The first series of Father Ted concluded with an elegiac episode which mused on the transitory nature of life. Not to be outdone, the second series reaches its climax with what can only be described as Ted doing a high-octane disaster film. The stakes are real, and for the first time this series, the principal characters’ lives are in real danger.
On a flight back from a pilgrimage with an aeroplane full of priests, Dougal accidentally empties a fuel tank. Ted organises an impromptu essay competition to decide who gets the only two parachutes, only for Jack to steal them both. When the pilot conceives a plan to climb onto the wheel and fix the fuel line, Ted volunteers and saves the day, despite getting severely traumatised.
The idea of creating an event episode by taking sitcom characters out of their normal environment and sending them to an exotic locale is not a new one. Ted itself has previously experimented with the idea in “Hell”, though the milieu of the mainland isn’t vastly different from that of Craggy Island. A more famous example might be “To Hull and Back”, which can broadly be described as an Only Fools and Horses version of Ocean’s 11. At one point, John Cleese even considered making a Fawlty Towers film where the characters’ flight to Barcelona gets hijacked by terrorists, forcing Basil to step up and stop them – with the disastrous flight acting as a catalyst for the morally dubious protagonist to become a temporary hero, we might even suggest a direct influence. The innovation in “Flight Into Terror” is that it skips the lead-up and the foreign adventure itself, focusing instead on the part most often overlooked: the journey home. Linehan notes that the structure echoes that of a Dad’s Army episode, with the characters’ spatial confinement limiting action and encouraging dialogue, jokes, and silly activities. Uniquely, the episode takes place almost entirely on board the plane, with the island appearing only in the dénouement – the result feels more exotic than the priests’ misfortunate mainland visits.
Additionally, their journey isn’t to some far-off location but to Kilnettle, a fictional stand-in for the village of Knock in County Mayo, where the Blessed Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to fifteen people in 1879. (It’s an odd destination to invoke, as Ireland is really too small to have to fly intranationally. Nobody jets over to Knock. Father Briefly’s Caledonian Airways bag hints that Kilnettle might be in Scotland, but the UK lacks Ireland’s tradition of Virgin Mary visions.) The episode takes a brief shot at the Knock story, having Ted relate a mundane tale of Mary’s appearance at the thirteenth hole of the Kilnettle golf course. (Indeed, the thirteenth hole seems to have inexplicable significance in the Ted universe, as it’s also where Jack knocks Ted down with the car in one of the “New Jack City” flashbacks. Whether this also happened at Kilnettle is left for the scholars to debate.)
The following year, Linehan and Mathews took a harder look at the Virgin Mary apparition hysteria, contributing a three-minute sketch for “Decline”, an episode of Chris Morris’s satirical news show Brass Eye. In the sketch, one of Morris’s many reporter characters heads to the fictional Irish village of Ballakreen to investigate a young girl’s visions of a Mary statue driving a car through a field. The credits don’t actually identify which of the numerous writers contributed what material, but the sketch is palpably in the world of Father Ted. It could easily have formed the basis for a full episode (though its unapologetic satire would have to be toned down – the girl’s mother suggests that she pray in the middle of the road to increase her chances of getting killed and sent to heaven). There’s even an appearance by Michael Redmond (our very own Father Stone) as Father Jools Doolan, the local priest.
Dougal’s dumping the fuel is positioned as a repetition of the “Sealink incident”, a terrible past event where he messed with the controls of a Sealink ferry. It’s not entirely clear whether this is another name for the “Blackrock incident”, which damaged hundreds of nuns’ lives irreparably and landed Dougal on Craggy Island in the first place. Blackrock is very close to the major ferry port at Dún Laoghaire, so the conflation makes sense as well as creating a more entertainingly grandiose backstory for Dougal. (In an interview conducted around the time of the first series, the writers mentioned that Dougal was on the island as punishment for a “baptism gone wrong”, which is even more fun to reconcile with the above.) In any case, the references in “Flight Into Terror” give the episode’s events a real sense of calamity, an impression that history is repeating itself, and that the priests have become caught in a disaster potentially as mythic and earth-shattering as those which led to the circumstances of the show’s beginning.
