Yeah, It Was a Bit Sad (A Song for Europe)

Peter Caffrey as Charles Hedges in Father Ted: A Song for EuropeNow we come to a real classic. Every Father Ted episode is good – a case could be made that every Father Ted episode is great – but they are not created equal. A handful have risen above the others to achieve truly untouchable status in the Irish collective consciousness, and “A Song for Europe” is definitively one of those.

Ted and Dougal decide to enter the annual Eurosong contest, largely because Ted’s nemesis, Father Dick Byrne, is also competing. Ted and Dougal’s song, “My Lovely Horse”, has awful lyrics and worse music, so Ted decides to copy the catchy tune from an obscure old Norgwegian entry. The night of the competition, Ted hears the Norwegian song in an elevator; realising it’s too popular to copy, they perform their original, terrible version. Unfortunately, the organisers want Ireland to lose the competition because it’s too expensive to keep hosting; Ted and Dougal proceed to Europe, where they finish rock-bottom.

The episode is particularly famed for a scene which falls halfway through (a kind of “cliffhanger” before the ad break, back when we still had those). As the priests fall asleep after an evening scheming, we dissolve to a dream sequence consisting of a “My Lovely Horse” music video; they frolic with the horse and shower it with sugar lumps, all interspersed with random shots of them laughing while playing ping-pong, or throwing an inflatable ball with uncomfortable-looking women in a swimming pool. These shots recreate moments from the exquisitely awkward video for the Swarbriggs’ “That’s What Friends Are For”, Ireland’s entry in the 1975 Eurovision contest. Linehan and Mathews found the video hilarious, particularly for its unironic glamorisation of very mundane activities – it was a key influence on the episode, and they would have recreated it shot-for-shot if possible.

Declan Lowney, director of Father Ted‘s first two series, actually directed the Eurovision contest in 1988. Naturally he has a very good handle on the subject-matter, and can effortlessly tap into its camp absurdity. Other references to Eurovision abound: the producers’ awarding Ted and Dougal first place to avoid hosting costs is a nod to the rumour that Ireland’s 1994 entry, Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids”, was chosen for the same reason (except that, unlike “My Lovely Horse”, it went ahead and won the final contest anyway). Several details of the duo’s performance were imitated in the episode, including the light show on the stage’s backdrop and the suit and shot composition on the host (who, in a surreal twist, was Gerry Ryan). The real 1996 Song for Ireland was held in Dublin’s Point Theatre, but the production opted to film (and set) the climactic performances in Limerick’s Theatre Royal on Cecil Street, just round the corner from Costello’s Tavern – I like to think at least some of the cast and crew went there for a pint that night.

Accusations of plagiarism have always been a Eurovision staple. The episode’s only substantial reference to the wider world of music is Ted’s furious tirade at Dougal for hitting a wrong note, which is lifted from The Troggs Tapes, a bootleg recording of a similar argument between members of that band. Subtler is the mention of The Hairy Bowsies as a contestant (they’re a real Irish republican parody band, whose members, Joe Rooney and Paul Woodfull, both have Father Ted connections). In short, the episode is loaded with in-jokes and references to Irish musical culture – unusual for a show which, despite the received wisdom that only Irish Catholics will truly “get it”, is actually very accessible. In terms of cultural touchstones, it’s probably the most Irish episode they ever made, and in the years since, it’s proven a substantial influence on comic Irish music itself: Ireland’s 2008 Eurovision entrant, Dustin the Turkey, tacitly paid tribute to “My Lovely Horse” with “Irelande Douze Pointe”, as did the Rubberbandits with their genuinely brilliant hit single “Horse Outside” the following year (with Paul Webb, who played DJ Willie O’DJ at the time, even unmasking to portray a priest in the video).

All music original to Father Ted, including the main theme and songs, was composed by Northern Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon, and credited to his band, The Divine Comedy. (As the founder and sole consistent member, he is effectively the band himself.) Hannon’s contribution to the show cannot be overstated. The theme opens and closes each episode, as well as punctuating the ad breaks and many scene transitions. In doing so, it traces the show’s edges with a filigree of ineffable warmth and faint nostalgia, flawlessly capturing the bitter-sweet, ephemeral essence of Father Ted.

To an extent, Hannon not only captured the show’s tone but created it. Linehan and Mathews initially commissioned a much jauntier theme, fitting their original vision of a more satirical show which actively parodied sitcoms. On hearing their selection for the first time, producer Geoffrey Perkins looked pained, asking, “Why do you want to make fun of these characters? People will love these characters.” This was a pivotal moment in the writers’ conception of the show, after which Linehan trusted Perkins’s authority entirely. They requested a new theme from Hannon, who sent them exactly what they needed. (The original theme, now with lyrics and titled “A Woman of the World, can be found on Hannon’s album Casanova, and is basically a retelling of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The final theme evolved into “Songs of Love”, which is included on the same record. The lyrics, presumably autobiographical, describe the feelings of a sexually frustrated composer attempting to capture in song what he cannot experience for himself. The sense of romantic loneliness incurred by one’s occupation resonates with that aspect of Ted’s situation, particularly in “And God Created Woman”, while the transience in the closing lines echoes the show in a broader sense.) Subtly or significantly, it’s easy to imagine the writers being influenced by Hannon’s work once it helped crystallise the show’s identity.

