The title of the episode, in a curious way, says it all. The moment it faded into view, one of us would usually suggest fast-forwarding the video to the next one, and probably wouldn’t hear any objections. Slow to start and centred on a thin comedic concept, “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” is the weakest link in a very strong chain.
Ted bets the Parochial House’s heating budget on Chris, a reliable participant in the island’s annual King of the Sheep competition. When rumours of a sheep-menacing Beast drive Chris to a nervous breakdown, Ted offers to take the sheep from his owner, Fargo Boyle, and nurse him to health. Chris recovers, but a series of clues lead Ted to realise that Fargo himself started the rumours to frighten Chris, lengthening his odds before staging a recovery to increase his winnings. It’s only after exposing the fraud that Ted remembers his bet.
To be clear, it’s not a bad episode. There aren’t any – the show never had a chance to deteriorate significantly. But the third series was written after much of the humour in the premise had already been mined. An evolution was required, and it arrived in the form of a new tone – a sillier, more frivolous, more surreal approach, resulting in both the best and the worst Ted has to offer. “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” lies on the latter end of the spectrum. Qualities foundational to the show are ever so slightly imbalanced – it’s a little too stupid, a little too strange, and just not quite as funny or enjoyable to watch as it should be.
Many Ted episodes have titles which put a clever spin on their subject-matter – not so here, as the entire script seems almost to have evolved from a weak pun on Middle of the Road’s 1971 single “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”. Not only did the writers make this baffling selection of pop-culture touchstone, they attempted to justify it by adding several tedious scenes where Chris burps and/or has his burping discussed by other characters. (Apparently, earlier drafts even featured references to how “cheap” Chris was – whether his “chirpiness” was ever on the table thankfully remains unknown.)
The episode’s saving grace lies in the various characters’ fearful descriptions of the Beast’s rumoured appearance and behaviour: “He doesn’t have any eyebrows at all, except on Saturdays”… “Mrs Doyle was telling me that it’s got magnets on its tail, so as if you’re made of metal, it can attach itself to you”… “They think it might be… a kind of giant fox!” Best of all is Ardal O’Hanlon’s ad-lib, “And instead of a mouth, it’s got four arses!” The scripted line, “two faces”, wouldn’t have made much of an impression, but O’Hanlon’s imaginative revision required a break in recording because the studio audience couldn’t stop laughing, and gave fan artists a conundrum for the ages. (Indeed, audience laughter was something of an issue on this episode – for some reason they kept mistaking innocuous lines for “sheep-shagger” jokes.)
When speculating on the Beast’s identity, Dougal suggests Father Jack as a possibility. Ted rejects the theory on the grounds that Jack attains perfect harmony with nature at the changing of the seasons during leap years. This is peculiar, as the episode is explicitly set in autumn 1998, about as far from a leap year as you can get. That said, the sight of an arcadian Jack frolicking with puppies and giving sweets to children is a welcome diversion. A capricious nymph subject to the natural world’s whims is a very clever reimagining of Jack, and it’s hard to disagree when Ted wishes it’d last longer. Mrs Doyle also could have benefited from some colourful digressions, but her only notable moment is the utterly perplexing bit where she makes a squelching noise by dragging her feet. Arthur Mathews says the joke is that she’s always sounded like that, and the priests have only noticed it now because they confused it with Dougal’s record, but it’s really not clear, and Jack vomiting in another part of the room seconds earlier is distractingly unrelated.
Jack’s tumble down the stairs, knocking out every baluster on the way, is a direct recreation of Rik Mayall’s fall in the Young Ones episode “Cash”. That show is easily the most surreal and anarchic ingredient in Ted‘s make-up, so it’s not surprising that the clearest reference to it should occur in the third series, the closest to it in spirit. The moment where Ted and Dougal compare copies of The Weather News and read “Warm Winter Ahead” and “Cold Winter Ahead” is the last hurrah of silly headlines, that Ted stalwart. (It’s a slight pity they missed a joke by underlining both “Warm” and “Cold” rather than just the latter.)
