This is the big one. The hit single. The consensus best episode. The one we point towards as explanation when our non-Irish friends are confused by our oddly specific pool of references. The one whose cast and crew TheJournal.ie contacted with questions so that they could run an article specifically about it to mark the twentieth anniversary of the show. For many of us Ted devotees, it’s just about the most perfect 24 minutes of comedy we’re likely to see. So what’s its secret?
Well, the essential appeal isn’t difficult to figure out. This is the most aggressively high-concept episode they ever made – it’s Speed on Craggy Island. After spotting some suspiciously hairy babies at the local baby competition (all off-screen – ridiculous competitions are such a Ted staple that they can just be backdrops now), Ted deduces that womanising milkman Pat Mustard is responsible. The priests stake out some nearby housewives, photograph Mustard’s dalliances, and successfully get him fired. Dougal offers to step in as replacement milkman, only for mean Mr Mustard to rig the milk float with a bomb that will explode if its speed falls below four miles per hour. With Dougal’s life on the line, Ted calls in the help of the Barren Island priests, but their idea of saying Mass fails to resolve the problem. Finally, Ted realises they can just put a brick on the accelerator; Dougal escapes and the milk float hits the phone box Mustard is using, blowing him up.
The episode consists of numerous tightly interwoven storylines, and is probably the best showcase for the third series’s acknowledged debt to Seinfeld, a show known for its effortless darting between numerous overlapping plots. Mustard’s firing around the midway point jolts the story from a romantic comedy to an action movie parody, but the milkman remains an insidious presence on the edges of the narrative, calling the Parochial House from an isolated phone box and offering a running commentary throughout the day (never realising that Ted has left the receiver). Rather than simply ending, Mrs Doyle’s girlish crush becomes something alternately surreptitious and melancholy as she pockets a lewd photograph and builds a shrine to Mustard’s spanner.
Particular care is given to the brick which ultimately saves the day – it practically has a parallel story of its own. It’s placed on the floor by Mrs Doyle as a fad decoration/paper clip holder, trips up Ted, gets adopted by Jack as a pet (!), trips up Ted again as Jack “takes it for a walk”, gets thrown off Ted’s head when Jack suddenly grows tired of it (perhaps the seasons are changing again?), gets put on the accelerator, and finally, in the post-credits scene, falls from the sky and knocks Ted out again. Even the blackboard used for the brainstorming session is set up early on, though its arbitrary presence in the living room is never explained. Indeed, the episode is quite content to balance its intricate plotting with brazen illogic. The sequence where a triangle of cardboard boxes threatens to slow down the milk float heaps contrivance upon contrivance (why doesn’t Dougal just steer around it! why is Ted stopping to rebuild the triangle!) until, bolstered by Neil Hannon’s expert “David Arnold meets Countdown” musical accompaniment, it achieves a kind of comic transcendence. There’s a real mastery of the form at work here – with nothing left to prove, the show can simply focus on being precisely as fun as it wants to be at any given moment, a yin and yang of stringency and abandon.
The one duff note might be Ted’s walking around the house covered in milky white vomit – first implied to be the babies’, then revealed to be Dougal’s. Which makes for a fine opening joke, except Ted proceeds to go three scenes across six minutes without cleaning himself up, by which point he just seems like a bit of a weirdo. But really, that’s just nitpicking – this is an incredible piece of television. One has to wonder why it wasn’t given a more prominent place in the broadcast schedule, even if there is something oddly pleasing about the third episode of the third series being called “Speed 3”.
Speed is a 1994 film starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as a cop and a passenger stuck on a bus fitted with a bomb rigged to explode if the vehicle’s speed drops below 50 miles per hour. It was heavily rewritten by an uncredited Joss Whedon, and is generally regarded as a rather good action film. The sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control, revolves around a similar scenario, except with a boat instead of a bus; Reeves wisely chose not to star. Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews had not seen the film, but found the idea of the boat setting tremendously funny. They set out to make “a sequel worse than Speed 2“, and gave it the gloriously blunt title “Speed 3”. Along with the absence of any reference to the Speed films in the dialogue, this naming choice creates a disorienting sense that Ted shares a reality with the films, and will cause all manner of confusion if the proposed third innstallment ever comes to be – when Reeves mentioned in 2014 that he’d like to make another, it resulted in a flurry of headlines likely to amuse Irish readers.