Interestingly, Hannon wasn’t the first choice for the job – the writers originally asked Pulp to compose the theme, but they weren’t interested. Still, it’s a fascinating notion – Pulp share Hannon’s light touch and alternative sensibilities, but they’re as English as can be, and their raw working-class aesthetic is a much trickier fit for Ted than Hannon’s wistfulness and quaint humour. Helpfully, Hannon is also the son of an Anglican bishop; his childhood, and perhaps the earliest foundations of his Father Ted work, are chronicled in his 2014 oratorio, To Our Fathers in Distress. Seriously, it’s all too perfect – the name of his band describes the show on at least three different levels (four if you count the direct allusion to Dante’s descent into purgatory). Even if Pulp had provided the theme, it’s doubtful that they’d have stayed on to compose the incidental music or songs, especially with the success of Different Class only a few months after the show’s debut. In other words, it was always a long shot that we’d ever hear Jarvis Cocker’s take on “My Lovely Horse”, but if I ever gain the ability to travel between universes, that’s my first stop – the mind reels.

Father Dick Byrne’s song, “The Miracle Is Mine”, is a deliberately trashy but still strangely enjoyable parody of the sort of songs that generally win Eurovision. In fact, Hannon is something of an aficionado: in 2007, he composed “Trafalgar”, a song cynically (and jokingly) reverse-engineered from isolated elements of previous Eurovision winners. Dick’s song has a similar feel, right down to the impenetrably vague and epic lyrics. Naturally it also sounds a bit like “My Lovely Horse”, being written by the same composer. The characters never remark on the parallels between their songs, or the sonic similarities to the Father Ben theme, or the Priest Chatback jingle, or Eoin McLove’s song, or Niamh Connolly’s. Like the ever-present voice of Mathews (the Eurosong announcer in this one), Hannon’s musical sensibilities seem to permeate every aspect of the priests’ lives, to the point of actually being perfectly transparent and natural to them. The Divine Comedy is the default sound of the universe… and what a universe it is. (Channel 4 really missed a trick by not releasing a proper soundtrack album. The only track ever released officially is “My Lovely Horse”, complete with 17-second sax solo – absolutely majestic, but nowhere near enough.)

It’s worth examining why the music-video sequence works so staggeringly well. First, the joke is brilliantly set up: in earlier scenes, we hear both Ted and Dougal’s version (where the music is just a single note repeated) and the gibberish Norwegian song with its catchy melody. The dream sequence fuses them perfectly to create something more than the sum of its parts, with both Morgan and O’Hanlon dubbed over by Hannon’s lead and backing vocals respectively – and it’s great. The accompanying video matches humour with ambition, mounting in ridiculousness and culminating in a Gilliam-esque animated shot of the horse’s face floating in a rainbow vortex; on a mildly supernatural note, the priests seem to have the same dream. (Originally, we would also have seen them go to record the song in a studio with help from burnt-out hippie record producer Jeep Hebrides, apparently named Beep Talon in earlier drafts; the writers were were fond of the character, who had a distinctive burger lodged in his hair, but the sequence was lengthy and had to be cut at the scripting stage.) Most Father Ted episodes were consciously structured to revolve around a couple of great set-pieces, but the “My Lovely Horse” video is such a show-stopping moment that it actually transcends this purpose, instead becoming one of a handful of scenes that can reliably be pointed at to demonstrate why the show itself is great. No “best of” compilation could ever omit it.

In a way, it’s fitting that this episode and scene in particular should be so immortalised. They represent a unique act of creation – of writing – by the priest duo. The parallel to Linehan’s collaboration with Mathews is an easy one to make (especially considering the episode’s sidelining of Mrs Doyle and Jack, who remarkably has no dialogue at all). That Ted and Dougal’s creation also happens to be a triumphant showcase for Hannon, the man who gave their world its ineffable life, is almost too perfect. The song for Europe is a microcosm – an emboitment of Father Ted itself.

The music is undeniably the heart of this episode, which is the closest the show comes to the grand tradition of including musical specials in non-musical series (Scrubs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer being perhaps the most famous examples). Still, there is another theme, but it barely has time to breathe before being brushed aside by plot concerns. In the second half of the episode, we meet Charles Hedges and Fred Rickwood, the producer and presenter of the Irish Eurosong contest respectively. They’re also a gay couple – the only one in the entire show. Eurovision’s high camp aesthetic probably inspired the characters, but the portrayal is a carefully progressive one, with Hedges a polite conversationalist and Rickwood a cheerful man with an unintelligibly thick Limerick accent. (The joke here is that he becomes completely clear and charismatic once onstage; the part was originally meant for Steve Coogan, who had impressed the writers with a sketch where he channelled his Mayo uncles flawlessly. Jon Kenny makes a solid replacement, though a side-effect of his casting is that Rickwood looks identical to Michael Cocheese, the cinema manager in “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”. Perhaps he has a secret identity. Such things are certainly part of the episode’s thematic terrain, with Ted hinting that Midge Ure of Ultravox is actually just Father Benny Cake from St Colum’s, hoping that no-one will ever find out he’s a priest; a masterful folding of a real person into the Father Ted universe.) It’s worlds away from the insanely repressed Father Noel Furlong, but just as barbed an comment on Catholic doctrine. The relationship is depicted in a low-key manner – stereotypes are avoided, with Ted’s religious befuddlement and attempts to explain the Church’s backwards attitudes providing the laughs; for all his sexism, Ted is quite reasonable here. After Hedges changes the subject, the subplot fades into the background and never really resurfaces – a pity, because it could easily support an entire episode. It’s one of those things that makes you wish for a fourth series – true, the writers had already decided not to make one, but only Morgan’s death made that decision irreversible.

In April 2015, Ireland celebrated the 20th anniversary of Father Ted. The referendum that finally allowed the country’s gay couples to marry came a month later, so naturally there was some overlap between the media coverage of the two. (That said, they didn’t take anywhere near enough advantage of the “My Lovely Horse” rainbow vortex.) Mathews, for his part, said that Ted would probably avoid commenting publicly on the issue, but secretly vote Yes on the day.

If it’s wrong to use a fictional corrupt priest from a 1990s sitcom as a beacon for progress, then I don’t want to be right.

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