A trait of the show’s later episodes is that Linehan and Mathews, ouroborus-like, began incorporating storylines that could never even have occurred to them had the programme not been an ongoing success. Showbiz and glamour began to seep into Craggy Island. Just as the writers’ idle thoughts on how Ted might behave if he (too) won a BAFTA evolved into the Christmas special, “The Mainland” emerged from a real incident in their lives as the writers of Ted.
Around 1997, Hat Trick, the production company, secured a box in the Cirque du Soleil audience. They gave tickets to Linehan and Mathews, who noticed that Richard Wilson (famed for his portrayal of aged misanthrope Victor Meldrew in the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave) was seated in front of them. It occurred to the writers that the absolute worst thing they could do would be to wait for an impressive moment in the performance, then shout Meldrew’s catchphrase, “I don’t believe it!” Their next thought was that Ted and Dougal would probably do exactly that.
Later they set to work, writing three scenes of a potential storyline featuring Wilson (hedging their bets for fear that the actor would decline involvement). Once Wilson had read the scenes and agreed to play himself, they set about expanding their work into a full episode. Naturally, they added an opening scene where Ted and Dougal watch One Foot in the Grave. The same device is used to introduce almost every diegetically famous guest character – the Parochial House television is a porous thing, and anyone who appears on it will invariably find themselves entangled in Ted’s life before long. Here it gives us the rather endearing sight of Ted and Dougal inanely repeating quotes from a show they love in tenuously relevant situations – see, they’re just like us.
One Foot in the Grave is not particularly well-known in Ireland, and while the episode works better if one has seen the show being referenced, familiarity is not strictly snecessary. Some viewers (particularly younger ones) simply assume it’s a fictional show; the Irish certainly view it primarily in terms of Ted. Wilson gets very little characterisation in “The Mainland”; Linehan remarks, with a trace of regret, that they could have given him a proper tirade to deliver rather than letting him beat Ted up. What we do see of Wilson is actually quite similar to his Victor Meldrew character, and it’s easy to forget the boundary between the two and let One Foot in the Grave become a retroactive spin-off. The catchphrase evolved naturally, becoming popular only by virtue of Wilson’s shrill, cutting delivery; when he comes face-to-face with Ted again at the Parochial House, it’s the first time he’s ever had to consciously perform it as a catchphrase, and this really comes across in his carefully mounting disbelief – the ultimate “I don’t believe it!”
(The cave tour guide is played by Dublin comedian John Henderson. Not much of an actor, but it’s one hell of a moment when he faces Wilson and we become privy to his internal shouts of “I don’t believe it!” – Henderson’s juvenile glee and the arbitrariness of our sudden telepathic link to the character makes this the best part of the episode. The most underrated, on the other hand, is Ted’s answer to Dougal’s query about how people breathed millions of years ago while the area was underwater: “Well, they would have had some sort of apparatus.”)
The idea of setting the episode on the Irish mainland doesn’t seem strictly necessary to the Wilson storyline – the island’s flexible topography could surely have accommodated The Very Dark Caves. No, it seems more a case of the show’s general need to escape Craggy Island every now and then for the sake of variety. In this respect, “The Mainland” is similar to “Hell” and “Flight Into Terror”. The latter is a special case, being set almost entirely on a plane, but the comparison to “Hell” is particularly apt – both share the essential premise of packing the priests off to the mainland and seeing them fail to cope with normal civilisation, like an extremophile species which has adapted to thrive in an impossible environment. But where “Hell” placed the priests in a miserable rural environment, not entirely dissimilar from their own home, “The Mainland” amps things up by putting them in an urban area for once.
On the technical side of things, the direction is rather dramatic for a Ted episode. We get the ominous zoom in on Dougal’s hungry eyes, the seeming crane shot in the flashback where Jack’s glasses are stolen, the out-of-focus handheld shot representing Jack’s blurred vision, the very distant shot of Ted’s fight with Wilson (a choice informed by the Zucker brothers’ maxim that jokes are funnier the farther they are from the camera; the scene would actually be too brutal if we saw it up-close). Given that nearly the entire episode was recorded on location (the inverse of “Flight Into Terror”), we can thank location director Linehan for these touches. The flashback is particularly bizarre; aside from the angle, which resembles a reversed version of the opening titles, it’s clearly been recorded fairly late in the day, with heavy artificial lightning – you can actually see the equipment on-screen.
