What Other Gods Are There? (Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse)

kicking bishop imageFollowing the shock cliffhanger ending of “Escape From Victory”, Father Ted reasserts itself with “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”, a highlight of the third series and one of the strongest episodes overall. On a formal level, it’s the show’s finest moment, showcasing it at its economical, razor-sharp best.

The episode’s central plot is a hybridisation of two rather disparate sources. The first is an apocryphal story in which René Magritte supposedly kicked his sister’s fiancé up the arse as a surrealist experiment, just to gauge his reaction; according to the story, the fiancé ignored the kick out of bewildered politeness. The other influence was the Seinfeld episode “The Revenge”, which also focused on the idea of escaping the consequences of an outrageous act simply by pretending that nothing has happened; in the episode, George Costanza regrets quitting his job, then follows Jerry’s advice to go to work the next day without even acknowledging that he has left. Linehan and Mathews realised that they could combine the cartoonish excess of the Magritte story with a Seinfeldian sitcom structure, and when they added a dose of Ted irreverence, “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” was born.

Noting that “The Revenge” hadn’t mined all the comedic potential inherent in the situation, the writers decided to make the absurd logic the main focus of their own version. They moved the outrageous action from the opening scene to the sixteen-minute mark, allowing for a detailed contemplation of kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse from all possible angles. The scenes where Jerry and Dougal persuade George and Ted to simply ignore their respective transgressions are practically identical, which is remarkable considering that one takes place before the action and the other takes place after it. Jason Alexander and Dermot Morgan impart George and Ted with the same earnest glee when they think their plans are going well, and play their inevitable realisation of doom with the same slow stiffening, their efforts to escape it with the same broad, panicked scramble. It’s enough to make one wonder, if only for a moment, how the much-mooted American remake of Ted might have worked out.

Complementing the decision to focus on the logic of kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse is a running joke in which the episode uses as many variations of the phrase “kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse” as possible, in different tenses, different contexts, and between different combinations of characters. Indeed, the episode’s tendency to top polls can be attributed partly to this joke’s success – quality aside, it’s just terribly easy to remember the title and central image.

In order to contrive a somewhat satisfying set of circumstances under which Bishop Brennan might visit the island and find himself in a compromising situation such that kicking him up the arse might become a possibility, the writers turned to the popular Irish Catholic phenomenon of apparitions. Our housewives have reported seeing the face of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in everything from teabags to sandwiches; as the topic of several once-off jokes in the earlier series, apparitions are familiar territory for Ted, so Dick’s tale of the bishop’s face materialising on the Parochial House skirting board serves as a pleasingly contrived and oddly logical bridge between the events of “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” and the previous episode.

The idea of being sent to a parish even worse than Craggy Island has always loomed as a threat in the show. A dreadful second Fall, a repeat of the one which brought Ted to the island in the first place, is something which holds the power to bring this story to a final end; a narrative collapse. A demotion from the purifying flames of purgatory to the eternal fires of hell, if we’re following our Catholic cosmological interpretation. In “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”, that threat is amplified to match the third series’s more colourful tone, with Ted picking up a newspaper to be greeted with the headline “200 Priests Fall to Their Death in Another Parish”. (The paper is dated Tuesday, April 11, 1996 – amusingly, the episode is set in 1998, which means that Ted is reading a two-year-old newspaper for no reason. Further complicating things, that particular day was actually a Thursday, which adds credence to the theory that time and space simply move in mysterious ways on Craggy Island.)

The cold open recaps the events of “Escape From Victory”, but rather than the obvious montage of footage, director Linehan recreates that episode’s key moments with a swerving, quick-cutting handheld camera. The result manages to be both a fully functional recap and a parody of NYPD Blue that’s as accurate as it is inexplicable. A viewer who happens to have memorised Father Ted‘s dialogue by heart might notice that the takes used here contain infinitesimally different line readings than those used in “Escape From Victory” itself. So, strictly speaking, the recap actually contains exclusive performances by McLynn, O’Hanlon, Morgan, Stephen Brennan and Jason Byrne, with the latter two actors remaining uncredited for “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”.

