Very Easy to Put On, Very Hard to Get Off (The Plague)

plague imageAfter Jack’s latest bout of nude sleepwalking, Bishop Brennan visits to inspect the parochial house’s new security measures. Meanwhile, Dougal’s new rabbit, Sampras, begins to breed rapidly – a problem, as the bishop is intensely leporiphobic. Increasingly farcical attempts to remove or conceal the rabbits follow, and naturally culminate in disaster.

A possible inspiration for the episode is the real infestation of rabbits which befell the Aran Islands about a decade earlier. Evading the myxomatosis which wiped out so many rabbits on the mainland, the islands’ rabbit population reached an estimated thirty to forty thousand in 1985. Locals resorted to hunting and shooting the rabbits, Tom-style, with some even advocating the deliberate introduction of the disease. Craggy Island, located as it is with two others off the Galway coast, is impossible not to associate with the Aran Islands (particularly given that one, Inisheer, stands in for it in the opening credits). It’s equally impossible not to think of Ted while watching the RTÉ broadcast where the locals discuss their quaint problem as if it were national news – the accompanying article uses the term “plague” without a trace of irony. Indeed, rabbits have already been used as a quintessential symbol of the show, appearing in the animated sequence where Dougal reflects on the nature of dreams and reality in the very first episode. If the incident really did inspire the show’s setting (consciously or not), “The Plague” takes on a kind of mythic status: it’s the show doing a Ted version of a real-life Ted story.

When Brennan is introduced, he’s sharing a glass of wine with an attractive young woman in a luxurious bath. In “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, his downfall results not from any of his horrible behaviour but from his perfectly normal and loving relationship. While the circumstances are admittedly unclear, “The Plague” implies that the bishop is being unfaithful to his partner. By undermining the purity of his relationship, the episode damages the critique of Catholic doctrine it represents, but also frees itself to focus more on Brennan as an individual than the organisation he represents. Shortly after the bishop introduces the element of sexuality to the episode, the priests find that Dougal’s rabbit has become three.

Interestingly, the exact nature of the bishop’s fear is never explained – we’re told only that about a decade ago, he spent a night trapped in a New York elevator with twenty of them, and they began “nibbling at his cape and… and everything”. Part of the joke is the uneasy sense that there’s more to the story than we’re being told, which hints at a deeper meaning. Since Brennan was originally introduced in the context of his forbidden relationship and illegitimate child, it’s not a stretch to connect his secret to the rabbits. (The episode was known as “The Bunnies” during production, and renamed “The Plague” in a half-hearted attempt to give it more “weight” with a religious reference. Linehan realised, many years too late, that it really should have been called “The Trouble with Nibbles”, after the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” – which was, incidentally, inspired by the introduction of rabbits to Australia in 1859. Superficial though it might be, this change of emphasis still tacitly invokes the Book of Exodus and its story of a pharaoh beset by plagues from God for his refusal to release the Isrealites from slavery. Ted speculates that the rabbits are his punishment for accidentally saying “feck” to the bishop over the phone, but it’s more likely that it’s Brennan’s own act of sin which is being punished.) Under this reading, the rabbits become a subtextual symbol of the bishop’s “little mistake”; their endless, uncontrollable reproduction a kind of exaggerated, nightmarish caricature of Brennan’s anxiety over the consequences of his actions.

It’s telling that Jack’s crime is similar to Brennan’s, at least in that it shares the element of sexual indiscretion. But where the bishop has moderate success concealing his nighttime activities, Jack simply wanders the island naked and carefree. Linehan and Mathews have said that they consider Jack and Brennan nemeses; that Jack could have become a bishop himself had he the disipline and focus of a “career priest”. While this relationship rarely comes across clearly on screen, these transgressions are one of the stronger illustrations of their kinship, while the attitudes with which they go about them speak volumes of the differences between the two men. Neatly, “The Plague” inverts their power dynamic from “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, with Brennan overseeing Jack’s punishment rather than finding himself at Jack’s mercy. Soon after the bishop’s fear is revealed, we learn that the rabbits themselves are fixated on Jack, with Ted theorising that they think him some sort of “rabbit god”. Both men are profoundly connected to these rabbits, but in almost diametrically opposed ways; two icons of clerical corruption engaged in a kind of war over this symbolic territory. Brennan’s misdeeds remain a source of terror for him, but Jack has long since passed beyond all possibility of shame, fear, or regret: unabashedly embracing the way of sin, he has achieved a kind of dark tranquility verging on the Miltonian. No wonder they worship him. The episode’s ending, where the bishop is broken by the combined emergence of naked Jack and his inadvertent rabbit minions, leaves the conflict’s victor indisputable.

