Better Prepare the Ground (Night of the Nearly Dead)

night imageZombie comedy is one of the staple genre mashups of the 2000s, almost to the point of saturation, but Father Ted got there first. And it did so in typically off-kilter Ted fashion, interweaving its zombie storyline with an on-point parody of mawkishly sentimental Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell.

The combination proves disconcertingly logical: Mrs Doyle enters a poetry competition and wins a visit from celebrity Eoin McLove, only for a horde of elderly fangirls to lay siege to the Parochial House. On-screen, McLove shares the squeaky-clean, sanitised, boyish persona of O’Donnell (who also used to have tea with his fans), but off-screen he’s a petulant brat, a cynic’s heightened fever-dream of what the sugary singer might be behind closed doors.

It’s quite strong for a penultimate episode, that slot often being reserved for the year’s presumed flop. A few tweaks and it could have been a Halloween special. Film parodies are among the easier episodes to write – simply walk the characters through a film plot and find the jokes along the way. What’s really remarkable is that this show can essentially air a base-under-siege zombie horror episode revolving around Daniel O’Donnell and not have it not particularly stand out.

The priests’ television has always had a heraldic quality, often signalling the content of an episode before the plot asserts itself. “Night of the Nearly Dead” seems to play with this convention in its opening scene. First, Dougal watches a documentary where a psychiatrist in some tropical region comments on the affliction of an elderly patient (played by Frank Kelly in what can only be described as blackface – as with the Diana Ross joke in “Competition Time”, it’s unlikely that the political subtext occurred to anyone at the time). The psychiatrist explains that the sufferer is compelled to make strange exclamations; as the old man shouts “Firk!”, “Arpse!” and “Grals!”, Jack sits up in his chair, responding with an uncertain “…Arse?!” and “…Girls?!” Evidently the documentary is focused on whatever bizarre medical condition is at the root of Jack’s behaviour throughout the show. The same type of humour reappears later, with Jack proposing the complete “Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!” lexicon as a solution to their situation. These jokes work only for an audience familiar with the show’s catch phrases; the show’s confidence that simply focusing attention on its own conventions will be enough to get a self-reflexive laugh is a sign of its advancing age, as is its willingness to gesture towards a possible exploration of its mythos. But it’s not to be – Ted and Dougal change the channel, and in the same act change the episode they’re in. Landing on Eoin McLove, they become part of the Eoin McLove episode. In retrospect, one wishes they’d flicked past a zombie film on the way there and really beaten Shaun of the Dead to the punch.

In a bout of condescending charity, Ted decides to write a poem and submit it to Eoin’s show under Mrs Doyle’s name. It’s not the first time we’ve seen him take on a creative role, the obvious precedent being “A Song for Europe”. Where “My Lovely Horse” was written over a protracted night with two time-skips, the poem is composed during a brief montage. Bizarrely for a montage, it consists of only two moments – Ted answering the door to a starving beggar child, and Ted witnessing Mrs Doyle falling off the window ledge, both of which he smiles at and incorporates into his poem. (The scripted moment where Ted contemplates a dog crapping in the garden was likely excised for reasons of taste, but Ted’s shedding a tear for a wilting flower would have been a good one.) With his reading glasses, notebook and pen, Ted has never looked more authentically priestly – one wonders how Morgan’s performance would have been augmented had the spectacles been a regular part of the costume. Mrs Doyle’s fall is a running joke, McLynn’s knack for physical comedy having largely replaced Jack’s running away in terms of window-based humour. The beggar joke is much stranger, in that it suggests a Dickensian underclass for Craggy Island which has never been hinted at till now. (In a strange oversight, the poem forms the basis of two embarrassing moments for Ted around the middle of the episode, but is never mentioned again and has no actual impact on the plot. Another draft would likely have added at least a callback to it in the closing scenes.)

In a way, the closing credits bring things full-circle, and not just for the episode. Ted’s already been on television in “A Song for Europe”, but the televisual aspect of Eurovision was played down in favour of the stagey performance and the Dick Byrne rivalry – that they’re being broadcast isn’t really discussed. In “Night of the Nearly Dead”, Ted finally gets on television, and it’s explicitly because of his long-standing desire to do so. It genuinely feels that an obsession Ted has had from the first episode is finally being laid to rest, even if it’s with crushing humiliation. In its advanced age, the show is tending to its affairs.