Ted and Dougal spend the whole episode together, and while Dougal’s incredible hunger makes for a fun running joke (and a striking hallucination of Ted as Abraham Lincoln, a Saturday Night Live dream sequence staple), the central storyline doesn’t have room for Jack and Mrs Doyle. Instead they’re given parallel journeys of their own. (A deleted scene involved Ted entering a building and being asked to mind a briefcase for someone while they went to the toilet, only for the briefcase to be stolen immediately. The joke didn’t quite land, apparently because it felt like part of another storyline requiring continuation, so it was excised before recording.)
Jack benefits enormously, with an excellent subplot allowing us to see normal alcoholics’ thoughtful reactions to his exclamations of “Drink!” – something that could never really happen on the island. In “Think Fast, Father Ted”, Mathews tried to pay homage to the unintentionally hilarious special effects of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds by having a flock of crows attack Jack, but the production complicated the joke into a non-sequitur by making the visuals actually quite good; here, that crazily specific reference is reprised and expanded to an entire subplot that defiantly makes less sense as it goes on, with a magnificently fake-looking shot from the perspective of a bird flying off with Jack’s glasses. The “Hanratty’s Ear Clamps” poster tells us that crows stealing pensioners’ glasses is an endemic problem, something confirmed by the Simpsons-like cut to a nest made of spectacles. (Slovakia’s Feckarse Industries is a great bit of world-building, too.) A neat example of Mathews’s love for humour dealing with the gulf between human and animal minds, and another fun piece of mythologising for Jack, it’s also a very precise articulation of the show’s wider obsession with mirroring and the omnipresence of absurd specifics; the idea that every silly joke, every peculiar person, is an expression of some universal trend or archetype.
Mrs Doyle’s subplot is a definite step up for her, too, considering that she was left back home for both previous off-island episodes. Here we’re introduced to her best friend, Mrs Dineen – the first evidence we’ve seen of Mrs Doyle’s social life. Doppelgängers are common in Ted, with dozens of characters serving as mirrors to illuminate their counterparts in the main cast, and Mrs Dineen is no exception – she’s a straightforward instance of the Mrs Doyle archetype with no unique identifiers whatsoever. Aspects of Mrs Doyle are based on Linehan’s mother, including her staunch refusal to allow other people to pay for things; a trait carried over to Mrs Dineen. When both women insist on paying after their afternoon at the tea shop, the conflict escalates to arguing and eventually physical violence; one gets the sense that the entire character of Mrs Dineen emerged from a thought-experiment. (In the show’s second-strangest cameo appearance, the waiter who has to call the police on them is played by Pogues manager Frank Murray.)
It’s at the police station that they’re reunited with Jack, who was arrested after hospitalising an Alcoholics Anonymous member who tried to stop him from drinking. Ted is called to bail them out, neatly unifying the three story threads, and careful sound and video editing during the phone call is used to make a joke of the fact that we still don’t know Mrs Doyle’s first name. (She’s Mrs Joan Doyle, according to an early first-series script, but the writers cut the line to create a fun mystery; a possible inspiration for this particular scene is the film Made in USA, where Jean-Luc Godard uses various sounds to censor the character Richard’s surname. Nonetheless, when we see Ted and the sergeant speak her first name, it seems to have several syllables more than “Joan”, so whether we accept the writers’ word is subject to our discretion. Indeed, it doesn’t seem that we know the full names of any Ted characters other than the four Windy Shepherd Hendersons. We’re not even sure whether we’re watching a show about Father Theodore Crilly or, less intuitively, Father Edward Crilly.)
The writers always wanted scenes set on the mainland to look slick and modern to create an exaggerated contrast with Craggy Island, but the set designers and decorators generally didn’t achieve this, instead using real (and often not especially modern-looking) locations as references. We can thank them for the rather unique, Spaghetti Western-style police office with reception desk and holding cells in the same room (as well as the calendar helpfully informing us that the episode is set on exactly 14 September 1998).