A possible inspiration for the reference itself is the Simpsons episode “The Springfield Files”, which aired in 1997, not long before Linehan and Mathews commenced work on the third series. (Linehan has said that he’d have loved to write a Simpsons episode in the 90s, and has even described Ted as a live-action version of The Simpsons. While this is clearly an exaggeration, his essential point is clear in cartoonish jokes like the cut to the Inuit man at the North Pole hearing the milk float explode. And, as has been said of many classic Simpsons jokes, lines such as Mustard’s “My last girlfriend… she died from exhaustion” are cleverly pitched at one level for young viewers and another for adults.) The episode begins with Homer looping old surveillance footage at work so that he and his friends can go drinking early; this plan is lifted from Speed, where the heroes use a similar technique to smuggle the passengers off the bus without the terrorist noticing. In Homer’s own words: “I saw this in a movie about a bus that had to speed around the city, keeping its speed over fifty. And if its speed dropped, it would explode. I think it was called… The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down.” The absence of any diegetic mention of Speed within “Speed 3” echoes this joke, and the priests’ attempts to rescue Dougal by borrowing the plots of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure seem permeated by Homeric logic. The Milk Float That Couldn’t Slow Down would have been a good alternative title.
Mustard owes a debt to a long line of philandering milkmen in British comedy. Mathews has cited Dick Emery’s sketch “The Milkman” (with its substitute milkman and corrupt priests), Timothy Lea’s Confessions… film series (though he didn’t actually get round to adapting his Confessions of a Milkman novel), and Benny Hill’s song (and video) “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)” as possible influences, highlighting the latter as inspiring Mustard’s innuendos (which are rather risqué for Ted). To fully understand Mustard, it’s also helpful to have some familiarity with the works of Roddy Doyle. One of the more popular Irish writers of the 20th century, Doyle was widely read in the country at the time of the show’s production. He would have been one of the major touchstones in Irish comic fiction with which Linehan and Mathews could reasonably have assumed the audience’s familiarity, even though his depiction of domestic life in working-class Ireland is far from the cloistered fields of Craggy Island. (That said, his stuff is actually quite close to what Linehan later attempted with The Walshes, a show cut short before it could find its footing.) In terms of Ted, the most relevant Doyle text is the Barrytown Trilogy, a series of novels following the trials and tribulations of a Dublin family. Each has been adapted to film: The Commitments (1991) became a staple of “top ten Irish films” lists, The Snapper (1993) a much-loved television film, and The Van (1996) a little-seen but generally well-liked addendum. For legal reasons, the family’s surname was changed from Rabbitte to Curley and then Reeves in the sequels, with Colm Meaney (as the family’s father) being the only consistent cast member. Strangely, no wars have been waged over Barrytown canonicity.
Dougal is a Roddy Doyle fan, suggesting that the blasphemous Passion of Saint Tibulus “could be another Commitments”. In “Hell”, Dougal’s Doyle addiction resurfaces and he begins to curse colourfully, leading to Ted’s beautifully ironic admonishment: “But remember, they’re just stories. Normal people like us don’t use that language. This is the real world.” (In “And God Created Woman”, Ted places a copy of Doyle’s The Commitments on the table along with other literature he hopes will impress Polly Clarke; in an earlier edit, he reconsidered and tossed the book in the bin, but Linehan, a fan of Doyle’s other work, decided this might be seen as disrespectful.) Ted sees Doyle’s fiction as a frivolous distraction; of course, he’s just oblivious to the fact that the snatches of peace in his own quotidian life are just fleeting bubbles within a coarse, vibrant, entirely Doylean universe.
