In retrospect, the second series of Father Ted seems quite preoccupied with annual events. It’s not difficult to see why – if you’re writing a sitcom, and one of your express goals is to offer an authentic representation of your much-caricatured home country, cycling through the peculiar yearly rituals of your people is as good a way as any to go deeper. This series, we’ve already had an episode on the rubbish summer holiday, one on Eurovision frenzy, and one on the Rose of Tralee – all perennial parts of Irish life. (It’s fitting that the second series is also the only one followed by a Christmas special.) Now it’s time for Lent.
Each year, in commemoration of Jesus’s 40-day fast in the Judaean Desert, Roman Catholics are supposed to forgo a pleasure of their choice for the duration of Lent – the 40-day period preceding Easter Sunday. In 1990s Ireland, the spectre of the Church still loomed reasonably large, so this was a bigger deal than you might expect. The multiple-choice nature of the practise – no, every eight-year-old Irish comedic genius ever, you can’t give up doing your homework – did not exactly help it overcome its evident issues in the absurdity department. Of course Father Ted had to provide a take on Lent – it’s the perfect vehicle for the show’s gentle dismantling of Irish Catholicism.
To compete with similar Lenten vows made by their Rugged Island rivals, Ted decides that he, Jack, and Dougal will give up cigarettes, alcohol, and rollerblading respectively. When they falter, Ted enlists the help of an organisation dedicated to enforcing Lenten sacrifices. Their enforcer is Ted’s old friend, Sister Assumpta, whose methods prove so extreme that the priests flee to Rugged Island. There they discover that their rivals have tricked them, only pretending to make sacrifices. Returning home, Ted finds that Assumpta has broken her own vows and gorged on chocolate; he blackmails her into tormenting the Rugged Islanders instead.
In writing an episode where Ted and Dougal are tormented by an insane nun, the natural thing would be to create a new character. Instead, Linehan and Mathews bring back Sister Assumpta, who had originally appeared in the first series’s “And God Created Woman”. Unlike Bishop Brennan, who is clearly set up as “the boss who comes round for dinner”, a fixture in the priests’ word, Assumpta was only ever intended as a minor once-off character. Her return can be credited entirely to Rose Henderson’s performance – the actress threw herself into the role, infusing the nun with a glowering menace for the brief moments where she’s annoyed at Ted for skipping Mass. Impressed, the writers gave her an expanded part the following year – a promotion which seems unique in the show’s history. In a creative sense, she’s much like the lightning bolt which strikes Father Stone – something dropped in by Linehan and Mathews once they realised they’d written a solid half-episode but needed something actually dramatic to happen.
The new and improved Assumpta expands enormously on the original, who had practically no traits beyond her love of Mass and slight temper. These characteristics are extrapolated to fit the plot of her second appearance, with Assumpta becoming an intensely puritanical figure, dedicated to inflicting suffering in the name of spiritual purification – a kind of platonic dominatrix. (Interestingly, she wears a wedding ring in the studio scenes.)
Assumpta also reveals herself as a devotee of Matty Hislop, a figure renowned for his sacrifices. It’s always fun when the show adds to its own warped mythology, and Hislop is perhaps the first properly mythic figure we’ve heard of since Saint Tibulus in the first series. A parody of the real-life Irish ascetic Matt Talbot, Hislop is discussed by the priests in reverent tones; a legendary masochist who sniffed kittens to provoke his allergies. In a great moment of world-building, the wall of the sadistic nuns’ HQ is adorned with a portrait of Hislop burning his hand in a heavenly toaster – you just wish you could get a closer look at it. (Assumpta’s Lenten torture regime, seemingly inherited from Hislop, involves dragging the victim across a field with a tractor; giving them Chinese burns; pelting them with coal; starving them and firing a pistol at them if they attempt to eat; stripping them and chasing them with a tree branch; and six other steps we sadly never see.)
