So There’s No Way He’ll Be Able to Play (Escape From Victory)

escape from victoryThere’s something missing here. It’s easy to overlook, given that it relates to a character who hardly ever spoke, but once it’s been pointed out, it’s difficult to forget: there’s no Father Jim Johnson. In an episode centring on an over-75 all-priests football match against Rugged Island, the only over-75 Rugged Island priest we’ve ever seen is conspicuously absent. The reason? Chris Curran, the actor who portrayed him, had died in 1996, months after the second series aired.

In 2014, a group of friends and I emailed Maurice O’Donoghue (Father Dick Byrne) to invite him to a Father Ted panel discussion we were organising at the University of Limerick. Citing his relatively minor part in the show’s legacy, he declined to participate, but was gracious enough to send us a detailed account of his experiences during production. O’Donoghue was particular in his praise of Curran; though his only line in the show was “I’m outta feckin whiskey”, he was an accomplished stage actor and singer, and a quick wit in his own right. (At one point, Curran, unconvinced by the parade of stand-up comics working on the show, quipped, “…they say he’s a great comedian. I’ve never heard of him. Tell me this: where does he comeed?” This became a running joke among the Rugged Island actors, with O’Donoghue and Don Wycherley regularly quavering “…where does he comeed?” in relation to anyone from footballers to postmen.) Most viewers will never notice his absence, but behind the scenes, he was sorely missed. It was the first of two times that the production team had to deal with real-world death. On this occasion, they were able to retire the character and move on quietly, but next time you’re raising a toast on Dermot Morgan’s anniversary, spare a thought for Chris Curran, the show’s other loss.

While writing the episode, Linehan and Mathews happened to watch the 1974 paranoia thriller The Conversation, and the final image of Gene Hackman ransacking his room, convinced that he’s being bugged, somehow stuck in their minds. Shearing this moment from its original context, they cross-pollinated it with a silent conversation conducted via placards – a joke from the second series episode “New Jack City”.

The episode opens in medias res, with Ted manic and unhinged, halfway through a story we haven’t seen, trying to locate Dick Byrne’s surveillance equipment. (Unshaven and wearing a vest is rather a good look for him, actually.) It’s something of a structural experiment for the show, which has almost always begun with an ordinary day and escalated to absurdity.

Sport is a left-field choice for a Ted episode to tackle, having no relation whatsoever to do with religion. The relevance of the characters’ occupation has been dwindling since the show began, but this might be the point where it starts to feel like they might as well not even be priests at all. Numerous episodes flow from the idea of a silly competition – it’s a very easy framework on which to hang a plot, complete with ready-made slots for anxious preparations, reversals of fortune, and the inevitable competition itself. The sillier the competition, the more seriously the characters must take it to make the central joke land. In this case, they take it very seriously indeed, to the point that that tension becomes the episode’s main source of laughs.

Ted’s role as a brutal coach was inspired by the behavior of several real football managers. The writers’ main point of reference seems to have been Do I Not Like That, a documentary focusing on Graham Taylor’s experiences managing the England team in the lead-up to the 1994 FIFA World Cup. (The name was taken from a catchphrase of Taylor’s. Linehan recalls that they once wrote the line, “Do I not like that? No, I do not not like that. I like that,” but doesn’t specify whether it was cut from “Escape From Victory” or part of something else altogether. Either way, he regrets not including it somewhere in the episode.) It’s tempting to link Ted’s colourful tirades to Sunderland manager Peter Reid’s half-time cursing, but Premier Passions, the five-part documentary series chronicling his experiences in the previous season, only started airing late in the third series’s production. Brian Clough’s prickly, no-nonsense demeanour seems to have been a more substantial influence.

The writers planned a scene where Ted and Dougal visit a priest who would give them advice on how to defeat Rugged Island. The scene was to be shot in a church, and parody Sean Connery’s “Chicago way” speech in The Untouchables. They wrote the role for Dave Allen, a pioneer of disregarding religion in Irish comedy; semi-retired by the time of production, Allen requested an exorbitant fee, so they simply dropped the scene.

On a technical level, the football match itself was one of the show’s most ambitious and complex sequences. As the director of the third series’s location unit, Linehan storyboarded the match meticulously, and many of the shots he had planned proved very difficult to achieve. Had they foreseen the amount of work involved, they’d likely have written the sequence much more loosely, but the effort paid off with several striking and dramatic shots (a particular highlight being the one they nicknamed “Cameraball” – take a guess).