In “Speed 3”, Roddy Doyle is back with a vengeance. In many ways, the episode is less a sequel to Speed than a sequel to The Snapper. In that film, the family’s young daughter Sharon becomes pregnant, with the first half hour of the film playing out something like a whodunit. Or rather, that’s how it worked in 1993. For a post-Ted audience, however, the film’s efforts to be ambiguous about the father’s identity fall hilariously flat the moment we see Georgie Burgess, who’s played by Pat Laffan – our very own Pat Mustard.
It’s worth noting the unusual degree to which the boundary between actor and character is elided when it comes to Father Ted. Similar effects occur with any show enormously popular within a given culture, but in Ted’s case this seems amplified. Perhaps it’s a result of the same wild cross-generational appeal that ensures Dougal is known to every five-year-old in the country and can also be used as a point of reference in an Irish Times headline. For enormous swathes of the population, Frank Kelly simply is Father Jack; no distinction is possible. The effect increases as we descend the ladder of notability; when it comes to guest stars, audience members are especially likely to simply equate them with their Ted roles. Laffan is unusual in that he has not one, but two iconic characters: Georgie Burgess and Pat Mustard.
That is, to the extent that you can actually consider them different roles – you’d certainly be hard-pressed to disentangle them in the Irish consciousness. Viewed as Mustard’s origin story, the film comes into sharper focus. Its relative social realism may not be Ted territory, but we can see the seeds of Mustard in Laffan’s performance – we witness his initial moment of temptation; the dissolution of his marriage; his growing bravado and deceptiveness; the birth of the first (albeit slightly) hairy baby. Mustard is essentially the very same Doyle character, warped and exaggerated by the heightened reality of Craggy Island; a Roddy Doyle story collided with a Ted episode. Incidentally, Mary O’Leary’s actress, Rynagh O’Grady, also appears in the film as a neighbour named Mrs O’Leary – for all the show’s references to Roddy Doyle as an author, the idea of a Barrytown Trilogy/Father Ted shared cinematic universe is looking oddly defensible. (Meanwhile, John O’Leary’s actor, Patrick Drury, brings a slightly different resonance to the show with his walk-on part as a courier in I, Claudius.)
Linehan and Mathews were aware of Laffan, having previously seen him for Father Fintan Stack, but Mustard was not written with Laffan in mind; Brendan O’Carroll of Mrs Brown’s Boys was another contender for the role. Still, it’s Laffan’s performance in The Snapper that ultimately got him cast – a mutual friend suggested Laffan to the writers when Mustard’s character on the page reminded him of Burgess.
The major villains of Ted are nearly all members of the Church – Ted and Dougal go head-to-head with corrupt priests, bishops, and nuns on a weekly basis. Mustard, on the other hand, is a starkly irreligious figure; an adulterous lech whose few engagements with Catholicism are smug and dismissive. Other villains embody religious concepts like fanaticism or religious authoritarianism, but Mustard is different. His raw sensuality is an affront to the very structure of Ted’s life, a reminder of every mistake he’s made, everything he’s given up. This is Mustard’s real power: unlike anyone else, he can make Ted jealous.
Until he finds out about the bomb, that is. Ted’s confused insecurity over Mrs Doyle’s crush could easily have sustained a full episode (indeed, the first half seems heavy on the idea of the Parochial House as family unit, with a strangely touching father/son scene where Ted sees Dougal leaving for his first day of work), but that storyline is cut short in favour of something very different. It’s easy to overlook how high the stakes really are here – Ted is contending with someone who is literally attempting to murder Dougal. We know this can’t actually happen, but the mere presence of the suggestion stands in sharp contrast to the show’s earlier episodes, where the worst possible outcome is mild social embarrassment. Mustard’s is an existential threat on the level we’ve never seen outside a series finale, but where those threats were the consequences of random events, this one is directed, conscious, and malignant.
