The Dark Night of the Soul (Going to America)

going to america imageThe Father Ted opening sequence was filmed primary above Inisheer by director Declan Lowney and producer Geoffrey Perkins, fading to a shot of the Glanquin House in County Clare to represent the Parochial House itself. (Craggy Island can be imagined as a layered matryoshka-doll structure – a London studio in a Clare house in an Inisheer field.) With the credits superimposed over fading shots of green fields, it closely resembles the opening titles of The Vicar of Dibley (a show of the type Ted was largely conceived as a subversive response to). The final shot has the helicopter itself suddenly become part of the text as the pilot loses control, hurtling towards Ted, Dougal, Jack, and Mrs Doyle as they wave from outside their front door. The writers were initially unsure about the sequence’s perceived “Oirishness”, and only became satisfied after adding the helicopter crash, which they considered an appropriate signifier of the show’s subversive, off-kilter qualities.

In the opening shots, another island – Rugged, presumably – is visible in the background. As we soar across the beach, we see the wreck of the MV Plassey, an otherwise unremarkable 1940s steam trawler which is now a tourist attraction, inextricably linked with the show. Seen approximately 25 times as often as an average scene, the opening sequence has become one of the show’s most iconic aspects, to the point that Inisheer is identified deeply with Craggy Island despite barely being used by the production. As a result, it’s particularly interesting to discover something new in the sequence – look very closely during the second-last shot, and you can just make out an indistinct figure, a fifth person, detaching itself from the group and retreating into the house. (British sitcom fans may recall the first series of The Young Ones, where the director infamously hid an eerie extra, a fifth housemate, in the background of several scenes.) The door is already open, and the figure closes it behind itself, turning that dark speck to a white one. (Perhaps there’s even a sixth person, standing in the doorway, calling the other one in – it’s hard to tell.) The real-world identity of the figure, or figures, remains unknown, but considering his fear of flying, Graham Linehan is one strong candidate. Within the fiction, however, there are no easy answers.

At first glance, the characters appear to be waving at the helicopter – they’re positioned neatly outside the front door, as if they were aware that an airborne camera crew would be passing above and wished to greet them. On closer inspection, their waves become anxious and frenzied, clearly attempts to shoo the aircraft away. Since the scene was recorded from a stationary helicopter, the collision is achieved by applying a splintering video effect and crashing sounds as the camera zooms in on the characters, “Chirpy Burpy Cheap Sheep”-style. They hurl themselves – and each other – to the ground, as if attempting to duck beneath the aircraft rather than dodge it. The placement of the sequence in the narrative – when and how a helicopter crashed in front of the Parochial House – is never made clear. A morbid viewer might speculate that it’s actually a flash-forward, that it depicts the ultimate fate of the characters – tragic death in a freak accident.

In “Going to America”, the opening credits include not only the names of the leads, but those of Tommy Tiernan, Jeff Harding, Hugh B O’Brien, and Mark Doherty. Normally guest actors are listed in the end credits… but this episode doesn’t have any.

The choice of a sophisticated Beverly Hills parish as the distant, tantalising alternative that threatens to lure Ted away from Craggy Island in his ultimate hour is an apt one – as a people, the Irish have historically had something of a fixation on America. This can be traced back to the War of Independence, and our general vicarious approval of anyone throwing off the yoke of British oppression, but the idea of the Unites States as something to be yearned for originates with the Great Famine, when those who could emigrated there and those who couldn’t starved. The episode trades in cultural territory that’s very Irish and very poignant. It’s no mistake that a comparable moment serves as the breaking point between Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis – there’s a well-established sense in which “America” is shorthand for “life-changing escape from years of Irish misery”. Granted, America isn’t mentioned throughout Ted in this way, but as a symbol it’s potent enough to provide the backdrop for the finale – the dream on the horizon. Going to America is real and irreversible in a way that going to a nice Dublin parish just isn’t.

