On 14 March, 1997, Father Ted had his finest hour. But it didn’t happen in Father Ted – it happened in reality.
A little context is required. In 1985, Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry founded Comic Relief, a charity organisation. Inspired by Bob Geldof’s recent musical efforts with Live Aid, their approach was simple but powerful: to compel the British public to support impoverished countries using comedic celebrations of the nation’s popular culture, interspersed with serious appeals. Curtis would handle writing and production duties, while Henry would serve as the group’s public face. In 1988, they began concentrating their efforts on Red Nose Day – a major television event, generally held every other March, with a wide swath of the British entertainment industry invited to participate. The telethon occupies BBC One and Two’s schedule for much of the night, and consists of a series of sketches, celebrity appearances, and novelty mini-episodes of popular shows, with various entertainers taking turns at presenting the broadcast (sometimes in character).
The telethon is a descendant of music hall theatre – quite consciously camp and old-fashioned, a traditional variety show performed on a scale made possible only by national media. Celebrity gungings take place alongside pop concerts and sitcom crossovers. The rules of fiction and reality are relaxed. There’s a sense of unlimited possibility; that anything can happen.
When the 1997 event was being put together, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews were asked if the Ted characters could host the telethon for half an hour. Naturally, they agreed. What followed was one of the strangest moments in the show’s history. At 11pm, 14 March, the sound of “My Lovely Horse” rang out in the BBC Television Centre stage, and Ted and Dougal rolled into view on their fibreglass steed (with the implication that, as in the original script, Ted and Dougal did in fact record the song, even becoming somewhat known for it). So it began.
The half-hour presented by Ted and Dougal was charmingly referred to as “Father Ted and His Faithful Friends” in the BBC schedule, while the edited version included in the “Definitive Collection” box set is named “Comic Relief with Ted & Dougal” in the packaging. Clocking in at eleven and a half minutes long, the latter removes the clips which were actually being presented (Angus Deayton in Burkina Faso, television bloopers, and a series of celebrity sketches), but also removes the donation hotline from the corner and, more irritatingly, takes out Lenny Henry’s introduction. A version on YouTube begins partway through it: “But don’t despair, because I’m leaving you in the hands of two of the world’s greatest clergymen. We’re very lucky to have them, because to be honest, they don’t get out much. I’m proud to present, from Craggy Island, Father Ted Crilly and Father Dougal McGuire!” Pleasingly, the telethon maintains this conceit that the characters are real people throughout: Ted later comments, “Anyway, we are both very surprised and excited to be asked here tonight to host this part of the show, especially since I thought that hosting Comic Relief was mainly reserved for famous comedians rather than two completely unknown priests from the west of Ireland.”
It’s surely coincidence, but the telethon aired at precisely the right moment to make it compatible with the series’s continuity. A year ago, Ted took part in the Eurovision Song Contest, and pulled a death-defying stunt to prevent a plane crash. Three months ago, he prevented a Church scandal, received a Golden Cleric, and captured a burglar. This is just about the only point in the show’s narrative that Ted being invited to host Red Nose Day is remotely plausible.
While Red Nose Day is no slouch in the ratings, it’s not easily available for rewatching. Actual Ted episodes are ubiquitous on Irish television, making the telethon comparatively very obscure – it’s common for people who have seen the show a dozen times over to be quite surprised to discover another half-episode worth of material.
Ted and Dougal wear sparkly golden jackets, complete with gold stars on the fronts of their collars. Theses costumes were previously worn only in the brief end credits scene in “A Song for Europe”, and we can infer that they wore them while performing in the actual Eurovision Song Contest off-screen. The audience can’t be expected to recall this little moment, though, so the effect is less to evoke that particular failure than a vague sense of their earlier glamour.
Dermot Morgan may have been immortalised for a sitcom role, but he was a performer first and an actor second. He began his career playing satirical creations such as Father Trendy on shows like The Live Mike and Kenny Live, usually speaking directly to the camera, always visibly enjoying the audience’s attentions and reactions. There’s an alertness and immediacy about his work that carries over to his later stand-up comedy, his live radio series Scrap Saturday, and his occasional forays into novelty music. By all accounts, Morgan had a tremendous time working on Ted, but it’s clear that a tightly scripted traditional multi-camera sitcom was never going to be a perfect match for his sensibilities. He was much more at home between scenes, where he often joked around with the studio audience, keeping them amused until the next take was ready go. While recording, Morgan even flubbed lines or broke character deliberately; one outtake included in the “Small, Far Away” documentary has him shouting “I want you!” and jumping O’Hanlon during a bedroom scene, to uproarious laughter. (Before his death, he had already announced his intention to leave Ted behind in favour of other, self-written projects – the footballer flat-share sitcom Re-United and the religious sports comedy film Miracle of the Magyars. One imagines he might have found ways to satisfy his love for audience interaction on productions he controlled more fully.)
In the Comic Relief telethon, for the first time, we see Morgan-as-performer and Morgan-as-actor become one. He gets to interact with the audience the way he’s always liked to, while still playing Ted. Morgan quickly settles into this new role, becoming noticeably more relaxed once seated behind the newsdesk. O’Hanlon doesn’t have Morgan’s gift for public speaking and audience rapport – Morgan never managed to get him involved in the behind-the-scenes banter while recording the series – but the younger actor conducts himself capably here, never straying far from the Dougal we know.