Forced to hand the £200 he won in a crooked limbo game over to a Protestant policeman to bail out his friends, Ted becomes indignant, calling for a return to the days when the police bowed to the Church: “Drunk driving charges quashed, parking tickets torn up, even the blind eye turned to the odd murder!” It’s barbed stuff, and explicitly calls into question the preferential treatment the priests continue to enjoy when dealing with the lay authorities back home. Perhaps this is the root of Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen’s apocalyptic gossiping, the reason the mainland has become a kind of hell for the priests: it has simply moved on while Craggy Island remains frozen in the past.
If there was any doubt that “The Mainland” is a “Hell” sequel, it’s allayed when the priests once again find themselves trapped with Father Noel Furlong. Noel’s sudden appearance in the caves – frightening Ted and Dougal by pretending to be a ghost (as in “Hell”) before revealing his (even worse) true identity, is probably the show’s best ad-break cliffhanger. Graham Norton is game as ever, giving a nightmarish cover of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” opera sequence that will taint the song forever in our minds.
St Kevin’s Youth Group make a return appearance, too. Neither Janine Reilly nor Nuala Ryan get so much as a single line, with the distraught Gerry Fields serving as the group’s spokesman. In the end, it’s the painfully quiet Tony Lynch who snaps under the weight of Noel’s relentless obnoxiousness. As he roars for Noel to shut up, shut up, please shut up, Tony transcends the group to become a surrogate for the other priests, for all the characters, for the audience themselves. Norton completely sells Noel’s devastated sense of betrayal, only to reveal that he actually doesn’t care, his “list of enemies” simply consisting of the words “I really like Tony!” He’s unfazeable and eternal; a twisted Catholic Tom Bombadil.
This part of the episode has overt mythological overtones, with The Very Dark Caves serving as a hellish underworld of a rather more obvious kind than the one depicted in “Hell”. Dougal’s tank top unravelling to provide a potential trail back to safety clearly invokes the Greek myth of the hero Theseus, who left a trail of string as he entered the Labyrinth in search of the Minotaur. Granted, the episode bears little resemblance to the myth’s other specifics, but a link between Noel and the Minotaur seems oddly feasible.
Linehan sometimes describes Noel as simply asexual, but on other occasions mentions a more compelling theory: that he is a gay priest who has suppressed his own sexuality to the point of insanity. (Norton, for his part, has suggested that Noel secretly fancies Gerry Fields and Tony Lynch, something the writers have specifically refuted.) The Minotaur is similarly imprisoned for its very nature; neither man nor beast, it’s a being the world refuses to accommodate, a creature caught between two irreconcilable selves. Questions of sexual identity recur throughout “The Mainland”: Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen gossip about Mr Sweeney, a friend whom hooligans keep forcing into women’s clothing, and Dougal is alarmed to find that his unravelled tank top resembles a bra. Crucially, the episode never pathologises Noel’s sexuality (whatever it might be). He’s a ridiculous caricature, to be sure, but the deleterious effects of repression on mental health are all too real; in the end, he is just another victim.
Noel is, however, depicted in somewhat monstrous terms, first disguised as a terrifying ghost, then raising his arms like horns for the darker lines in his impromptu performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. (Queen never revealed the song’s meaning as intended by Freddie Mercury, but a gay reading isn’t difficult.) Unlike the Minotaur, Noel makes no apparent effort to devour the young people sent to satiate him, but it’s still his extended joke about how he’ll eat Tony if they can’t escape the caves that finally drives the boy over the edge. (Themes of hunger and consumption also permeate the episode, with an entire subplot centring on Dougal’s quest for food, so it’s not unreasonable to look closer at this.)
“The Very Dark Caves – ‘It’s almost like being blind!'” But this is a world where we’re just as likely to be blinded by crows from above as we are to become lost in the murk of our own personal labyrinths; a world where the undesirable have their paths to recovery hidden from them by systems of repression as relentless as they are arbitrary. The screeching competition is the damning conclusion to the tale of entrapment and alienation that is Noel’s life; his final, self-destructive howl against a world which has no place for him, hilarious and operatic on a visceral level that neither dialogue nor conventional drama can reach. With Noel trapped under a big pile of rocks, his companions make their escape. The post-credits coda shows that he has not been rescued. We never see Noel again – and to think, he never even set foot on Craggy Island. A more cynical viewer might assume that he perishes alone in that remote cavern, but who can say? Perhaps he remains there to this very day, still singing Queen songs into the darkness.