As well as invoking Dougal’s backstory, the episode gives us a little insight into Ted’s past. We learn that he was an object of derision at St Colm’s seminary, where he was nicknamed “Father Fluffy Bottom” after the other priests caught a glimpse of his backside in the shower. Ted being Ted, his attempt to return Father “Himalaya Joe” Briefly’s bullying backfires spectacularly.
As in “A Song for Europe”, there’s a thread of the modern Church’s ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality. The obvious manifestation is Father Cave’s awkward confession of love for Father Gallagher, but on a subtler note, there’s a moment where Ted and Fay discuss Michael Barrymore’s autobiography in hushed tones. In hindsight, it’s becoming increasingly clear that an episode dedicated to the subject would have worked very well – it’s just a pity the writers never got round to it.
One of the episode’s chief pleasures lies in observing the colourful cast of minor characters who make up the flight’s passengers. There’s the neurotic Father O’Shea; the gloriously selfish Father Briefly; Father Flynn, the tragic artist; Liam O’Carroll’s blind Mr Bean fan; Linehan’s own Father Gallagher, and his secret admirer, Father Cave, who stares hilariously at the other actors when he doesn’t know he’s in the shot.
Father Noel Furlong made a real impression in “Hell”, so his return here is a sensible move. Slightly more confusing is the presence of Noel’s companion, Father Fintan Fay, the “monkey priest”, a character the writers created out of desperate boredom while stuck a terrible Ben Elton sketch show. Not that Fay is a bad character, but there’s a limit to how many laughs you can get out of someone communicating through monkey noises, and that well had largely run dry in his previous appearance in “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”. There are plenty of better priests to bring back – imagine if Ted had found Father Purcell talking to himself in the toilet cubicle, for instance. Interestingly, Fay was accompanied by a different character in his original appearance, namely the melodramatic Father Jim Sutton (“He could have been pope, Ted!”). We can only assume that the three of them live together in a parochial house somewhere, with Fay as the incoherent old Jack-type and Sutton the conflicted, middle-aged Ted analogue, leaving the Dougal role for Noel. Sadly the spin-off potential for this accidental trio seems to have gone unnoticed.
There’s also a host of extras, including many familiar faces who were not paid or credited for their appearances, participating purely as a favour to the production. We have Father Shaft, the black Donegal priest, also from “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”; Father Ken and Father Rory, Ted’s innocent friends from “New Jack City”; the omnipresent Father Terry, who often seems to be half of the show’s non-speaking priests. Journalist Ken Sweeney is in the mix for some reason. It’s the Avengers of minor Father Ted characters. On the audio side of things, producer Lissa Evans gets in on the fun, voicing Ted’s new tape dispenser, and the computerised “emergency!” voice sounds like another Mathews cameo. The post-credits scene where we see the priests’ reactions to the news that they’re safe is probably the densest image in the entire show, with about 25 things happening at once. Best of all is Father Shaft, who roars with unbelieving laughter as Father Flynn mocks his own sketch from the parachute competition – a moment which conveys far more about his character than “Sure I wouldn’t know, I’m from Donegal” ever could.
The most peculiar cameos are probably the two nuns who pelt Ted with rolled-up pieces of paper. One, credited as “Big Nun”, is played by drag queen Dave Dale – peculiar, as the British tradition of cross-dressing comedy is otherwise left untouched by the show. The other is played by Pauline McLynn, not immediately recognisable with a wimple and thick glasses. Mrs Doyle appears only in the final scene, so McLynn, feeling largely left out of the cameo-filled production, requested another small part. Sadly, whether the nun is an incognito Mrs Doyle stalking the priests on their pilgrimage or simply the sister she mentions in “Going to America” is not disclosed.