Traditional sitcoms are heavily episodic in structure, with little to no overarching narrative across a given series. Consequently, broadcast order is rather flexible, and is often shuffled about during each series’s post-production phase. Whichever episodes turn out strongest are often aired first to catch and retain the audience’s interest, while weaker episodes are buried in the second half of the schedule (though it’s also important to end each series on a high note, too). The status of “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” as the third series’s second episode is puzzling, as the following episode, “Speed 3”, is simply a much better piece of television. The broadcast order also tempts fate by airing two episodes guest starring Eamon Rohan, in two different roles, one right after the other. In last week’s “Are You Right There Father Ted?” he played Colm, the farmer who heard Ted was a racist, while in “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” he plays Alan, the judge of the King of the Sheep competition. The show just about gets away with it – Colm, clean-shaven with hat and thick-framed glasses, was kept in the middle distance, while Alan has a moustache and is seen in close-up. Viewers virtually never notice that it’s the same actor, but Rohan’s high, meandering delivery becomes quite obvious once pointed out. Perhaps the characters are twins, but split personalities are always a fun explanation for Craggy Island doppelgängers.
There’s always been an element of animal-centric humour in Ted, and this is something we can safely attribute to Mathews. In one of his childhood anecdotes, Mathews is watching a Prince concert on television with his uncle, an elderly priest, who considers the singer and remarks, “What would be going through his head at all?” According to Graham Linehan, Mathews still asks the same question when he sees a sheep. This fascination with the unimaginable gulf between one’s own consciousness and that of the Other, a curiosity seemingly inherited from his uncle, animates much of Mathews’s work. It’s likely that he wrote the scene where Ted attempts to explain the difference between small cows and far-away ones, while Dougal’s “How about… a lovely horse?” could very well be something Mathews actually said aloud while he and Linehan were brainstorming “A Song for Europe”. Even his favourite episode, “Entertaining Father Stone”, focuses on a character so uncommunicative and incomprehensible that he might as well be an animal.
All of these are successful, memorable scenes and storylines, with this episode’s conceit that priests and sheep share a natural connection being just about the most perfectly Mathews idea imaginable. So why doesn’t the tale of Chris the Sheep quite manage to work? (Priscilla certainly isn’t at fault, breaking gender boundaries with a tour-de-force performance, though she must have been nervous about the other sheep kept on-set in case she died.) In part, it’s a question of balance. You can make a few jokes about an animal (or the idea of an animal), but this gets difficult when you try to structure an entire comedic storyline around one. It’s fun when Fargo’s minions, Giant and Hud, try to spook Chris by discussing the Beast in front of him, but their words echoing in Chris’s mind as he stands alone in his pen that night is just a bit much to place on a non-human performer (not to mention that the three farmers’ all being named after “films about the outdoors” has to be the most tenuous in-joke in Ted history). The episode continues in this vein with the story of Chris’s ongoing nervous troubles and struggle for recovery; while there are plenty of good jokes – who can complain about seeing Chris suspended like a Damien Hirst sculpture at Lonesome Float Ltd, Craggy Island’s premiere isolation tank centre? – it’s all just too nonsensical to make for entirely satisfying viewing. There’s no clear contrast between the human characters and Chris, so the humour inherent in the gulf between their minds is diluted.
Compounding this, the stakes and goals are almost too weird to even understand. Every character is able to tell Chris’s emotional and psychological state at a glance, and while this would make for a good joke if it were a brief interlude (such as the occasional scene where everyone but us can somehow understand the Monkey Priest’s dialogue), here it’s stretched to become the basis of the entire episode. It spins further out of control with rampant silliness like the events in the living room synchronising with Dougal’s BBC Sound Effects Volume 4 record, or the priests climbing into cardboard boxes in an actual attempt to hibernate for the winter. Many of these things are simply symptoms of the tone adopted for the third series, but “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep” marks the point where the show strays furthest from its roots. The audience simply lose sight of the characters.
The location scenes in the third series were directed by Linehan. It was his first directing credit, and while sitcoms rarely demand more than straightforward and journeymanlike direction, there are naïve moments where Linehan’s inexperience shows. The scene where Ted and Dougal run into the night to find Chris is the clearest example – every shot is heavily canted and taken from a very low angle. After the priests discover that the Beast’s howling is actually coming from a stereo system hanging in a tree, this pays off with a half-baked visual joke where the camera rotates back to a normal position as Ted turns the volume dial down. It’s hard to complain about Linehan’s youthful fervour, though – it’s so rare for the direction in Ted to be anything but invisibly effective that this scene becomes strangely refreshing.
