Some of the strongest Father Ted episodes are meditations on aspects of Irish Catholic life and culture smuggled within the format of a 24-minute sitcom. “Old Grey Whistle Theft” is not one of those episodes. In fact, it feels almost like a reaction against the idea that Father Ted needs to mean anything at all – an interesting take in itself. Even the title is self-effacing, with the inconsequential reference to The Old Grey Whistle Test, a music television series, almost wilfully discouraging any kind of semantic reading, while the accidental omission of the definite article imparts an intriguing generality, as if “Old Grey Whistle Theft” is something plural or ongoing. But that just makes it more fun.
Ted and Jack go for a picnic, but leave after encountering a rude couple (named Mr and Mrs Joyce in the script) and Benson, the whistle-obsessed picnic supervisor. Meanwhile, Dougal falls under the influence of Father Damo Lennon, a young wayward priest. “Oasis or Blur?” asks Damo, never realising that the correct answer is Pulp. He steals Benson’s whistle, causing mass hysteria on Craggy Island; gives Dougal a cigarette pack containing the whistle, which Ted soon discovers. Cue a whirlwind of accusations and misunderstandings, culminating in Damo’s departure and the whistle’s return to Benson.
The episode takes place almost entirely in familiar Craggy Island locales, with most of the action set in and around the parochial house. The closest thing it has to a major set-piece, and the only distinct visual, is Ted and Jack’s picnic. It was recorded on a desolate stretch of limestone in the Burren, and looks positively moon-like. The picnic area itself consists of a sign with the words “picnic area” on it, and a small yellow booth where Benson, the supervisor, apparently lives. No sooner has Ted settled down with his copy of The Life of Mel Gibson (an appropriate choice for the almost post-apocalyptic location) than he’s interrupted by a picnicking husband and wife, decked out in brightly coloured raincoats, who claim that Ted has stolen “their spot”. They yell for Benson, who confronts Ted with a megaphone, demanding that he drop his plastic fork. (When attempting to scare their children into behaving, Irish parents often threaten them with an ominous boogeyman figure known only as “the man”; phrases like “That’s it, I’m calling the man!” are typical. Benson was inspired by this tradition, and initially serves as a rare literal embodiment of “the man”.) Watched out of context, the scene would be utterly incomprehensible, and give a wildly inaccurate impression of what Father Ted is – it’s like watching a Beckett parody. One can even see future echoes of the writers’ later work on Jam, Chris Morris’s postmodern sketch show.
The flat, desolate landscape stretches to the horizon, punctuated only by the picnic gear, some straggly trees, Benson’s booth, and the long shadows they all cast (which blend disorientingly with the Burren’s cracked surface). As Linehan observes in the commentary, the overall effect is startlingly similar to the surreal tableaux of Salvador Dalí. It’s doubtful that anyone involved consciously intended the allusion, which must have arisen from a combination of choices by the location managers and props department, but it’s still a charming connection. (The eagle-eyed viewer might notice that the O’Learys have a Chupa Chups stand on display in their shop – Dalí famously designed the Chupa Chups logo.) The parallel is not intuitive, but when one considers Dalí’s fascination with death, entropy, religion, and sexual repression, he begins to look like a strangely good fit for Father Ted, which does have a strong thread of the surreal after all. If he’d lived a little longer, perhaps he’d have been a fan.
Since this is a show where nearly every character is sworn to celibacy, couples are exceedingly rare, and rather stand out when they do appear. The Joyces serve as an interesting parallel to the O’Learys, the show’s only recurring couple (who also show up a few minutes later). The O’Learys hurl verbal and physical abuse at each other whenever the priests’ backs are turned, and while the picnickers have a similar temper, it’s instead directed at anyone who trespasses on their patch of rock. Their disrespect for Ted is strikingly different from the O’Learys’ sycophancy to the clergy, yet they maintain an intense respect for the picnic area’s regulations, using words like “fup” and “backstard” so as not to break the “No Swearing” rule. In other words, they have the same mingled rage and authoritarian subservience as the O’Learys, but do not bother to compartmentalise them. Ostensibly fee from the strictures of the Catholic Church, they have achieved a kind of completion the O’Learys will never know, and can express all aspects of their personalities concurrently, with no restrictions. Still, they’re clearly Craggy Islanders, so we know they’ll never actually lead productive or peaceful lives. Their issues with Ted are necessarily insane, sanity being the province of the mainland – consider the couple in “Hell”, whose hatred and mistrust of Ted are entirely reasonable based on their experiences with him. This triptych of couples serves to illustrate that Craggy Island, and therefore the belief system it embodies, is a powerful barrier to self-actualisation. (Incidentally, Frank Joyce is played by Arthur Mathews, who also plays the distant figure telling Damo his tea is ready – they really went all-out with the cameos in this one.)
The moment where Benson approaches Ted is an exceedingly rare instance where Neil Hannon’s score misses the mark somewhat – rather than evoking Ennio Morricone’s instantly recognisable western soundscapes, he opts for an oddly mystical flute composition. To be fair, director Declan Lowney doesn’t seem to understand the joke either. Rather than the Sergio Leone stand-off parody Linehan and Mathews intended (and still hinted at by the cowboy book Benson later falls asleep reading), the confrontation with Benson is filmed rather conventionally, without any wide shots, quick cuts, or close-ups of the character’s eyes or heels. It’s likely that the writers simply made an oversight while scripting, but perhaps we should be thankful – their failure to communicate their intention to their collaborators led to one of the most idiosyncratic and surreal moments in the entire show. Not quite what anyone involved wanted it to be, the scene is Father Ted bordering on sentience, the show nearly developing a mind of its own.