Over the course of the show, Ted displays a growing capacity to help others. Fixing the fuel line in “Flight Into Terror”, leading the priests to escape from the lingerie section in “A Christmassy Ted”, and now reaching out to save Father Kevin from suicide. None of these acts are motivated purely by compassion – the former cases find Ted in the same bind, while his intervention with Kevin is partly down to the twenty quid he owes him. Still, all these incidents are unified by a common thread of decisiveness and clear-headedness, a willingness to take responsibility for the problems of others. Dermot Morgan was always very comfortable under the spotlight, and it’s possible that this quality of Ted’s developed unintentionally as the scripts were tailored to the actor’s strengths. Ted, for all his flaws, has within him the potential to be a strong and (more or less) benevolent leader figure.

The third series also gives Ted a more overt character arc, covering his gradual transformation from someone who would do anything to escape Craggy Island to someone who actively refuses to leave it. The first scene of the series premiere, “Are You Right There Father Ted?”, finds Ted newly promoted to the idyllic Castlelawn Parochial House, where the mere mention of his previous parish is enough to make his blood run cold. By the time we reach “Going to America”, the prospect of leaving the island has become a source of intense emotional confusion for Ted, and it’s ultimately a step he’s unwilling to make – he might seize on the Beverly Hills gang problem as an excuse, but we all know the real reason behind his angst. Granted, the changes in attitude Ted must have undergone throughout the intervening seven episodes aren’t depicted in any great detail, but still constitute a dramatic inversion of Ted’s attitude towards the central engine that drives the show.

Father Buzz Cagney was based on a real person, a relative of Paul Woodfull’s wife whom Mathews met at Woodfull’s wedding. An Irish man who’d spent time in Seattle, he was an amusingly in-your-face and assertive go-getter, at one point correcting a waitress on how to pour champagne while smoothly addressing her by the name he read off her tag. “I play hard, but I work hard, too”, he’d say. Jeff Harding was cast, likely thanks to his winning performance as Ed Winchester in The Fast Show, and Buzz was born. The writers initially wanted to have Buzz show Ted a promotional video of his parish, with American priests playing video games and working out in a gym, but in the end it was scaled back to a pamphlet. The name chosen for the fictional parish is Saint John’s, which could refer to Saint John of the Cross, the author of Dark Night of the Soul, the 16th-century poem Kevin invokes an in attempt to describe his feelings. However, the concept it outlines is not straightforward depression, but a process of spiritual purification leading to unification with God. We can view “Going to America”, the entire third series, or even Father Ted itself as Ted’s equivalent experience.

The episode makes excellent use of music, positioning Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” and Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” as enormously powerful songs that can warp the suggestible Father Kevin’s emotions from sheer joy to crushing depression. The subtle darkening of the screen as Kevin’s expression changes, whether careful lighting or a lucky trick of the weather, is brilliant. Given the show’s occasional Stephen King references, perhaps Kevin’s fate was informed by ‘Salem’s Lot, as it’s almost exactly how Father Callahan’s story ends in that book: an Irish Catholic priest, broken and defeated, hitching a one-way bus ride out of town. The follow-up in the Dark Tower series even has Callahan committing suicide by jumping from the window of a high-rise building. (Alas, Kevin does not go on to become an inter-dimensional vampire hunter – as far as we know.)

Shaft has always been part of the show’s DNA, with the first series’s Donegal Priest literally being referred to as “Shaft Priest” in the script. That said, the Shaft scene is hard to watch if you know the story behind it. Tommy Tiernan flubbed his lines repeatedly, meaning that Morgan had to perform the dance several times, despite complaining of pains in his chest. It was thought among the cast that this might have contributed to the heart attack – at the funeral, O’Hanlon approached Tiernan and said “You’ve killed Father Ted!” (Gallows humour, not resentment – they both laughed.)