Once Bishop Brennan shows up, we tend to forget Father Dick Byrne’s part in all this, but considered in a certain light, the episode serves as a fitting send-off for the character. In his relegation to the realm of the unseen villain, Father Dick reaches new heights, daring to manipulate even the terrible Bishop Brennan in his scheme to humiliate Ted. And, for the first time ever, his plan actually works.

In both of his previous appearances, Brennan seemed to be travelling alone. In “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse”, we’re introduced to Father Jessup, his sarcastic personal assistant. Tall, stern, clipped and austere, he’s the Grand Moff Tarkin to Brennan’s Darth Vader, the Nyder to his Davros. It’s a dynamic we’ve never seen before – someone whom the bishop respects, and whose company he actually enjoys. Interestingly, Brennan seems almost to assume the role of one audience member introducting Father Ted to another, essentially giving Jessup a guided tour of the Parochial House and a quick introduction to the foibles of each major character. Dougal’s photography of the ceiling he brushes off as usual Father Ted fare (“Oh, this is nothing. Nothing!”), but when the two priests clutch each other in terror, even the bishop realises that this is no ordinary episode (“Now, this is a new one.”) Ian Fitzgibbon somehow manages to make Jessup’s generic priest outfit resemble an SS uniform through body language alone. (He went on to become a successful filmmaker in his own right, even directing a series of Moone Boy, that likable Ted methadone of the 2010s.) The post-credits scene, where we see that Jessup has been trapped in Jack’s underpants hamper long enough to grow a beard, was borrowed from the 1993 film The Vanishing, where Kiefer Sutherland’s character wakes to find himself buried alive with only a lighter to keep him company. The hamper itself is perhaps a touch too far, representing the point where the gross-out humour surrounding Jack becomes slightly more unpleasant than the show’s tone can accommodate. (Linehan’s only regret here is not having Jessup scrape the floor with his nails as he’s dragged into Jack’s room.) An earlier draft concluded with Jessup meeting three increasingly crazed, lost, bedraggled priests inside the hamper, one inquiring wildly whether the Allies have taken France; it was removed after proving unfunny during rehearsal, but what a gloriously nightmarish image. (And it makes one wonder – just how many inhabitants does the Parochial House really have? It’s easy to overlook in our familiarity, but it really is a strange building, its three distinct segments almost like three iterations of the same house seen from different distances – it’s like looking at a tesseract. Combine this with the discrepancies between the real location and the indoor studio set, and its the building’s topography makes about as much spatial sense as that of the island itself. We have no idea what secret rooms and passages its TARDIS-like depths might hide.)

While it’s packed with entertaining idiosyncrasies, as ever, what really makes the episode sing is its perfectly calibrated structure. If it were practical to graph the tension of a piece of television, this one would be an asymptote. It begins slowly, first with the recap, then the opening sequence, then Ted’s volcano dream (a fantastically 90s use of stock footage – vaporwave album artwork ready for the taking). These are the only moments which flirt with irrelevance to the central plot. Once things begin to pick up, it’s absolutely relentless. Ted muses upon his fate, and as soon as Dougal says the bishop might never visit again, the phone rings. It’s the bishop, Father Dick Byrne has told him about the apparition, and he’s coming tomorrow – all of this information is conveyed to Ted in under three seconds. There’s a sense of helplessness, as if events are being compressed and accelerated. The episode gestures towards a potential subplot with the Mystery of the Mud Angel, but immediately resolves it, presenting Ted with an alternative story just so it can deny him its relative safety. Remember the episode title – there is room for nothing else here. Halfway through one of Ted’s anxious sentences, we cut to the bedroom – like us, Ted seems not to have experienced any intervening events. Detached from his diegetic world, he’s on the same fast track as the audience, hurtling towards a terrible conclusion that’s somehow only 19 minutes away. He tries to turns off the light, then realises it’s morning, says they’ve got a few hours, hears the alarm, says he set it to ring early, then hears the doorbell.