Damo and his older colleague, Father Frost, continue the show’s long tradition of exploring the main characters through mirroring – even the building they’re staying in resembles the parochial house. In this case, we get an examination of the paternal side to Ted and Dougal’s relationship. This has always been a central part of the show’s dynamic, a play on the typical family sitcom structure with Ted as the put-upon father (clue’s in the title), Dougal the innocent son, Jack the grumpy grandfather, and Mrs Doyle the old-fashioned mother. (This set of characteristics informs the humour in many episodes, leading to scenes like Mrs Doyle giving Dougal his bath, or Ted’s jealousy of her affection for Pat Mustard.) Damo, a priest with the attitude of a bad-mannered adolescent, regards Frost as an overbearing father figure – Harry Enfield’s Kevin sketches seem a likely source of inspiration. As Damo’s influence on Dougal increases, Dougal’s behaviour worsens, from getting his ear pierced to an implied experiment with crack cocaine. (“Simpson Tide”, the Simpsons episode where Bart gets his ear pierced to copy Milhouse, aired two years after “Old Grey Whistle Theft” – probably a coincidence, but it’s nice to imagine.) Dougal also begins to regard Ted with adolescent contempt, trying to mimic his friend’s relationship with his own father figure. Still, it’s clear that Dougal is not yet ready to make the difficult transition to mental adulthood – his dream about Carol Vorderman taking her clothes off during a game of Countdown (shades of The IT Crowd) concludes with Dougal telling her to put them back on so he can concentrate. (Linehan has mentioned that, if they had been interested in developing the characters and giving them arcs, they might have had Dougal leave the priesthood and meet a girl. Shows like Only Fools and Horses prove that a simple looping sitcom structure can expand successfully into more dramatic long-form storytelling, but for better or worse, Father Ted never made such a transition.) Frost is eventually revealed as a kind of exaggerated extension of Ted’s fatherly side – similarly responsible for his ward, but wearier, sterner, and harder. We gain a new appreciation for the healthier, more symbiotic power balance between Ted and Dougal, and can almost see why Damo was inclined to lash out.
(Actor Joe Rooney, for his part, is as different from Damo as could be: in his podcast Pod-A-Rooney, he travels Ireland, and the world, connecting with an eclectic host of comedians, musicians, writers, and actors – Father Ted and otherwise – to record fascinating, rambling interviews. The episode with Cathy Davey is the best podcast I have ever heard.)
The episode generally works well, with no shortage of funny lines and memorable character moments, but there’s a peculiar sort of hollowness to it. It’s clear that the writers essentially collided several unrelated story ideas without much thought for thematic or narrative logic – it’s worlds apart from the razor-sharp “Passion of Saint Tibulus” script. The picnic scene is an interesting hub for everything to turn about, but the nearest the episode comes to resonance is with the two scenes where Mrs Doyle and Old Jim each encounter a priest alone in the darkness – it’s not a lot to go on. (Although Mrs Doyle’s scene is interesting in its implications – she says that she’s been staying up, just in case the priests wanted some midnight tea, for the last three years, but halfway through “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’”, she seemingly went home for the weekend. The writers never came up with a clear idea of Mrs Doyle’s living arrangements, but this shift into the surreal is typical of the show’s evolution. In the commentaries, they suggest that she has a stark, bare room somewhere in the parochial house, with photographs of Ted, Dougal, and the Pope by her bedside, and say that they’d probably have ended up showing it in the fourth series once they’d completely run out of ideas.)
The most telling idiosyncrasy lies in Damo’s theft of the whistle. The scene, a single shot filmed from the first-person perspective of Damo (played here not by Rooney but apparently cameraman Eugene O’Connor) as he enters Benson’s booth, grabs the whistle and flees into the night, is very funny and technically unique, but it makes no sense whatsoever. Damo has no motivation to steal the whistle, and neither interacts with Benson nor hears about Ted’s encounter with him.
Partly countering the episode’s ramshackle nature is its use of foreshadowing. Benson approaches Ted with his whistle in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other, and Ted later finds Benson’s whistle in Damo’s pack of cigarettes. Ted furiously wishes aloud that someone would take Benson’s whistle away, and this comes true almost immediately after. These coincidences and echoes grant the proceedings a sense of inexorability, as if the characters are pawns to a higher will, part of some larger pattern they cannot see. Of course, we know this is ultimately the case: these people’s lives are fictional constructs, and Ted no more than a marionette dancing for our amusement. Perhaps this episode represents a moment of clarity, allowing Ted to glimpse the arbitrariness of his own universe.
The final scene tacitly owns up to the narrative’s jumbled nature. In a grasping attempt to weave some meaning out of the preceding events, Ted makes some insubstantial comments on the nature of “coolness”, its connection to criminality, and its incompatibility with the inner dignity of the priesthood. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a story about law and order, or betrayal, or losing one’s way? But Dougal punctures even this possibility, responding in the final line that he’s learned nothing at all.
And there we have it: a Father Ted episode with no real thematic focus, no consequences, no lessons. When progress grinds to a halt, purgatory verges on limbo – the most meaningless misadventure yet. Ted, for his part, just sighs in resignation, waiting for the next to roll around. Luckily, it’s a good one.