(While few Ted characters have their own musical themes, Mustard’s is absolutely Syd Dale’s “Penthouse Suite”. Come on. It’s only played a couple of times to bookend Mustard’s first scene, but the association is so immediate and irreversible that you feel as if it was composed specifically for the character. Let’s call it the “Soul Bossa Nova” effect.)
Linehan has ackowledged that the video for Beck’s Devils Haircut inspired the flashback montage in “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep”, and it seems that the video’s influence also seeped into “Speed 3” – when Ted and Dougal pursue Mustard, they’re decked out in the same sort of audiovisual recording equipment as Beck’s mysterious stalkers. It’s just another instance of the writer’s magpie-like tendency to layer his creations with passing fragments of popular culture. In the same scene, we get one of the show’s thriftiest uses of special effects, where the screen is simply turned black for a second to portray a large truck speeding by and causing Dougal to faint from the amplified sound.
It’s in no way what the episode is about, but there’s still room for a healthy dose of Ted-style disrespect for institutional authority. Ted accidentally recommends that Mustard use artificial contraception, contrary to Catholic doctrine. Mr Fox, Mustard’s boss, thinks Ted is selling the scandalous photographs and attempts to buy them, but Ted makes no effort to pursue this perversity to the higher levels of systemic authority which it’s clearly penetrated – his quest is based on a personal grudge, not genuine religious fervour. (It’s interesting to note that photography is a major motif in the episode, and the means through which much of its plot advancement occurs, from Ted’s collation of the babies – some of whom are portrayed by Ardal O’Hanlon’s daughter, incidentally – to the early-morning surveillance, to Mrs Doyle’s shrine.)
Attentive viewers might identify a potential contradiction between the presence of the hairy babies and Mustard’s being the new milkman – shouldn’t he have to have been the milkman for at least nine months for this to be the case? Apparently, the writers had the same thought: when Mrs Doyle introduces Mustard, he adds, “Just took over the south side of the island. Thought I’d… spread meself around a bit.” So that’s why the new milkman already has babies in the area: he’s been here for some time, only working a different route. At the same time, we also get one of those increasingly rare nuggets of information about Craggy Island’s plastic geography (originally meant to be doled out at a rate of one per episode, a running joke that went rather underused): the Parochial House is located on the south side.
There’s an abundance of milk and mammary imagery in the episode, even more than one would expect from an episode centring on a milk float. Judging by Ted’s appearance at the beginning, Dougal has been overdosing on the stuff. Mrs Doyle seizes Mustard’s milk like a woman sublimating her carnal desires as best she can, even setting aside her love of tea that the milk might flow. When milk bottles appear, it’s usually in pairs, and often clutched to the breast (rather pointedly in the case of Dougal’s first stop). We even get some thematically relevant graphic design, with Craggy Island Creamery’s udder-shaped logo. All this female energy is countered by Mustard and his massive tool, with the vital union of opposites embodied by the hairy babies serving as the catalyst that ignites Ted and Mustard’s ideological war.
Milk is also used as a bridge to some broader world-building: we’re told that Craggy Island Creamery has just agreed to purchase 17,000 tonnes of surplus milk from the fictional “newly liberated Eastern European Republic of Krovtonova”. (The suffix is clearly Latin for “new”, but as for “krovto–”, your guess is as good as mine.) It’s a tantalising glimpse of the wider universe in which Craggy Island exists; in accordance with the alchemical principle “as above, so below”, it’s subtly implied that the episode’s events are simply a ripple of some weird and wonderful political machinations, equally driven by Ted logic.
