To See Just How Far We’ve Come (Are You Right There Father Ted?)

are you rWhen families across Ireland tuned in to Channel 4 on 13 March, 1998, their anticipation for a new series of Father Ted was tainted with bleak reality. A mere thirteen days previously, Dermot Morgan had died following a heart attack in his London home.

It’s difficult to overstate the shock the 45-year-old comedian’s death had on the country – comparisons to the contemporaneous death of Princess Diana are common. Originally a teacher, Morgan had risen to fame in the 1980s (first with appearances on various Irish talk shows, then with his satirical radio show Scrap Saturday), but it was only with Ted that he became universally beloved. While shooting the second series, he’d receive scandalised looks from passersby who saw him kiss his partner while still dressed as a priest – on the third, he was more likely to have children excitedly follow him down the street. Morgan’s death could scarcely have come at a crueller moment – the final ever episode of Ted had finished recording only the previous day, and the entire third series’s broadcast schedule was shifted forward a week out of respect. The extra time meant that the shock had worn off by the time Ted returned to our screens, if not the sadness. Today the context is lost in a sea of unordered RTÉ repeats, but for the original viewers, the death cast a pall over the show which would last until the very end.

The cold open of “Are You Right There Father Ted?”, while nearly irrelevant to the episode’s plot, is a crucial piece of the show’s overarching story. We find Ted relaxing in a luxurious parochial house in Castlelawn, Dublin. He’s been transferred to the new parish off-screen, a natural consequence of the events in “A Christmassy Ted” and the Red Nose Day telethon, which essentially solved the fundamental problem of Ted’s dubious morality by granting him God’s forgiveness for his sins. Castlelawn’s idyllic nature is quickly established – good port, beautiful surroundings, and intelligent company are all name-checked. When Ted asks another priest to perform a Mass, he responds by offering to perform two – a direct inversion of Ted’s conversation with Jack at the beginning of the first series. There’s a sense of profound wrongness in what we’re witnessing, or rather, in the fact that we’re witnessing it – it’s Ted’s life after the show has ended, a world which cannot be depicted. After a minute of this otherworldly display, an inspector asks Ted about something he’s put down under “expenses”; old habits die hard. Next thing we know, he’s back on Craggy Island – it’s not done with him.

Returning, Ted finds his friends something of a shambles. Dougal, lonely, has attempted to replace Ted with a hamster (named Ronaldo, in the tradition of Sampras the rabbit), while Jack has developed intense agoraphobia (or should that be claustrophilia?) and now lives in a box. Mrs Doyle falls off the roof – twice – immediately after Ted arrives home, and can no longer clean the house. Even Ronaldo is having a hard time – he’s been confined to his running wheel since he crashed his bicycle. (Like the monstrous Father Bigley, the idea of a hamster riding a tiny bike was the sort of thing the writers felt they could establish through dialogue but never actually show.) Direct or indirect, there’s a clear sense that Ted’s departure threw everything into chaos.

The timing of Morgan’s death might suggest a conception of Ted as a show cut down in its prime, but Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews always intended to end the programme with the third series. The writers are happy with this last batch of eight episodes, which contains some of the show’s greatest moments, but they have expressed some misgivings – a sense that they were running out of ideas. Jack’s agoraphobia subplot is a clear symptom. Giving Frank Kelly very little to work with, it’s really just a contrived excuse to get the final scene where he steps out of the trunk wearing a Nazi uniform – exactly the sort of joke the writers would come to identify with sitcoms past their prime. The show just about gets away with it between Jack’s usual strangeness and the implication that perhaps Ted’s departure was simply wrong enough to destabilise him. (To his credit, Kelly still took his role very seriously – knowing that he had only moments to sell the episode’s outlandish jokes, he examined the props meticulously,  and expressed particular concerns about the believability of Jack’s hiding inside the clock.) Mrs Doyle fares a little better – the writers, still eager to make use of Pauline McLynn’s recently discovered skill for physical comedy, decided to have the character struggle with a bad back for most of the story.

