house. A creaking sound is heard, followed by an enormous crash as the screen cuts to black. Had this been the finale, we would have been left to assume the characters killed in a freak accident; had this been the debut, it would have been even more unsettling. By the next episode, everything is back to normal. No damage or injury is mentioned. Along with the scene where Ted drives home from Finnegan’s despite being asleep at the wheel, this adds to the sense that Craggy Island is a kind of underworld where death is not possible and actions have no consequences. There isn’t even a tree nearby: this is the impossible ur-storm, the inconceivable maelstrom that sundered the island, the perpetual miserable weather of the first series now waxing in its hellish cycle to the point of greatest intensity. This is what it’s like to live in a reality founded on a joke.

The radio presenters who cheerfully bookend the driving joke, Lazlo St Pierre and John Morgan, are played by Mathews and Linehan respectively. At the raffle, Linehan also plays one of the Kraftwerk priests whose entrancing, repetitive percussion accompanies Billy’s collapse under the weight of his own heritage. The television weatherman in the opening and closing scenes is voiced by Declan Lowney, the director of the first two series. These are just the latest in a seemingly endless onslaught of cameo appearances by the show’s creators. It’s beginning to seem like the priests can hardly make a move without brushing into one or other of their makers, who loom over this world with a pervasive, almost god-like omnipresence, always prodding them one way or another. Gods haunting their creations; grand overseers of purgatory.

Much of the episode’s texture emerges from its allusive use of music. Several diverse compositions are featured memorably, including some referential pastiches from the synthesiser of Neil Hannon, the show’s endlessly reliable composer.

The music to which Finnegan dances – and dies, if he does die, as all the characters assume without confirming – is Hannon’s pastiche of Johnny & the Hurricanes’ “Beatnik Fly”, itself a reworking of the minstrel song “Blue Tail Fly”. Better known in its sanitised variant “Jimmy Crack Corn”, the song tells of a black slave who witnesses his white master’s death when his horse is bitten by a fly and goes wild. Several iterations and interpretations of the lyrics exist, with the song’s subtext a matter of some debate – it can be read as either a lament or celebration of the death. Combining an upbeat rhythm with morbid subject-matter, it’s a natural fit for Father Ted – and for this episode, with its themes of struggle against the curses we inherit. But how does Finnegan fit here? A moment before his dance-induced heart attack, Ted mentions hearing that Finnegan had been on television recently. The dancing priest tenses, and in a possible reference to Horan, says, “That wasn’t me. That was a younger fella ripped off the idea. Don’t like talking about him.” Finnegan sees himself as a member of an older order, with a divine claim to dancing priesthood. But in the end, even he cannot escape the vicious cycle of compulsion and destruction: dancing himself to death, he is killed by his own addiction, to be supplanted by the younger, savvier dancing priest of the next generation.

Billy’s only record, “Ghost Town” by the Specials, also relates to race. The song’s origins lie in the group’s 1978 debut tour, at which they witnessed a neo-Nazi attack on another band. The lyrics describe a community in decay, disintegrating under the weight of social and economic problems, layered with a wistful nostalgia for a vanished past. The song seems to hold an odd fascination for Mathews – he reused it in a 2013 episode of his sitcom Toast of London, where Matt Berry’s character performs it in an attempt to win over a woman.

As Jack staggers about in search of drink, we hear Purcell’s voice echo faintly down the corridors, “Sid Vicious now, that was a grand name wasn’t it? He had trouble with the drugs…” Vicious died aged 21 from an overdose of heroin supplied by his mother; another tale of addiction and death by toxic heritage.

think-map

Ted decides to break up the “Ghost Town” monotony with an impromptu performance from his friends Father Tiernan, Father Rafter, Father Cafferty, and Father Leonard, who turn out to be a priestly version of Kraftwerk. The scene’s music is provided by Hannon, himself a Kraftwerk devotee who has covered “The Model” and “Radioactivity” and composed many songs of his own under their influence. It’s a genuinely great homage, and enough to make one wonder seriously why the show’s original score has never seen an official release. Brian Eno has described Kraftwerk’s music as sounding “nostalgic for the future”. Aside from being hilarious to reimagine as priests, the band is a fitting choice for Father Ted – a show whose influence and legacy seem to intensify as the years march on. While “Ghost Town” reminisces about a golden past, Kraftwerk dream of things to come. Father Ted is caught in the middle, a singular moment woven throughout our culture. This episode stands at the show’s spiritual centre, reaching forwards and backwards till the fourth wall bursts its banks. An endearing nightmare out of time, like an endlessly looping Specials record, perpetuating itself with extension upon extension. Perhaps its best years still lie ahead of us.

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