A key reference in the writing of Ted was the classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers. As the writers admit, they sometimes hewed a little too closely to it, with “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” unconsciously borrowing one episode’s setup – a lift already present in Irish Lives, the unproduced mockumentary script which evolved into it, making Fawlty Towers part of Ted’s primordial DNA. While the influence is evidently a crucial one, it’s also an occasional source of tension, as the two shows follow decidedly different comedic structures. Fawlty Towers is as precise as clockwork, and always follows a specific farcical pattern, each half-hour episode beginning quietly and gradually escalating to an utterly insane climax. Plots generally involve manic hotelier Basil, his wife Sybil, assistant Polly, and dim-witted waiter Manuel (name-checked by Linehan and Mathews as one of several sitcom proto-Dougals, alongside Woody Boyd in Cheers and Trigger in Only Fools and Horses) attempting to deal with troublesome guests or hide their misdeeds. Ted episodes lack such a set plot structure, and usually hinge on about two major set-pieces, weaving them into a 24-minute story with smaller comedic scenes serving as connective tissue – a writing style informed by unsung producer Geoffrey Perkins. Because of its looser, more dynamic format, Ted can assume the structure of other types of sitcom – even other types of story entirely – with ease. The show rarely takes full advantage of this flexibility. But in “The Plague”, it finally happens. It goes full Fawlty Towers.

“The Plague” begins with a low-key living room scene featuring a single rabbit and a phone call from Bishop Brennan. (It’s hard not to be reminded of Manuel when Ted, having exclaimed “feck!”, attempts to cover by adopting a funny accent and pretending to be someone else.) The problem – to get rid of the rabbit before the bishop’s arrival – is initially trivial, but grows exponentially as the rabbits begin to breed. As well as driving the narrative, the rabbits’ rapid multiplication serves as a fittingly absurd visual accompaniment to the mounting farce.

After three brief scenes where the priests attempt to foist the rabbits on Larry Duff, Paddy Jordan, and Tom, the bishop arrives and the episode shifts into proper Fawlty Towers mode. The entire second half consists of an extended farce sequence, taking place largely in real time, with the bishop staying the night and Ted darting about to conceal the rabbits. Parallels about: Brennan stands in for the guest/authority figure who cannot be allowed to discover the hotel’s problems (the default Fawlty Towers plot), and Morgan’s increasing physical comedy and manic acting closely mirror John Cleese’s Basil in his ever-shifting efforts to conceal the week’s sensitive information. Even the illogical hump in the hotel’s staircase is copied, but it’s only now that we see it used to make Ted’s run look sillier – Fawlty Towers elements which have always been present in Ted are now crystallising for the first time. The episode neatly avoids the shaggy-dog-story conclusion of “Old Grey Whistle Theft” by placing its comedic climax in the final shot, completely omitting the show’s usual denouement scene – it’s like a Fawlty Towers ending, but even more farcical, since those at least leave room for a step down to a smaller joke at the very end.