The Beast concept evolved from an abandoned script titled “The Beast of Craggy Island”. In that lost story, Ted and Dougal take a tour of Craggy Island in an open-roof double-decker bus, and find themselves trapped in the freezing rain because a Pekingese dog on the stairs keeps barking at them. Unable to think of a satisfying ending, the writers set the script aside, but its title (though ironic in its original context) lingered in their minds. It’s not difficult to see why – even disregarding the story itself, “The Beast of Craggy Island” conjures a host of entertaining possibilities. (This isn’t the only unfinished script Linehan and Mathews have mentioned – they also wrote part of a Rear Window parody where Ted, injured and laid up in the bedroom, thinks he sees a murder and sends Dougal to investigate. An episode tentatively titled “Double Trouble”, where Jack’s sophisticated identical twin brother visits the island, was considered but dismissed as too clichéd – sorry, Frank Kelly.)
At some point, it was decided to develop the “Beast” idea into a pastiche of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. In that story, the Hound is a legendary being, a huge demonic canine believed to have plagued the high-born Baskerville family since their notorious 17th-century ancestor, Hugo Baskerville, made a Faustian pact while attempting to recapture a girl he had abducted; Hugo’s men found the girl and their master dead in a hollow, the Hound mauling his body, and fled. (Arthur Conan Doyle appropriated many of these details from macabre legends surrounding the historic Devon squire Richard Cabell.) When Hugo’s descendant Charles is found dead, his face frozen in terror, with a great hound’s footprints nearby, Holmes takes the case. Eventually it emerges that gentleman thief and Baskerville descendant Jack Stapleton is eliminating his relatives to gain control of the family inheritance; turning the family legend to his advantage, he’s procured a large dog, given it a spectral appearance with a coat of phosphorus, and attacked his uncle Charles with it to induce a fatal heart attack. When Stapleton attempts to kill his cousin, Holmes and Watson take him by surprise, shooting the dog dead; Stapleton flees into the marsh, loses his footing, and drowns.
Ted and Dougal ostensibly take the roles of Holmes and Watson, at least in so far as they form a detective-and-sidekick duo – the characters aren’t invoked in any meaningful way. Fargo corresponds to Stapleton, though the theme of cursed heritage is excised – rather than using a facsimile of a legendary Hound to murder relatives for their inheritance, Fargo creates an illusory Beast to terrorise his own sheep as part of a scam.
All said, the parallels are pretty thin – one regret expressed by the writers is that they didn’t make more of an effort to parody various detective fiction. Ted’s exposing the scheme in the tent before the new King of the Sheep can be announced works as a loose parody of the big confrontations found at the end of Poirot stories, but that’s about it. (The absence of a Columbo joke, once Linehan points it out, is almost palpable.)
On an unconscious level, the confrontation scene also registers as a sort of courtroom drama, complete with judge and audience. Ted is the prosecutor. Giant and Hud stand with their hands on a rail, subtly reinforcing the sense that they’re on trial (a little detail reused from Bishop Brennan’s last scene in “The Passion of Saint Tibulus”, where Ted and Dougal themselves were the defendants, the dynamic here reversed). Ted’s final breakdown, once Dougal reminds him about the bet he placed on the sheep his detective skills have just disqualified, is a version of Basil Fawlty’s manoeuvre at the end of “The Psychiatrist” – it’s not quite as funny as John Cleese’s frog-like manoeuvre, but it’s given a remarkable autumnal beauty by Linehan’s decision to film it in silhouette against the sunset, marking the changing of the seasons. (This is also another example of Dougal’s quiet intelligence – one sometimes wonders if, like the deadpan Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, he just might be stringing everyone along.)