Ted visits his friend, Father Fitzpatrick, to retrieve a copy of The Shining he lent him. (The priests’ choice of reading material is played for laughs, though the book’s content is never discussed – perhaps the joke is that they see the island as analogous to the remote Overlook Hotel, whose inhabitants are driven to murder by cabin fever.) At Fitzpatrick’s house, Ted stumbles across a collection of Nazi memorabilia; he feigns interest to avoid offending his host, and politely backs out of the room when he wakes the actual Nazi soldier whom Fitzpatrick is sheltering. Back at the Parochial House, Ted impersonates a Chinese man, only to find a Chinese family watching him through the window. Rumours of Ted’s racism permeate the island overnight. Ted invites the family over to apologise, but offends them further when they mistake an unfortunate patch of dirt on the window for an Adolf Hitler moustache. Dougal suggests that Ted redeem himself by organising a celebration of the island’s multiculturalism, and Ted leaps at the idea. (Ted actually takes Dougal’s ideas on board quite often, but this is the first time he ever acknowledges it or thanks the younger priest for his contributions. With this in mind, the exchange gives us a closer look at their symbiosis. Asked for more ideas, Dougal becomes flustered and runs off to sleep in the spare room – apparently this relationship can only function while Dougal believes himself the inferior intellect. Broken as they are, they really do need each other.) The event goes poorly, but Ted wins the Chinese over with free drink. He invites them back to the house, only to find that Fitzgerald has died and left him all his Nazi memorabilia, which Mrs Doyle promptly decorated the living room with.

Conceptually, the episode originated with an experience Linehan had in New York. He met a group of Irish people, thought they were quite nice, and heard the following morning that they’d been abusive towards a Chinese taxi driver. The writers decided that the Irish people’s attitude towards immigrants would make good subject-matter for one of the show’s more satirical episodes, allowing them to puncture the stereotype that the Irish are welcoming and tolerant and show that they’re really just as racist as everyone else.

Ireland’s economic boom in the mid-90s resulted in an unprecedented level of immigration to the country. The population’s racial, religious, and cultural make-up rapidly became far more diverse than many citizens (particularly the older ones) would ever have deemed possible. Some reacted better than others. In this episode, Ted’s everyman nature is brought to the fore – standing in for every Irish person of the day, he must quickly learn to accept and respect the newcomers in his world.

Nazism was something that the writers had wanted to tackle in Ted for a very long time. Indeed, it was included in the script for Irish Lives, the proposed mock documentary which eventually evolved into the show. That script followed Ted as he returned to the seminary to see how his colleagues were doing; one scene, where Ted visits Father Jack without noticing that he has just died, was later incorporated into “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”. Presumably Fitzpatrick and his Nazi lair formed the focus of another scene.

The image of the elderly Nazi hidden away in the priest’s house gestures towards the Catholic Church’s complicity with the Third Reich, but it’s not a sharp indictment – only viewers who know their history will pick up on the subtext. In a later scene, the bickering duo accidentally poison themselves because the Nazi left the cyanide next to the Valium. A rare scene without any of the main cast, it feels like a glimpse into some kind of Odd Couple-style spin-off – that is, until it devolves into a blackly comical recreation of the Nazi suicides at the end of World War II. Ted’s failure to hold Fitzpatrick accountable for his actions does contribute to the trap in which he finds himself by episode’s end, but it’s clear that the knives aren’t out this time. (Unlike most great one-liners in the show, “Funny how you get more right-wing as you get older” was not written by Linehan or Mathews – it was something Paul Woodful said while he and Mathews watched one of Hitler’s speeches, and a rare example of Ted material not by the duo.)

Since they both dealt with racism, the old Nazi idea was dusted off and grafted onto the new Chinese concept as a subplot. The resulting episode feels a little strange, as the Chinese historically were not victimised by the Nazis – indeed, Hitler held the Chinese and Japanese peoples in high regard. At multiple points, the episode has its Chinese characters feel horrified at the priests’ apparent Nazi sympathies, but that horror is entirely unrelated to their own race. Not that it needs to be – it’s just striking, once you’ve thought about it, that they’re not Jews. But that would have made it all too real.