Linehan and Mathews wrote the dialogue, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it just by watching – the live format exerts a kind of distorting gravity on the performances, and some jokes fail to land in a way that would be unthinkable in the show. When Dougal asks whether Comic Relief is “like Buckets for Christ”, Ted pauses for a moment, replies, “Well, I don’t know where you got Buckets for Christ from”, and moves on. Presumably Morgan just blanked on whatever the punchline was, but luckily the name alone is good enough to make it work. (It’s the telethon’s most quotable phrase, along with Ted’s brilliantly nonsensical references to his “shadow account” or “ghost account”.) Morgan slips into his native Dublin accent at points – it’s clear that he’s not fully in sitcom mode.
The best mistake is one made by the sound team. When Ted finally snaps and shouts at Dougal, they were supposed to cover his words with the sound of a bell tolling, but came in slightly too late. As a result, we can hear Ted quite quite clearly yelling “Why don’t you just fuck off!” A recurring joke in the show is that “fuck” is always bleeped, but here that’s subverted accidentally, at literally the most inappropriate moment conceivable. One wishes “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” had aired by this point – we might have gotten a “fuckin’ hell” or two from the crowd.
Dougal fondly mentions the comedic duo of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, specifically praising their appearance in the previous Red Nose Day telethon in 1995. It’s not a trivial reference – Vic and Bob’s pure, nonsensical comedy was a key reference point for Linehan and Mathews. At an early stage of Ted‘s development, they even thought of the show as “an Irish version of Vic and Bob”, though it soon evolved into something quite different. (Mathews always felt that they could have gone slightly madder and more surreal than they did – consider his later work with Matt Berry on the wildly weird Toast of London.) In an attempt to recreate the moment where Vic struck Bob on the head with a frying pan, Dougal hits Ted with an even larger one he finds under the desk. (There’s a rather strange moment where Morgan seems to have difficulty reading the cue card and ad-libs “It’s gone very dark in here”, all while struggling not to laugh along with the audience as he pretends not to know that the frying pan is coming.) As it turns out, this type of comedy doesn’t quite work in this reality, and Ted is knocked out cold and left with a broken nose.
Perhaps the writers saw the telethon as an excuse to experiment with different styles of comedy without disrupting the show itself. There are elements of full-fledged pantomime, such as the moment where the audience calls Ted out for repeatedly interrupting Dougal, though it’s hard to tell if this was planned or spontaneous. It’s remarkable how quickly this rapport develops, given that – aside from the man who keeps shouting “WE LOVE YOU” – not too many members of the audience actually knew who Ted and Dougal were. The show only became widely watched in Ireland during its second series. At this point, Morgan and O’Hanlon were far from recognisable faces in the UK. In all likelihood, some of the crowd thought they were watching actual priests, at least for a while – and they enjoyed it all the same.
Pauline McLynn and Frank Kelly are given token cameo appearances towards the end of the half-hour. The priests call Mrs Doyle their “secret weapon” – no prizes for guessing how she persuades the British public to donate. More surprising is that “The British Grenadiers” is played as she walks onto the stage (perhaps in a misguided attempt to capture her inherent conservatism). In what can only be described as a dubious premonition of a Russell T Davies finale, the echoes of her final “GO ON!” literally shake the foundations of the BBC Television Centre, the Houses of Parliament, and England itself. (Oddly, this idea of the Television Centre as the focal point of cosmic, Earth-shattering goings-on also has similarities to the first ever Doctor Who parody, a December 1963 episode of It’s a Small World in which the building is accidentally launched into space by a William Hartnell lookalike.) Jack’s moment is more subtly strange: after seeing himself projected on a massive screen, he shouts his own name like a question, tells the audience to feck off (recreating the first series’s closing moments on a grand scale), then zooms off in his wheelchair, screaming at some unknowable revelation.
When Ted first expresses his surprise at being chosen, Dougal theorises that God organised their involvement to give Ted an opportunity to atone for his sins. It’s a reference to the running joke about Ted stealing from a Lourdes charity – the act which landed him on Craggy Island in the first place, “until all of that money is accounted for”. Initially he resists Dougal’s idea, but then he reconsiders, deciding the younger priest might be on to something. Aside from being a cute hook to get people to contribute, it’s very apt that the struggle for Ted’s soul is played out on diegetic live television, since getting on television has always been his deepest desire. The telethon confronts Ted with his ultimate transgression at the moment of his greatest success, weaving them together with a story about seeking forgiveness from God himself (who is often implied to be a real entity in the world of the show). It unites and resolves everything central to Ted – there’s even a little link back to one of the first scenes even written, where Ted lay on the floor of Jack’s crypt, saying he might donate a few pounds to Comic Relief.
The money is raised. Ted is forgiven, liberated physically and spiritually, and the fourth wall is demolished into the bargain. It’s a shiningly optimistic epilogue for the show – so of course he has to go and screw it all up for himself.