Despite the attention to detail, oversights were made. One shot of Jack trapped in the corner of the hall is noticeably mirrored (look at the signs on the wall), Father Romeo Sensini does not actually have the lock of hair that falls into his eye, and Dick’s character is accidentally given a whole new dimension when O’Donoghue forgets to remove his wedding ring before recording. As Linehan notes, the shot of the priest reacting to the whistle at the start of the game should really show his face, and it would have been much funnier if Father Cullen, the senile priest who scores the winning goal, had repeated his earlier “What?” rather than “Have I done something wrong?” (Linehan pauses to acknowledge that the joke where Cullen stops to chat with Ted mid-game is a reference to the racehorse stopping to lick Krusty in 1993’s “Krusty Gets Kancelled”, one of several direct Simpsons shout-outs in the show. [Incidentally, Cullen was named Father Bigley in the script, presumably until the writers remembered using that name for an unseen character in the previous series.])

Linehan often found himself shouting at the elderly actors because, once it was on the pitch between them, the ball simply ended up moving too quickly, and it looked like they were actually playing fairly well on-screen. A weighted ball was employed in some shots to enhance the sense of frailty. Owing to the tone and subject matter, suitable actors their age willing to participate might have been tricky to find just a couple of years earlier, but by 1998 Ted was being widely watched and discussed throughout the country – even the old-timers were game. Father Jim, the brilliantly frail priest who takes all of Ted’s metaphors literally, was played by Charles Simon, perhaps the oldest person ever to participate in the show. A veteran of classics such as The Singing Detective, he turned 89 about the time he recorded “Escape From Victory”, and died in 2002 at the end of an unmatched 79-year career.

The actual logic and implications of having a footballer in a wheelchair aren’t explored to their full comedic potential. (A sadly deleted scene had the referee checking The Over Seventy-Fives Priests Five-A-Side Rulebook and finding a precedent in the 1920s case of legendary footballer Father Pinky Flood.) Jack’s scoring by steering into the goal with the ball in his lap is clearly inadmissible, or at the very least debatable, but no-one even challenges it. As the writers would later reflect, putting one of the Rugged Island players in a wheelchair would have been a good joke while also reinforcing the episode’s logic. (Indeed, this would have been an excellent way to integrate Father Jim Johnson if Chris Curran had lived.)

Frank Kelly is stuck pretending to be unconscious for the entire episode; his only line, “More water”, is crowbarred in via a repeat of the first flashback joke from “‘Good Luck, Father Ted’”. Pauline McLynn, on the other hand, is given a fairly substantial arc charting Mrs Doyle’s transformation into a football fanatic. As an actual football fan, she may have found the early scenes tiring to play – it’s the only time the show presents sexist notions without actually interrogating them very much. The priests’ condescension towards Mrs Doyle is essentially treated as reasonable, and Understanding Football for Women a thoughtful gift. Compared to genuinely feminist scripts like “Rock a Hula Ted”, it’s all a bit careless.

Gender politics aside, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Mrs Doyle’s new obsession begins with her watching television – something we’ve never seen her do before, but it’s a favourite pastime of the priests, whose lives are generally intruded upon by whatever they’ve been watching. Pleasingly, the logic ports very well – Mrs Doyle watches a match, and the game consumes her life, quickly bringing her up to speed with the other characters. That’s just how televisions work on Craggy Island.

In what must be the quickest exit for a recurring character, Mrs Dineen, who debuted the previous week in “The Mainland”, makes her final appearance here. As in the previous episode, the two women enable each other’s journey into madness, but this time they end up pulling in the entire tea-serving worker class for a spectacular finish. In retrospect, giving Mrs Doyle a best friend to play off really was a godsend for Pauline McLynn, who was often sidelined in favour of the priests – it’s just a pity the character wasn’t created earlier. (Thanks to a recommendation from the writers, Doreen Keogh was compensated with a major role in The Royle Family shortly afterwards.)

The funeral director, Father Niall Haverty, is played by recognisable character actor Stephen Brennan. Haverty’s gimmick – a habit of buying novelty products – blatantly exists to set up Ted’s contrived plan to cheat in the game using a remote-control wheelchair and fake hands. Without the catch phrases or wild histrionics that define so many of the show’s characters, this could easily have been a simple waste of a good actor, but Brennan puts the work in, animating Haverty with weirdly expressive frowns and fiddly body language worthy of Patrick Troughton… and all with less than two minutes’ screen time.