When Brennan displays an intention to leave, Mrs Doyle announces that “They’ve taken the roads in”, and Ted elaborates that when the weather grows poor, Craggy Island’s roads are rolled up and stored in a warehouse on the east side – in other words, the bishop must stay the night. This is possibly the most Flann O’Brien moment in the history of televisual entertainment. Much like Mrs Doyle’s claim to have “sheep tea” in “Speed 3”, it’s commendable that such a ridiculous joke manages to support two very different but equally satisfying readings. Ted fully intended to kick Bishop Brennan up the arse soon after he arrived, and Mrs Doyle announces the news as soon as the group return downstairs, so it’s doubtful that he could have concocted the story with her as a trick to keep the bishop on the island. This leaves two explanations. One is that Ted invented this excuse and conveyed it to Mrs Doyle in the 23 seconds between deciding to jump out the window and returning to the spare room (the recurring image of someone jumping out a window, having already accrued enough familiarity to warrant subversion with the installation of plexiglass in the Christmas special, is here taken to its logical conclusion). The other is that Mrs Doyle was telling the truth. Assuming the latter, we can only conclude that Father Ted takes place within the same universe as The Third Policeman.

The episode’s critical turning point, the kick of the title, is the moment where its structural cleverness becomes clear. In a heartbeat, the tension over whether and how Ted will kick Bishop Brennan up the arse is deftly replaced with the tension over whether and how the bishop will react. We sense doom on the horizon, but its approach is excruciatingly, hilariously delayed. It’s another clever improvement over the Seinfeld episode, which had the boss character see through the protagonist’s ruse instantly. (Brilliantly, Jim Norton chooses to enunciate Brennan’s stunned, dead-eyed “Nuuhhh” in much the way that he performed the undead Mathers’s “No”s in the Third Policeman audiobook.)

Naturally, Ted’s triumph goes straight to his head. When he celebrates his victory with a night of binge drinking, it’s the first time we’ve ever seen him intoxicated. (Ted is a Pioneer, as we can tell by one of the badges he sometimes wears on his lapel, so indulging in alcohol means that he is breaking a vow – perfectly in character, if unprecedented. The other badge is a Fáinne, which signifies his fluency in the Irish language – even more dubious.) He even frightens off Jack with a roar of “Feck off!”; yes, Jack once “kicked” Bishop Facks up the arse with the Holy Stone, but that was merely a guest bishop, whereas Ted has just overthrown the most terrible bishop of all. (Indeed, “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” can be viewed as an amplified version of “Tentacles of Doom”, with the story of three troublesome bishops destroyed by the infectious lunacy of Craggy Island consolidated to the story of one. Having survived several previous encounters with the priests, Brennan ultimately succumbs, following Facks, Jordan, and O’Neill to their downfall. The scene where Brennan shoves over the pope really cinches it – our recurring nemesis is likely to be excommunicated, a narrative collapse in its own right. It’s just a good thing he didn’t kill him – that dubious honour is reserved for Bernard Black and Manny Bianco, two years later.) While it’s all played for laughs, it underlines the degree to which the episode’s events really have upset the power structure within the Parochial House. In a way that eclipses “Flight Into Terror”, Ted becomes truly Fearless, more like Jeff Bridges in that movie than ever before; an apotheosis of hubris that dwarfs even “A Christmassy Ted”. The show jubilantly plays many of its recognisable elements against one another, like a child that knows it must soon put away its toys for good. It all feels momentously climactic, and if not for the need to provide a more poignant ending to the show’s final year, “Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse” could easily have provided a satisfying series finale.