Fitting neatly into the show’s tradition of exploring the central characters via confrontations with their mirror selves, Eoin McLove serves as a dark reflection of Dougal, with all his infantile tendencies and none of his moral fibre. (I realise I’ve harped on about this mirror business quite a lot, but it’s the sheer ubiquity of it that makes it remarkable – this borderline-recursive, Flann O’Brien-esque proliferation of mad reflections feels like an aspect of the show’s very reality.) Specifically, Eoin seems to be a version of Dougal that seems to have been pampered and doted on from a young age, never having had a chance to develop the saving grace that is Dougal’s awareness and acceptance of his own stupidity. (A deleted scene elaborates on this, with Patsy explaining that Eoin has grown so used to being taken care of that he’s entered a kind of “second childhood”. Another scene, sorely missed once you learn it was ever written, had Eoin provoking Jack until he snapped and violently bundled him up inside his own jumper, prompting Dougal to note that he resembled an Easter egg.) Eoin also continues the show’s tradition of media personalities who seem perfect on television but reveal dark double personalities when met in person, others including Henry Sellers and Fred Rickwood. (Indeed, he’s the only one who doesn’t wear that light-blue suit.)

In his off-screen persona, Eoin displays the same blunt, casual rudeness as Dougal, amplified to the point that it affects almost everything he says or does. He even shares Dougal’s uneasy relationship with doors. In many ways, the character is an excuse to push Dougal in interesting new directions, making him cagey and supercilious where Father Damo left him enthralled. Dougal’s relationship with Eoin isn’t entirely unlike his relationship with Father Cyril, but Cyril was always defined as slower and thicker than Dougal – Eoin is quicker, nastier, and makes for a far more satisfying foil. (An early idea of Mathews’s was that every priest who visited the Parochial House would steal something, but only Eoin ever ends up doing it. He’s even given something of a character arc, with his ignorant and dismissive parting words to Mrs Doyle becoming grudging thanks after the siege – more specifically, it’s her banishing of the old women that earns his respect.)

It makes sense – Ardal O’Hanlon and Patrick McDonnell are similar actors, sharing the same a wide-eyed bewilderment and child-like demeanour. (Indeed, McDonnell played the lead role in the pilot of Mathews’s later sitcom, Val Falvey, TD, only to be replaced by O’Hanlon for the series.)

At the Parochial House, McDonnell plays Eoin as restless and evasive, constantly turning and shifting about, usually only facing the audience obliquely. Linehan recalls having to sift through the takes just to find usable ones; he seems to think that McDonnell was uncomfortable acting in front of a live studio audience, and that his failure to make eye contact was an involuntary nervous response, but McDonnell says that it was a deliberate choice meant to give the character a detached quality. The other notable aspect of McDonnell’s performance is his line delivery; he pauses only between sentences, never during them, and tends to lower his pitch substantially in the final syllable, perhaps in an attempt to emulate O’Donnell’s Northern Irish accent. Few actors can ever escape their Ted characters, and McDonnell is more cursed than any other. In 2015, he worked on a German accent for the Hans Gruber role in Try Hard, a promotional comedy short made by Elverys Sports, but was told, “We just want Eoin, thank you very much.”

Linehan’s earliest memory is of getting in trouble for eating jam out of a jar in the kitchen. In the writer’s mind, this image of juvenile greed is probably just part of the psychic terrain of childhood and immaturity, so of course Eoin and Dougal both have to sneak some. Interestingly, this scene’s not the episode’s only reference to jam – as Dougal says of the horde, “It’s like a big tide of jam coming towards us, only jam made out of old women.”

Eoin’s handler, Patsy, has the distinction of being the single most forgettable character in the entire Ted canon – especially in proportion to her considerable screen time. This is no fault of Maria Doyle Kennedy, who remains a talented actress and musician. (She was even in The Commitments – by rights Dougal should have recognised her.) It’s simply that Patsy isn’t built for Craggy Island. She has no great quirk, no distinctive personal failing or mannerism, no catch phrases or one-liners – she’s just a normal, slightly exasperated professional attempting to do her job. It’s a pity the writers couldn’t find more for Kennedy to do, particularly considering how few roles the show had for women. Unlike Father Jessup, she loses the spotlight entirely to the more prominent character she is accompanying. An infantile celebrity, Eoin is a more immediately appealing character concept, and so he draws all the episode’s focus, leaving Patsy something of an empty shell.

Eoin’s first words upon arriving, “What is it? Some kind of mental hospital?”, are oddly insightful. As a place where several mentally aberrant people are essentially confined, the Parochial House could certainly be conceived of as an asylum. The notion is underlined later when Eoin recalls the “demented” poem entered in his competition by “some lunatic”, whom Ted realises is himself. And it’s particularly true with regards to Jack, whom we’ve previously seen restrained by the priests with rope, barbed wire, and a straitjacket, like a caricature of a patient in bedlam. The documentary in the opening scene, a study of Jack’s unspecified mental illness, has some relevance after all.