To its credit, the episode takes a nuanced view on racial hatred. When Ted steps outside the morning after making his impression, he’s greeted by the genial farmer Colm, who remarks that he’s heard Ted is a racist and inquires whether the parishioners should follow suit. Next old Mrs Carberry joins the conversation, waving her bags furiously while ranting about the Greeks and how they “invented gayness” (casually expanding the episode’s dialogue to other forms of hatred). Since Ted remains at the front door and the two islanders appear at different sides of the front field, the conversation is stretched across a huge triangle of ground – a deceptively simple detail that forces all the characters to shout while frames in long shots, amplifying the insanity to a remarkable degree. When Ted storms off, denying all charges, Colm ambles over to Mrs Carberry and begins to chat. “How’s Mary?” “Oh, she’s fine. She got that job after.” “Great!” The point is that racism and hatred are not always monstrous and obvious – they can also be subtle and mundane, prejudices festering in the hearts of otherwise decent people. It’s one of the programme’s sharpest moments. (My little sister, about 10 or 11 at the time, theorised that the Mary who got the job is Mary O’Leary of John and Mary fame, and that Mrs Carberry is her mother. While a reasonable possibility, this rather misses the point.)

The fact that the episode focuses on a broad, secular social issue can be taken as a sign that not much comedic material remained to be mined from Irish Catholicism specifically. The idea of a presentation on local multiculturalism is actually quite priestly, and would have fit well in one of the show’s earlier, more grounded episodes, but it’s really the last gasp of that approach – a transitional moment. From here on, the third series will grow increasingly surreal and cartoonish. Continuous repeats have masked the changes in our collective memories, softening the show’s chronology into an amorphous blur, but watching in order, the evolution is easy to follow.

However, the episode does introduce a peculiar contradiction regarding the islanders’ attitudes towards the Church. In previous episodes, such as “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, they had no qualms about going to see the blasphemous film as Ted and Dougal protested against it. But here they seem quite keen to join in with Ted’s racism. (Indeed, the only native who seems to have a problem with it doesn’t even appear on-screen – it’s the egg-thrower voiced by Arthur Mathews.) They’re not thinking individuals with interiority and minds of their own – they’re an ontological force, obstacles in human form, with flexible beliefs and interests that change to whatever happens to be least convenient for Ted at a given moment. Sometimes it seems he’s the axis about which their lives revolve – fittingly, the Parochial House address, as seen on the delivery man’s box, is “1 Craggy Island”. In other words, they’re part of his punishment.

As recommended by producer Geoffrey Perkins, most Ted episodes are structured around two or three memorable moments, with a web of conversations and scheming padding them out to the usual 24 minutes. The first big moment which came to the writers was the Chinese family witnessing Ted’s racist impression through the window. The second idea emerged straight from the first: the family mistaking the piece of dirt on the same window for Hitler moustache on Ted’s face. It’s a touch repetitive, with the curious effect that it strengthens the sense of the Chinese as outsiders looking in, both literally and figuratively. We’re told that there’s an entire Chinatown area on Craggy Island, but it’s never mentioned outside this episode – we’ve never seen its inhabitants before, and never will again. They feel genuinely external – completely separate from the madness of the island. The two groups’ perception of one another is warped by this barrier, this marred window on each other’s worlds, and they have much to overcome if they’re to find a way to live in peace.

To record the second window scene, Morgan had to be a fitted with an uncomfortable brace that held his body rigid so that the piece of dirt would remain in exactly the right position to resemble a moustache. When the Chinese turn away and Ted starts to rant indignantly, his expressions and body language are uncannily accurate – it turned out that Morgan had memorised part of one of Hitler’s speeches, and was able to shout it in authentic German.