The episode’s central problem is that Linehan and Mathews – for reasons of skill, time, or interest – simply don’t manage to construct a farce matching the precision and focus of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Fawlty Towers scripts. The form functions best when the absurd problems faced by the characters emerge logically from their circumstances – despite its silliness, it’s a very difficult type of comedy to write well. While “The Plague” is still hilarious, and more than satisfactory for its modest positioning halfway through the second series, this is where it falls down. Jack’s nude sleepwalking and Brennan’s fear of rabbits – the story’s dual foundations – are introduced abruptly and carelessly, and a crucial moment depends on Ted trusting Dougal to hide the rabbits in a location of his own choosing, which is deeply out-of-character. It’s jarring, especially in light of jokes like the “travelling pet shop” line, which manages to explain away a potential plot hole while also being funny. In a way, the self-consciously nonsensical logic is part of the appeal, and it certainly shows the beginnings of a shift from the first series’s more grounded, relatable storytelling to the cartoonish, surreal excesses of the third. If we accept this new style as a step in the right direction for Ted – or, at least, a valid alternative avenue to explore – we’ll also have to accept that it’s perhaps not such a good fit for the farce structure, which demands more intricate plotting and cannot function fully with this kind of comedic logic. (Ted’s refusal to leave the rabbits in Jack’s room is nonsensical, but “I won’t be able to relax until the only rabbit left is the one sitting in your head working the controls” is such a good line that it can stand in for sense.)

The only significant aberration from the Fawlty Towers structure lies at the very beginning. In an unusual move, the episode uses not one but two cold opens, one on either side of the credits sequence. The second is an oddly abrupt horror scene where three travellers with torches encounter the naked Jack in a dark forest (if it were placed before the credits, it would be indistinguishable from an X-Files cold open). The first, more intriguing, is a vignette where Ted and Dougal watch Father Ben, a sitcom strikingly similar to their own lives, set on an island identical to Craggy Island, filmed on a set identical to their living room, and starring an actor who looks identical to Arthur Mathews as a Ted analogue (of course) – all set to Neil Hannon’s Father Ted theme. It takes the classic Remembrance of the Daleks joke one step further, reaching a level of brazen metafiction, and in doing so comes entertainingly close to shattering the show’s reality entirely. The scene was intended to make fun of Ted’s critics by portraying a version of the show that was actually as stupid as they claimed the real one was, but now that it’s loved universally, the scene comes across as strange for the sake of strange – inexplicably rather than explicably funny. (That Linehan doesn’t portray Father Brendan, the Dougal analogue, actually makes it weirder.)

Ted often includes characters who mirror and illuminate aspects of the leads, and the television set is often used to introduce characters who will drive the plot, but here the former trend occludes the latter, like some kind an eclipse: the priests turn on the television, and rather than being primed for the episode’s events, they see their own doppelgängers and fail to recognise them. With even mild application of context, this fusion of television and mirror yields a veritable hall of mirrors: Do Ben and Brendan watch another show about stupid priests on an island? Do they have their own nemeses, counterparts to Dick and Cyril? Do Dick and Cyril watch Father Ben, or do they have their own version of the show? If so, do the characters in that show have their own nemeses, and their own favourite show about stupid priests on an island? In less than a minute, the entire cast of characters become fractal phenomena splintered across an infinite web of nested realities, mise en abîme; fictions that breed like rabbits.

Fawlty Towers it isn’t. But then again, would you want it to be?

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3 Responses to Very Easy to Put On, Very Hard to Get Off (The Plague)

  1. Aidan says:

    “The scene was intended to make fun of Ted’s critics by portraying a version of the show that was actually as stupid as they claimed the real one was”

    – Interesting, so in this sense Father Ben is like a precursor to Terrance and Philip from South Park, South Park’s ‘show-within-a-show’ that was brought in for those exact same reasons, as a show that actually was just mindless toilet humour, like critics accused South Park of being.

    It’s hard to imagine any reviewer being critical of Father Ted now. I’m trying to stretch my mind back to remember any negative reviews at the time, but I can’t seem to recall any. Much like the poor reception some media outlets gave Fawlty Towers following its debut, these criticisms have long since faded into oblivion with the show’s huge popularity!


  2. Gaurav says:

    I wonder what Father Jack would have told Ted and Dougal if they’d given him a moment to air his doubts about his faith…


    • I’ve given this question quite a bit of thought over the last few months.