“I have no willy” is certainly the episode’s most-quoted line, and while it gets a laugh, it doesn’t really work as a resolution for the hints about Eoin’s “terrible secret”. The dialogue was actually suggested by McDonnell himself, who probably didn’t anticipate that it would be shouted at him in the street every day for the rest of his life. The writers normally didn’t allow actors to improvise in that way, but this time they shrugged, deemed it fine, and incorporated it, largely on a whim – Linehan notes that they probably wouldn’t even have been able to if their script had been tighter and more refined. More interesting was the idea it seems to have replaced, the “second childhood” explanation, with its suggestion that Eoin was once a normal man, now regressed as a result of being swaddled in media success. If anything, the final joke is a little transphobic, treating the idea of anatomy that doesn’t conform to gender expectations as inherently funny while linking it to personality disorder, but since it’s a single line in a sitcom episode from 1998, we’ll let it slide. The writers also considered following it with a close-up of Eoin’s crotch to show his impossibly tight pants (using a model rather than McDonnell), but dropped the idea when they realised that it basically made no sense as a visual joke.

Returning to the practise of mirroring characters, we’re given a more obvious mirror in Mrs Boyle, who is a more conniving, clandestine version of Mrs Doyle. Elva Crowley is brilliantly fussy and menacing in her brief appearance – it’s a pity the writers didn’t find a place for Mrs Boyle later in the episode. (Or anywhere else. Come to think of it, how great would Rugged Island have been with Maurice O’Donoghue, Patrick McDonnell, Brendan Grace, and Elva Crowley as the Ted, Dougal, Jack, and Mrs Doyle analogues?) On another note, one wonders where Mrs Dineen is in all this – she’s surely a fan of Eoin’s, too. Having unique or familiar characters among the onslaught of old women would have complicated the zombie parody, but also allowed for a slightly different type of comedy – perhaps this is the sort of idea that would have made it in had the episodes simply been a little longer.

craggy island map

The show gets one of its strangest, most experimental scenes as Mrs Boyle spreads the word of Eoin’s coming. In the style of a World War II propaganda newsreel (and with a soundtrack seemingly lifted from one), we see a stylised map of Craggy Island, accompanied by superimposed footage of Mrs Boyle as she zips about, using increasingly archaic telecommunications methods to broadcast her message to the old women of the island. On one hand, something is irretrievably lost when the island is depicted and made absolute. It’s all well and good to say that it doesn’t have a west side, that it broke off in a storm and drifted away on some Mondas-like voyage, but this sort of joke breaks down once you see the geography for yourself. The map simply can’t and doesn’t live up to all the strange, contradictory hints we’ve been given. Still, the depiction has some lovely touches to make up for this – mysterious galleons with strange rotated-crescent flags circle the shores, the winds of Zephyrus assail the Cyber Café, and a lighthouse stands on a little isle of its own, Craggy Island’s Craggy Island, the next link in a recursive chain.

The connection between ageing women and the pathogenic aspect of zombie fiction is underscored by the episode’s repeated references to diseases and illness, physical as well as mental. First there’s Mrs Boyle’s vow: “I swear I won’t tell anyone. May I be struck down with every disease that it is known for a middle-aged woman to suffer from. And as you and I know, Mrs Doyle, that’s a hell of a lot of diseases.” As the map scene shows, she is the outbreak’s Patient Zero. Later, Eoin displays a related concern about his pursuers: “Go away! I don’t want to catch the menopause!” Like zombies, the women are vectors for an impossible, morphological threat. As a group they’re practically indistinguishable from those in “Escape from Victory”, but here they go from welcome cheerleaders to a monstrous power; less a collection of individuals than a capricious force of nature. (The extras who smash through the front door do so two seconds early, leaving Eoin’s “Oh God, that was close” inaudible, but the production evidently didn’t have a spare fake door lying around for another take.)

As the characters flee, the script called for the screen to show an animated blueprint/map of the house, with a red line charting the characters’ route (similar to Mrs Boyle’s journey earlier on), but studio director Andy De Emmony opted to show their movements more conventionally, joining the actors in the landing with a handheld camera. We finally get to see the wall opposite the stair-top – it has a nice stained-glass window with a pattern resembling a torch – though paradoxically the characters seem to emerge there after running upstairs.

The idea of Mrs Doyle becoming girlishly excited by a morally dubious visitor and attempting to impress him with clothes and make-up is familiar – between Pat Mustard and Eoin, we see her as both maiden and mother (nicely offsetting the usual crone). There’s another hint at this when she remarks, “One of his songs reminds me of the time my husband… I’ve said too much.” Whatever she may be now, Mrs Doyle was once a complete woman with a life of her own, and echoes of this person persist.