Since the set used for the Parochial House living room is completely different from the living room of the real house used for exterior shots, the writers avoided creating scenes where the audience needs a good look at the inside from the outside or vice versa. For the sake of the Hitler joke, they had to break this rule. To achieve this, a copy of the room’s green wallpaper was placed behind Morgan. The backdrop is too close, too brightly lit, and has a solitary portrait of the Virgin Mary rather than a fireplace flanked with two doors. Despite all the inaccuracies, the audience isn’t distracted for a moment – the visual joke is strong enough to divert all their attention from the trick’s simplicity. We don’t even notice that the shot is unlike any other. (This seems like a good moment to highlight the sheer loveliness of the show’s matte painting, an ambiguous green-grey swirl of sky and hill that makes the window in the front room seem like a portal to some watercolour otherworld. As Linehan remarks in one commentary, unconvincing backdrops are distracting and aesthetically unpleasant in – say – a city-set sitcom, but can make for a subtly enchanting addition to the mise en scène of a show set in a slightly more fantastical world.)

Most Ted episodes sketch out their unique environments with an odd background priest or two, but this one had the challenge of creating an entire community from scratch. This was achieved in large part by knocking on the doors of every Chinese restaurant in the vicinity of Kilfenora and offering roles to the staff. There are also a couple of inconsequential characters who, in true Ted fashion, have become famous beyond all proportion to their screen time. The iconic Maori seen frowning for a moment at Ted’s racial ignorance is actually a local swimming instructor whom the production team grabbed and covered in make-up, while the barman who deadpans the immortal “I’m sorry, the bar is closed” is Michael Leahy, allegedly the real barman in Vaughan’s, where the sequence was recorded.

There are also some remarkable faces in the secondary cast. The old Nazi is portrayed by one of the show’s most prestigious and prolific actors, Vernon Dobtchev, who previously played a butler in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a henchman in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and, best of all, the scientist in the Doctor Who serial The War Games who first speaks the words “Time Lords” in the show.

In reality, Ozzie Yue, the actor who plays Sean Yin (the Chinese father), has a pronounced Liverpool accent. Ironically enough for a story about racism, Linehan asked Yue to suppress his native accent in favour of a Chinese one, feeling that the idea of Ted contending with a Chinese Liverpudlian would distract audiences and muddy the story or humour. It’s a pity, as the extra touch of multiculturalism would have lent itself well to the central message. (Kelly would later star in the other notable take on Sino–Irish immigration, Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom, a short film commonly shown in Irish classrooms.)

Ted’s presentation resolves the story, but it’s not really a coherent way to deal with the episode’s issues, functioning instead as a literal slideshow of unrelated jokes centring on a theme. Ted discusses random images of the Great Wall of China, Ming the Merciless, and a black man whom he once got on well with (perhaps Mehwengwe from Addis Ababa, whose parents have satellite). The audience has too much fun to care. That this sequence works as well as it does is thanks largely to Morgan’s effortless knack with the audience – ever the performer and public speaker, he’s visibly delighted to be on-stage with a microphone.

Ronaldo is portrayed by a real hamster for much of the episode, but in “action” shots (such as the one where Dougal grabs him in annoyance), it’s replaced by an obvious prop. The show is far from obsessed with realism, its unabashed matte paintings being part of its charm, but the notion of outright making fun of your own dodgy special effects feels like something from a different comedy tradition entirely – Buffy the Vampire Slayer perhaps, or a particularly savvy Doctor Who episode. The writers claim they wanted to replicate the Fawlty Towers episode “Basil the Rat”, whose creature effects they found hilariously unconvincing. The moment the Chinese find Ted’s living room decorated in Nazi memorabilia, the fake Ronaldo rolls out of the room on his tiny bicycle, aided by an all-too-visible wire. Turns out it’s not Fawlty Towers after all – it’s The Young Ones. It’s practically a mission statement for this last stretch of Ted episodes: this is the series that will show the hamster on the bike. It’s a wonder Father Bigley didn’t walk in.

Uniquely, there’s no credits or post-credits scene. Despite the excellent traditional Chinese rendition of the theme, the unadorned blackness feels almost funereal. The episode is a promising start for the third series – a competent continuation of the original format that also showcases a new style with its own advantages. The end looms on the horizon, but we know we’re in good hands.

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