The episode’s structural weakness – if that term can be applied to something so unlikely to bother any viewers – is that its story relies on not one, but two ludicrously contrived plot devices. Not only is Jack taken out of action by drinking a bottle of Dreamy Sleepy Nightie Snoozy Snooze, but the solution is provided by the combination of a remote-control wheelchair and fake hands. It’s difficult to argue that the episode would be better without one of the aforementioned items – its density of ridiculously convenient development stops just short of making matters too surreal for the comedy to work. Notably it’s only the third series that resorts to having the characters themselves point out how ridiculous certain plot devices are as a way to offset the audience’s incredulity (just like the perfectly square bit of black dirt in “Are You Right There Father Ted?”). It works, but it’s the sort of technique one imagines might have become wearying had the show progressed to a fourth series.

The show is so familiar to us that it’s easy to overlook choices which, on closer inspection, seem very strange. For instance, consider the complete absence of Father Dick Byrne in the scene where Ted’s cheating is discovered. Yes, the Jason Byrne’s “Wait a second… these are fake hands!” is a classic line reading, but how much more satisfying would it have been to see Dick’s reaction? It’s not a mistake, but a solution for a very real problem: Maurice O’Donoghue fell ill shortly before the third series’s studio scenes were recorded. The writers had to rework the episode’s final confrontation scene to remove the villain.

Given this brief, it’s impressive that they managed not to do serious damage to the episode, and even more so that the changes are largely unnoticeable. The original script has a sequence where Dick, believing himself beaten fair and square, attempts to shake one of Ted’s fake hands. When Cyril asks if this means they no longer have to bribe the Craggy Island goalkeeper, the referee decrees that both Ted and Dick must carry out their forfeits (Dick indifferently kisses Cyril off-screen when Ted isn’t paying attention). In the final version, Cyril is brought back for a quick third iteration of the “You lost, Cyril” joke, but has to be despatched quickly, as his presence would only make Dick’s absence glaring. The hand which grabs Cyril’s jacket and pulls him out of frame belongs not to O’Donoghue but to an anonymous stand-in – an oddly effective way to keep Dick involved without the actor, whose final moment instead becomes his breakdown at Craggy Island’s victory (a scene he really throws himself into, in a borderline King Lear way – in another context it could almost be moving). At times like this, it’s fascinating to recall that O’Donoghue was also considered for the role of Ted. Having a trained theatre actor in the part rather than a comedian would have changed the show’s feel dramatically. Equally, had the show run long enough to become desperately experimental, a “Ted-lite” episode with the Rugged Islanders as the protagonists would have been fun indeed.

(On a more frivolous note, the parallels between the Craggy and Rugged Islanders are consciously reinforced throughout. Most obvious is Dougal and Cyril’s Mr Bean double-act at the corner flag. More subtly, the ice cream van used by Dick and Cyril as their base of operations evokes Dougal’s time on the milk float, while their surveillance equipment recalls that used by Ted and Dougal to spy on Pat Mustard. Ted and Dick also sport similar Umbro jackets.)

Still, there’s something faintly sad about the sight of Cyril facing Ted and Dougal alone. Just as real life robbed Father Jim Johnson of his final episode, it robbed Father Dick Byrne of his final scene; in the end only one Rugged Islander is left. These absences are carefully concealed – at one point by literal sleight of hand – but once pointed out, they can never be forgotten.

For first-time viewers, the scene where Ted nervously awaits his forfeit must have seemed like it was building towards one last joke – a cut to Ted doing something embarrassing, or even just a reaction shot of him hearing Dick’s outlandish request. Nothing about the preceding 22 episodes could have prepared viewers for the truth, the last trick the episode has up its sleeve: that it’s the first half of a two-part serial.

It turns out there really is nothing stupid about the Annual All-Priests 5-A-Side Over-75s Indoor Football Challenge Match against Rugged Island. In attempting to cheat, Ted has broken something sacred, and now he must pay the price. His victory was ill-gotten, its consequences inescapable. It’s the line the entire episode was contrived to reach.

You have to kick Bishop Brennan up the arse.

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