The audience in the tent are a class of people we’ve never really seen before – the Craggy Island intelligentsia, well-dressed and blank-faced, as docile and easily spooked as sheep themselves. They murmur in surprise at four moments: when Ted shouts for the competition to be halted, when he declares it a sham, when he accuses Giant and Hud of complicity, and when he names Fargo the villain. Each murmur sounds exactly the same. The third and fourth murmurs are accompanied by an unseen audience member (actually Linehan) bluntly shouting “Fuckin’ hell!”, with precisely the same timing and intonation in both instances. This is the only time the show breaks its unspoken rule against using the word “fuck”. Usually replaced by the Irish euphemism “feck” (now synonymous with Ted), “fuck” is alluded to as “the bad F-word”, and simply bleeped out on the other occasions where it appears diegetically. The joke here is deceptively complex, first suggesting that the intelligentsia are so decadent and stagnant that their emotional response is as predictable as a sound effects record, then layering in the detail that corruption in the King of the Sheep competition is so shocking to them that the show’s own censorship filter fails to suppress their horrified exclamations – twice. This doesn’t all register for the viewer at once, but becomes funnier the more one thinks about it – it’s no wonder “Fuckin’ hell!” is the most-quoted line in the episode.
As Ted lists the clues that helped him solve the mystery, we’re presented with a montage of flashbacks to the relevant moments. For no particular reason, this is executed with reference to the video for Beck’s 1996 single “Devils Haircut”. Directed by Mark Romanek, the video freezes and zooms in on Beck’s face at the end of several verses; however, the Ted scene is clearly an attempt to recreate the last 20-odd seconds of the video, where it rapidly and repeatedly zooms in on a pair of shadowy figures in the background who seem to be stalking the singer as he walks through New York City. The overall effect is rather more impressive in the Beck version – zooming in on film stock is like poring over old photographs, but zooming in on a frame of 576i videotape is closer to applying an intense Gaussian blur.
There also seems to be an element of unreliable narration in play here, as the flashbacks differ significantly from their counterparts in the episode we’ve just seen – Fargo didn’t actually slip Giant and Hud a stack of notes the moment he met them at the weigh-in, he didn’t actually scurry from the shop like a pantomime villain with the new BBC Sound Effects Volume 5 clearly visible under his arm, and Giant didn’t actually have a £1000 price tag on his new fur coat. Presumably the two henchmen weren’t actually holding a “BEAST KILL CHRIS?” sign in front of the sheep’s pen, either.
Oddly, the flashback to the pub scene where Ted saw Hud wearing a crown (an image lifted from the video for Saint Etienne’s 1993 single “Who Do You Think You Are”) has Ted in the frame, laughing along with Hud and his girlfriends at an unseen joke – perhaps an interaction was edited out? Another oddity is that the scene was clearly recorded in the same pub used for Todd Unctuous’s backstory in the Christmas special, even though Unctuous said that he’d been somewhere called Selridge.
On a strangely touching note, this episode quietly marks the final appearance of John and Mary O’Leary, the island’s hateful shopkeeper couple. In the first series, we saw them three times across six episodes – rather a lot for two characters essentially based around a single joke. The second series reduced this to two appearances across ten episodes, with “Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading” going so far as to send them on an indefinite holiday to Rome. The writers could well have left it at that, but decided to wheel the characters out one last time for the third series. (In its previous appearances, John and Mary’s shop stood alone on a stretch of rock, but this time it’s located on a street, surrounded by other buildings, and seems to have a larger interior. The differences aren’t mentioned in the episode, so it’s not clear if we’re meant to overlook them or assume that the couple have moved.) John locks Mary in the cupboard before the priests arrive, and she smashes through the door to punch him after they leave. It’s the last we ever see of them – John and Mary, Ted’s great concession to satire, still locked in their perpetual cycle of institutionally maintained misery. If hell is other people, then so is purgatory.
But there’s still something left – an important piece of the puzzle that everyone has overlooked. In the final scene, we learn that Fargo conjured the Beast of Craggy Island from the BBC’s archives; that its terrible howling is really “Terrible Monster Type A” from BBC Sound Effects Volume 5. But if that’s the truth – if that’s really all the Beast is – then why do we hear the exact same sound earlier on, before Fargo buys the record? This is the episode’s final secret: not only is the Beast a Doctor Who monster, it’s a real one.