      The joke, of course, is in how unanswerable it is. The abyss of Jack’s monstrous mind is an inexhaustible mine of comedy, but it relies on us never really understanding him, so Ted’s prioritising Byker Grove is probably the best way to end that scene. But still… we wonder. On the rare occasions that we do get some glimpse into Jack’s interiority, it’s generally just pure lechery – eg, the dream sequences which flash back to volleyball practice and wet-t-shirt contests. Occasionally, though, we get much stranger stuff, like his “They lie in wait like wolves” speech – a non-sequitur monologue with intimations of strange depths and horrific memories.

      Kelly could easily have conveyed some glimmer of Jack’s mindframe in this moment, but he chooses to play it ambiguously – when he leans forward and opens his mouth, it’s easy to imagine that Jack’s about to sneer some mocking insult (like “I’m so, so sorry” in “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”), but just as possible to imagine he’s about to open up and reveal something sincere and fragile and human (like “Am I still on that fecking island?” in “Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading”). I suppose I see deliberate ambiguities like this as a sort of challenge, as if the show is asking: what’s the most interesting interpretation you can come up with?

      It’s possible that Father Jack – who is, after all, an elderly alcoholic priest with a high libido, no contact with women he views as women, and no friends or family whom he actually likes – is not only perpetually angry, but also quite sad and lonely. Perhaps he even experiences some measure of self-awareness and guilt over his violent awfulness. There’s an unspoken assumption that Jack had some some sort of Christian faith, once upon a time, but it feels like it’s long since eroded – it’s fascinating to consider, for a moment, that there might still be some trace of belief buried in there, somewhere; that there’s actually something left for Jack to doubt.

      But I think that, finally, I’ve arrived at an answer that I personally find satisfying:

      Father Jack Hackett is the immortal time-agent formerly known as Captain Jack Harkness.

      In Doctor Who and Torchwood, it’s something of a running joke that Captain Jack keeps getting stranded in time and space, sometimes having to wait many centuries until he can hitch a lift with a passing time-traveller. Captain Jack ages extremely slowly, but he does age; John Barrowman and Frank Kelly might not look identical, but they look enough alike that we can plausibly imagine the former becoming the latter.

      Over the course of millions of years, the experience of immortality must start to weigh on Jack. He probably tries to self-medicate in various ways. He tries sex. He tries alcohol. He tries religion. He tries all of the above, at the same time. Nothing works. And so we find him in 1995, living on Craggy Island, depressed and alcoholic and ordained, an empty shell of the man he once was. Over the years, Jack’s become less articulate and eloquent, and his memory isn’t what it used to be – he barked his name at some cleric or bureaucrat a century ago, and “Harkness” was written down as “Hackett”. So it goes.

      Once we accept that Jack Hackett is Jack Harkness, the series starts to make a great deal more sense. Of course Father Jack came back to life after drinking that floor polish – he can’t die, because Bad Wolf made him a fixed point in time and space. How did you think he survived falling off that cliff and drowning in “Hell”? If Ted hadn’t interrupted Jack to go watch Byker Grove, Jack would have confessed that his misery and erratic behaviour stems from his traumatic memory of having to murder his own grandson in Children of Earth, or perhaps from one of the many other tragic and painful events in Captain Jack’s life.

      If Jack Harkness is Father Jack’s past, that raises some interesting questions about his future. As we know from Doctor Who, Captain Jack will one day become the Face of Boe – a gigantic alien head in a jar, sublimely wise and serene, mutated over billions of years. Although this lengthy, complex metamorphosis occurs off-screen, we can presume that Jack goes through his ecclesiastical phase relatively early in the process – Father Jack still looks mostly human, though we can already see numerous monstrous traits beginning to manifest. It all adds up. Meanwhile, the Australian sci-fi series Farscape, in a startlingly convenient bit of corroborating evidence, gives us the alien priest Paroos, who is quite clearly a mutated Father Jack, his body below the neck now atrophying and shrinking – well on his way to becoming the Face of Boe. Evidently, Farscape takes place in the Fatherwhoniverse.

      Can all this be combined with my “Father Ted Crilly is a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor, existing between the Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee incarnations” theory, you ask?

      It can.

      But that is a story for another day.



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