It’s just a shame they couldn’t find room for Father Bigley. An unseen character, Bigley is the subject of a running joke throughout the second series, with several episodes revealing new details about him (such as his corpse-like visage, puffy fish lips, and penchant for women’s clothing). The writers considered paying off the joke by having Bigley finally appear in the series finale, presumably using prosthetics to realise the bizarre description built up over the course of the series. It would have been a classic moment, but in the end it seems to have slipped their minds. Oh well, at least we get a solid Larry Duff joke. (One that, in mentioning “all those crashes he was in,” slyly confirms Larry’s bad luck is an inherent trait, not just limited to Ted’s phone calls. In those little sketches, Larry is essentially a one-man Father Ted, each quirky clerical misadventure wrapped up in 24 seconds rather than 24 minutes. Larry and Bigley have a bit in common, actually – both priests are running jokes introduced in the second series and quietly retired for the third, and neither of them ever actually meet Ted on-screen. In Larry’s case, Mathews just liked the idea of someone frequently described as being “tremendous fun” never actually showing up to demonstrate this trait.)
The script originated with Linehan’s own fear of flying; what he describes as a George Costanza-like anxiety that he would be struck down by the Fates as punishment for his successes. He had the idea to give Ted that fear, and the story followed. Initially, Ted’s phobia seems conventional, but it’s eventually revealed as part of a much larger web of psychic trauma – the moment he learns that the aeroplane is going to crash, he attains a kind of Zen state and easily assumes command of the situation. In an unusual moment of pure exposition, Ted explains to Dougal that he is naturally fraught with anxiety, but that the actualisation of one of his terrible fears has had the effect of curing him. Not only does Ted achieve a cool confidence, he experiences a sense of elation – a rush. When forced to become a hero, Ted discovers that he is a thrillseeker, and conceptualises himself as an obscure Jeff Bridges character. (That he recognises Fearless as “probably a bad reference” is a very rare metafictional joke, only adding to the sense of occasion.)
While Ted’s state of mind is altered, we also get an uncharacteristically intimate exchange where he attempts to express his affection for Dougal (with marginally better results than Father Cave). The inextricable dynamic between Ted and Dougal is the engine that drives the series – it’s the stated reason that the writers have never brought Dougal back for a spin-off. And despite its supreme importance to every single episode, this is the first time the relationship has really been discussed directly. “I know sometimes I act like maybe you get on my nerves but I suppose secretly I think it’s quite funny… you know, the way you mix things up and sometimes you don’t get what’s going on… I’m just trying to say, Dougal… I like you.” These words feel like they might be inscribed on the very foundations of the show, but they’ve never been spoken till now, the life-or-death scenario finally forcing the priests to admit their real feelings (well, forcing Ted – Dougal remains oblivious). Most interesting is the idea that Ted finds Dougal’s stupidity amusing, which is actually a slightly radical idea, as it’s something we’ve never seen any evidence for in their interactions. The revelation pushes Ted a little closer to becoming an audience surrogate – deep down, does he also find Jack and Mrs Doyle as funny as we do? Is his alienation compounded by a metafictional consciousness of what Craggy Island really is?
With all these implications, “Flight Into Terror” paints a thoroughly new picture of Ted, but that’s not unfitting – it’s an episode dealing with the show’s possible dissolution, so cracks will naturally show in the foundations, and the things we learn about Ted’s unhappy youth only add to the sweep of his arc. When Ted agrees to climb out of the plane and tape up the fuel line, it’s utterly unlike him – he’s been transformed by disastrous circumstances into something else. A strange, selfless, unalloyed Ted, his scruples and pettiness burnt away – a fearless Ted who’s thrilled to help people. Maybe it’s just some fluke of the moment, but maybe this is the man he was born to be – the saviour.
The boundaries of what can occur in the show are stretched further than ever before, but the instant the problem is solved, the disaster averted, all snaps back into place. His exaltation evaporating, Ted regresses to his ordinary self, still clinging to the wheel but now paralysed with fear. We leave the episode with a sense that he may be destined for greater things. As it turns out, that’s an idea the show is preparing to explore.