The episode’s singular focus on Mrs Doyle’s Dougal-like house guest leave it difficult for Jack to have any kind of subplot, but the writers hit on the clever solution of giving Jack a string of unrelated moments where he simply reacts in funny ways to what’s happening around him. We get him recognising himself in the psychiatrist’s documentary, growling animalistically when Eoin accuses him of smelling like wee, gleefully pulling up a chair to watch the others’ attempts to keep the old women from breaking through the door, and descending into quivering terror when they finally flood the living room. It’s a refreshing and economical use of the character, enough to make one wish he had been written this way more often.

At one point, Jack has a moment of profound lucidity, and theatrically declares: “They lie in wait like wolves… the smell of blood in their nostrils… waiting… interminably waiting… and then…” Dougal is actually the only one of the four main characters not to come up with any poetry in this episode. Likely informed by the doom-saying of Private Fraser in Dad’s Army, Jack’s recital sounds like a pastiche of the brutal war poetry of Wilfred Owen; indeed, Ted previously quoted Owen back in “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, applying a line from a poem about a dead soldier to Jack. Is this another hint that Jack was once a soldier himself? As well as explaining his intense reaction to the French national anthem – Mathews speculates that Jack was in the French Foreign Legion – a youth spent at war adds a tragic dimension to Jack’s life, a suggestion that he was driven to the Church by the things he saw and did, then to alcohol when the solace of religion failed him.

The previous series’s “New Jack City” also hinted at Jack’s deeper nature, having him sent off to Saint Clabbert’s, a home for priests with the “hairy hands disease”. Interestingly, the other residents shared Jack’s catch phrases exactly. Does the drink-feck-arse-girls condition lead to hairy hands, or is it the other way round? Sadly the documentary is cut short before it can reveal any answers, so we can only assume it’s some kind of abusive, alcoholic ouroboros.

The episode asks more of Neil Hannon than most, and he delivers as usual. First, he writes and performs “My Lovely Mayo Mammy”, the song to which Eoin lip-synchs. (The priests do not notice that Eoin’s singing voice is identical to the ones they dreamt for themselves in “A Song for Europe”.) While it’s clearly a mockery of O’Donnell’s mawkishly sweet songs, Hannon can’t help but add an undercurrent of sincerity and regret, effortlessly elevating the parody above the quality of its target – removed from the episode’s ludicrous context, it’s a viable piece of music. In 2009, Hannon revisited this territory with the song “Mother Dear”, a heartfelt if sentimental tribute to his own mother – it’s necessarily saccharine by its very subject-matter, but Hannon’s detached irony and layered lyrics make the second try more effective, like a quality Eoin McLovesong from a parallel world.

Most impressive of all is the gothic, horror-tinged arrangement of the Father Ted theme created for the scenes where the old women mob the house. Hannon plays the theme’s opening four notes on a theremin, repeatedly, using the sound of church organ as a towering backdrop. Both theremin and organ rise endlessly, but the scenes cut short before they reach whatever unimaginable climax they were approaching. It’s an incredible amount of effort for a piece of background music used only in action scenes where it won’t even register with most viewers, and is enough to make one wish, again, for that elusive soundtrack album. (For Ted’s poetry montage he composes a modest piano piece that sounds like it could be an outtake from one of his earlier albums – a slightly more bittersweet “Festive Road”, or a faster “Ten Seconds to Midnight”. We also get some supermarket muzak, and a little horror ambience for the cliffhanger.)

Ironically, the gigantic bingo-game diversion idea which Ted shoots down is no less credible than the manner in which many episodes are resolved – logical problems like the lack of a printing press only ever manifest in reality if mentioned directly in dialogue.

In the end, it’s one of their own who stops them – Mrs Doyle. Realising that elderly husbands across the island will soon be waking, she convinces their wives to return home through the power of sheer gender essentialism. Crucially, a late rewrite transferred this dialogue from Ted to Mrs Doyle. The show’s inherent feminism is a little lax in the third series, with the writers, having made their views on the matter perfectly clear in “Rock a Hula Ted”, lapsing somewhat into depicting the priests’ sexist values without much critique (again, it feels like Patsy could have been used more interestingly here). As Mrs Doyle says herself, Eoin’s songs remind her of her husband; these social roles are linked. With the insight granted by her shared nature with the invaders, Mrs Doyle is able to channel their smothering motherly impulses into wifely ones. The zombie metaphor frays as the episode progresses, first with the old women cutting the telephone lines, then with the rooster’s crow at sunrise, which carries echoes of the vampire; even the cockatrice, the basilisk. She could have banished them earlier, of course, but the crow provides a symbolic, subtextually supernatural turning point rather than a logical plot one.

It wasn’t until they recorded the commentary track in 2007 that Linehan realised what Mrs Doyle’s perfect closing line would have been: “Your husbands need mothers too.”

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