The idea of lost time and lost control reappear with Ted’s hungover awakening and the bishop’s immediate return. His smashing the door down is another amplified version of a previous image, this time his kicking it open in “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” – he is one of the few enemies powerful enough to violate the priests’ bedroom, the safe space where they can normally discuss the events of the day without threat. When Brennan pins Ted bodily against his wall, a crucifix is visible just behind him, another iteration of the show’s occasional “Ted as Christ” motif. Looking back, we can see that it’s always been hanging there, right above Ted’s bed. It’s unclear whether anyone on the set was conscious of the crucifixion symbolism, but in any case, it’s not explored in any depth, serving mainly to deepen the irony inherent in Ted’s bare-faced, selfish proclamation of his own innocence – it’s “Why have you forsaken me?” times a million.

Bishop Brennan’s taxi driver is portrayed by Paul Woodful, aka Paul Wonderful, aka Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly, a long-time friend and collaborator of the writers’. Woodful was also the Ziggy Stardust impersonator (well, Aladdin Sane impersonator singing “Ziggy Stardust”) Father Harry Coyle in “Competition Time” and the racetrack owner Paddy Jordan in “The Plague”, while his band The Hairy Bowsies was referenced on the billboard in “A Song for Europe”. In other words, he has played either several mildly interesting Ted characters or one incredibly intriguing one. As the taxi driver, our attention is never drawn to him, but his utter lack of surprise at Bishop Brennan roaring across the field or Ted waving goodbye beside the gigantic photograph is a hilarious Easter egg for obsessive Ted scholars.

Linehan and Mathews believed themselves to have ripped off the sequence in This Is Spinal Tap where the band accidentally commission an 18-inch model of Stonehenge for their show rather than an 18-foot one, but the only real similarity is that both jokes involve someone ordering something at an unwise scale. The case for the influence would be stronger if it had been clear that Ted was referring to inches when he asked for the photograph to be “blown up, ten-by-ten”, but it’s perfectly possible that he did mean feet – he was drunk. The photograph is a pretty natural extension of the show’s logic anyway – it’s basically the Christmas special’s matador joke with proper build-up. The writers note that an actual ten-foot photograph would have been preferable, but printing on a canvas was the only practical way to achieve the visual. Slightly more distracting is the fact that this very mannered, carefully composed image is completely different from what actually happened in the spare room – Ted and the bishop weren’t even standing in that corner. But with the episode so clearly structured around a single moment and image, such a consciously iconic distillation is needed, just like the impossibly high resolution of Dougal’s camera.

It’s only with the final shot that the episode’s true shape is revealed. In an ingenious twist, the real climax is engineered to coincide precisely with the ending, leaving neither space nor need for the dénouement which occasionally drags in earlier episodes. The closing image of Ted flailing, soaring against the overcast winter sky is as satisfying as the show will ever be, the measured culmination of 22 minutes of perfect schadenfreude. Hey, maybe there’s something to that Christ symbolism, after all – Ted might not suffer for our sins, but his suffering does give us something to laugh about, something to hold onto; a modern Irish myth that can edge its way across all boundaries of creed or faith. He gave us just what we needed.

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One Response to What Other Gods Are There? (Kicking Bishop Brennan Up the Arse)

  1. Aidan says:

    I often wonder about the repercussions of the events of this episode. Precisely because, as you say, Bishop Brennan is likely to have been excommunicated by the church for his crime of physically assaulting the Pope himself! (Very obvious double standards- Brennan will fly into a rage at being kicked up the arse by Ted, but it’s quite okay for him to physically assault the man at the very top of the Catholic Church.) So indeed this is likely to lead to Brennan’s downfall- but either way, it’s unlikely his involvement in the lives of Ted and the regular cast of priests would end there. Surely he would want to get to the bottom of just WHY Ted committed that most unlikely act of kicking him up the arse, and in the process he could possibly find out about Dick Byrne’s scheme, thus leading him to mete out some form of punishment against both Ted and Dick? And what of the overhanging threat of moving Ted to an even worse parish than Craggy Island- other than the likelihood that he was excommunicated by the church, why would he not persist with this punishment? But that brings me onto another theory, that I’ll elaborate on in another comment on a later episode… :-)

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