The episode’s other key addition to the shape of the Ted universe is the introduction of Barren Island. Stepping into reality for a moment – the Aran Islands are a group of three small islands located off the west coast of Ireland. In order of increasing size and distance from the mainland, they are Inisheer (Inis Óirr – “South Island”), Inishmaan (Inis Meáin – “Middle Island”), and Inishmore (Inis Mór – “Big Island”). Given that they’re the closest thing in our world to Ted‘s setting, it’s natural that interest in the islands tends to revolve around the show. Which of the three corresponds most closely to Craggy Island is a hot topic for locals who rely heavily on tourism. Considering that the opening sequence (with the iconic Plassey shipwreck, also featured prominently in the first episode) was filmed above it, Inisheer has by far the strongest claim to the name of Craggy Island (regardless of the outcome of their fateful football match for the title against Inishmore in 2007).
Inisheer is the only sensible choice for Craggy Island, but what of the other two? Inishmaan, being the closer in size and proximity to Inisheer, seems like the best candidate for Rugged Island, Craggy Island’s dark mirror and the home of Father Dick Byrne. With two of the three Aran Islands fictionalised in the show, the idea that there is a third looms over the show (well, for those of us who think about this sort of thing). In “Speed 3”, we finally get our resolution. With Dougal stuck on the explosive milk float, Ted, in desperation, rings up two old friends: Father Beeching and Father Clarke, the denizens of Barren Island, a name clearly chosen to complete a synonymous trifecta with “Craggy” and “Rugged”.
Beeching is played by Eamon Morrissey, perhaps more recognisable for The Brother, his Flann O’Brien-based one-man play, which showcases his definitive performance of “The Workman’s Friend” – after hearing his near-musical recital, it’s difficult to read “A pint of plain is your only man” any other way. Clarke, on the other hand, happens to be played by Arthur Mathews, making the most substantial of his many appearances in the show. (It’s not entirely clear which, if any, of Mathews’s characters are meant to be the same people. He also played a priest at Father Damo’s house in “Old Grey Whistle Theft”, and one credited as Father Billy Kerrigan in “Entertaining Father Stone”, but the show’s credits often contain mistakes and seem to have been made up on the spot – consider John Olohan’s performances as Sergeant Deegan and Sergeant Hodgins.) Mathews originated the character of Ted for a stand-up routine in the late 80s, and though he eventually convinced Linehan that the show needed a better actor for the role than himself, it was always Mathews’s voice that Linehan heard as he wrote Ted’s dialogue. With all this in mind, it’s difficult not to read Clarke as an analogue for Ted himself, especially considering that Rugged Island has its own Ted reflection in Father Dick Byrne. Essentially, Mustard poses such a devastating threat that Ted must take the unprecedented step of explicitly summoning his counterpart, an earlier iteration of himself, to the island so that they can work together to save the day.
It’s this earth-shattering team-up that causes the show’s cardinal rule to be broken. Starting out, the writers decided that Ted should never depict confession, Mass, or any other official priestly duties. These are the first port of call for any sitcom with a priest character; part of what would make Ted interesting was its focus on the liminal aspects of priest life. This rule is bent in “And God Created Woman”, and finally broken in “Speed 3”, where the priests conduct Mass from an altar hitched to a tractor, driving alongside the milk float. The writers thought that this was too good a visual joke not to do, and they were right, but on a metatextual level, it also serves to emphasise the extremity of the episode’s events.
Where Craggy Island and Rugged Island serve as detailed, multifarious mirror images of one another, Barren Island is slightly apart, bucking the established “young priest, middle-aged priest, elderly priest, housekeeper” structure with only two middle-aged priests. Barren Island is clearly the third member of the set, but it floats just outside the Craggy/Rugged binary system. This makes perfect sense if we consider it as Inishmore – the largest of the three islands, and the one that renders the group asymmetrical, rarely involving itself in the troubles of its smaller twin brethren.
The ending – Dougal’s belated realisation, Mrs Doyle’s shrine (a credits scene), the final appearance of the brick (a post-credits scene that puts Marvel Studios to shame) – is the perfect answer to the Christmas special’s redundant, lumbering conclusion. It seems gleefully aware of its own perfection, extending an already borderline-flawless piece of television again and again, yet somehow managing to stick the landing every single time. At moments like this, one is almost glad the show ended when it did – it was too good for this world.