Given all these expansions, as well as the fact that she first appeared as just one in a gaggle of nuns, many viewers don’t even realise that Assumpta is a returning character. This is even literalised in the show, with an excellent joke centring on Dougal’s utter inability to recall having met her. Trying to jog his memory, Ted mentions their apparent stay with her in a Kildare convent last year, and alludes to a bizarre sequence of events where Dougal won the lottery, got arrested for shoplifting, had to be rescued from a burning police station, and fell from a helicopter into a tiger pit. Part of the joke’s strength lies in the comical idea that Ted‘s budget could ever allow for such events to be depicted, and this juxtaposition is subtly enhanced by the off-screen adventure’s specific chronological placement between “And God Created Woman” and “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” – this sort of show retroactively meddles with its own fictional continuity so rarely that the act becomes funny in itself. (On the other hand, if we re-examine Assumpta’s debut with this foreknowledge, it’s quite clear that she’s displeased with Ted and hardly about to invite him to her convent. The only way to explain this character development is with even more off-screen adventures. In memory of Patrick Troughton, we shall call this period “Series 1B”.)
Jack’s sobering up for the first time since 1984 turns out to be a relatively weak subplot – the writers simply added depression to his abrasiveness, only later realising that the better joke would be to have eloquent, soft-spoken Frank Kelly simply play Jack as himself. The sequence depicting the three priests’ descent into madness, on the other hand, is unforgettable, with each experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations within the first five minutes – they see each other as a giant cigarette, pint of Guinness, and rollerblade in turn. The O’Learys’ visit to the house is perhaps their greatest scene, both for its brisk pace and the genuinely impressive video effect of John’s cigarette smoke spelling out “lovely fags” in Ted’s addled mind (which has a bonus layer of psychosexual confusion for American viewers). That night, Ted sneaks out to the shed to smoke – extremity driving him to a sanctuary outside the show’s usual spatial boundaries – only to find that the others have had pretty much the same idea. Ted and Dougal’s responses throughout the episode are markedly equivalent to Jack’s, the implication being that they’re really not much saner than he is – in the game of Lent, there are no winners.
The central theme of sacrifice, of noble suffering, flows directly from the Lenten setting, and permeates all dimensions of the story. The result is an episode which comes closer than ever to explicating the show’s purgatorial subtext – rather than enduring the ambient misery which serves as background radiation on Craggy Island, Ted and Dougal are actively and consciously punished for their sinful behaviour by a sadistic embodiment of Catholic piety. While the word “purgatory” is never spoken, it wouldn’t surprise me if the writers had considered it as a possible episode title, as it’s the natural follow-up to the series opener, “Hell”. While that episode explored the capricious and godless nightmare that secular mainland society has become for the islanders, this one examines the converse – the darker corners of the religious life they have chosen for themselves.
The opening scene depicts Ted installing a large wooden cross in the front garden to help visitors find the parochial house (though he succeeds only in making Random Minor Graham Linehan Character #6 think he’s a madman). With oddly impressive cinematography, the first shot frames Ted in silhouette, the cross draped across his shoulder – without context we could almost think we’re watching a biblical epic. Accompanying the scene is an extract from “Rex Tremendae Majestatis”, a sequence in Mozart’s Requiem. The Latin in this sequence forms a prayer to Christ the King for salvation, but the extract used contains only the word “Rex” (“King”) sung three times. Taken in conjunction with the scene’s imagery, the effect is to suggest Ted as a Christ-like figure, his faux-crucifixion an overture to the Lenten drama about to unfold. In fact, the episode seems a little fixated on that particular composition – the montage where Assumpta tortures the priests is accompanied by another sequence, “Dies Irae”, a medieval Latin hymn Mozart set to music. The words included form an outpouring of Catholic fear and hope for the approaching Day of Judgement, and directly reference the Second Coming of Christ.
Now, Ted is clearly not a conventional Christ, but there are more parallels than one might assume. We know that he is native to a higher order, having enjoyed a comfortable life in a Wexford parish before his condemnation to Craggy Island. While the other islanders are all ridiculous caricatures, Ted is a rounded person with numerous conflicting dreams, flaws, and emotions, furthering the sense that he is uniquely not of this world. And it’s easy to forget, given that the show never really chooses to comment on it, but Ted is actually capable of performing miracles of a sort – most obviously in “Entertaining Father Stone”, where he fills Jesus’s role in a daft modern reconstruction of the Lazarus myth.
The final episode’s original epilogue (seemingly suppressed in light of Dermot Morgan’s death a day or so after it was recorded) had a depressed Ted preparing to jump off the ledge with Father Kevin. It’s striking that Ted’s surrendering of his spirit should be contemporaneous with the failure of his one truly salvific act – his inability to lead Kevin into the light made synonymous with his own end. That’s the kind of saviour he is – one who squanders his potential to enact change, only stepping up to his responsibilities far too late. What happens if the Second Coming is broken?
While Ted just about works as a warped Christ figure, his primary role remains that of the everyman; the average Irish Catholic sinner suffering in purgatory. With this in mind, Assumpta’s role is essentially to double down on the show’s premise, damning the priests to a more explicitly purgatorial experience than what they’re already used to. Assumpta’s stated ideology is telling: she describes her daily punishment cycle as “Matty Hislop’s ten-step programme to ridding yourself of your pride, the greatest obstacle to inner fulfilment”. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first circle of purgatory is similarly dedicated to purging souls of their pride, with an angel present to symbolically erase Dante’s as he passes through on his journey. It’s a little more grandiose than Assumpta’s icy bathtub, but the principle is the same.
Being anathema to the show’s premise, Ted’s ultimate escape from Craggy Island can never be depicted, but the defeat of Assumpta is a kind of symbolic stand-in for that victory. She embodies the suffering inherent in Father Ted, and it’s a moment of joyous vindication when she’s finally undermined, defeated, banished. An impossible climax, sublimely hinging on the multiform breakdown of logic inherent in Ted and Dougal’s somehow driving to Rugged Island in the middle of the night. (Brilliantly, the Rugged Island Parochial House looks identical to the Craggy Island one, and the interior is seen so briefly that they can just use Glanquin House rather than a set.) Then, as it must, everything goes on as normal.
On the margins of the story is Mrs Doyle, who leaves early on for her Lenten pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Hill. (The largest mountain in Ireland, and a genuine place of pilgrimage, though we universally refer to it as “Croagh Pádraig” – the show’s staunch refusal to include so much as a single word of the Irish language, despite its substantial presence in modern Hiberno-English, remains one of its mild frustrations.) Like Jack, Mrs Doyle has no place in the story of Assumpta’s torments, so the script sends her packing early on. Her brief subplot is more satisfying than Jack’s – in the scene before her departure, she expresses disgust at “the old ess-ee-ecks”, and declares herself glad that she “never thinks about that type of thing” – we already knew that she was repressed, but now we learn that her conditioning functions on an Orwellian level. We also get a great, thinly-veiled account of an experience she presumably had with her husband, her story provoking a rather different reaction in Ted than Polly Clarke’s. Now we know what Mrs Doyle would find in Room 101 – ready to do the business.
The title, of course, refers to Oasis’s 1994 single “Cigarettes & Alcohol”, a song about disregarding one’s responsibilities and taking drugs instead. It’s one of the show’s more resonant title allusions, not only because that’s literally what almost every character in the episode does, but because it’s perfectly aligned with the episode’s ethos. The Rugged Islanders are villains for their cruel manipulations, not for their excesses. In the post-credits coda, Mrs Doyle returns from her pilgrimage to find the priests revelling in a miasma of booze, fags, and rollerblading – just being people. An exceedingly rare happy ending, it sends the message loud and clear – when it comes on top, you’ve gotta make it happen.