Mathews always wanted a Radiohead song to bring back Kevin’s depression, but Linehan thought the scene would be funnier with traditional Irish music (which both he and Mathews hate). The choice was actually a major sticking point between the writers, who supposedly argued about it for three months. The script specified an “incredibly depressing” Radiohead single titled “Asleep”, which does not actually exist – perhaps a misremembered “Creep”? Regardless, “Exit Music” won out in the end.

In one of the show’s most bizarre moments, the opening scene has Ted being introduced to a Father Brian Eno, played by legendary record producer and close David Bowie collaborator… Brian Eno. It’s over quickly, with the scene moving on before what’s just happened can even register. Since Eno isn’t enormously recognisable to people who don’t follow music, it’s easy to miss, almost wilfully so – the ultimate Easter egg. Incidentally, this isn’t the last brush Eno would have with Ted personnel. Back in 1996, Eno had published A Year with Swollen Appendices, essentially a diary he wrote over the previous year plus a collection of miscellaneous essays. On the back cover was a little column, starting with the words “I am” and continuing with a list of thirty nouns by which Eno identifies: “a mammal”, “an Anglo-Saxon”, “a company director”, and finally “a ‘drifting clarifier'” (that last one being Stewart Brand’s slightly confusing description of Eno as “someone who generally helps out in thinking situations, but is not stuck to one in particular”.) In 1999, Ted composer Neil Hannon glanced at the back of the book and decided he’d set the list to music, opting for distorted, echoing vocals over a tribal beat and strings that would evoke both the list’s primal nature and its transcendence. The track, naturally titled “I Am”, was released as a B-side to Hannon’s single “Gin Soaked Boy”, another entry in the “list song” genre which has always fascinated him so. (Fortuitiously, both “Songs of Love” and “My Lovely Horse” were included in the same release; Eno is credited as writer of the lyrics, though it seems he essentially just allowed his poem to be used.) Hannon reads out the entire list, then cycles back through it, now choosing nouns freely to fit the crescendoing music. (It’s unclear whether Hannon is describing Eno or himself – there’s some elision between the two musicians, as nearly all the nouns could describe either.) If for some ungodly reason you’ve ever wished that individual minor Ted characters had their own theme music, then this track is damn well Father Brian Eno’s.

(Incidentally, I rewatched this episode shortly after I started listening to Jean Michel Jarre’s music in 2015, and was a little startled to notice Ted mention him as a more entertaining alternative to his sermons. The show really does make fantastic use of references; it’s littered with minor jokes that become clearer as you consume more of the media that happened to be on the writers’ minds at the time. “Oxygène (Part IV)” will never quite be the same.)

Permeating much of the episode is the feeling of things coming full circle – a sense of looking back on the last 24 episodes, acknowledging their concerns, and laying some of them to rest. It becomes something of a greatest-hits record long before its grand closing montage.

The cynical old parishioner, Eugene, is clearly the same character as Pat Harty from “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” (in reality, the writers occasionally forgot to change a name after realising that a minor role might as well be combined with a previous character). The basic image of a procession of parishioners is also very much the type of thing seen in earlier episodes but phased out as the series broadened and progressed.

When we join Ted after the episode’s second Mass (conducted, as always, off-screen), we’re in the chapel’s sacristy, a location we haven’t seen since “And God Created Woman”. Back then, the scene could be recorded inside an actual church, but the production only got away with that because it was the first series – now that the show was known, they had to settle for building a replica on a soundstage. Ted previously had Dougal to attend to him, but here he’s got a dedicated choirboy (played by an extra who visibly struggles not to laugh at the dialogue as he massages Morgan’s shoulders). The motif of Mass as boxing recurs, with Ted’s body language fluctuating between Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction.

During one attempt to tell the others that they cannot accompany him to America, Ted backpedals and improvises an elaborate lie about being chosen to become the first priest in space. This isn’t just a random fabrication, but the culmination of a subtle, seemingly accidental running joke. Ted previously feared that Sister Assumpta would send him and Dougal to space, and on another occasion mistook Bishop Jordan’s musings on Apollo 13 to mean that he’d had his heart attack there. One of Father Jessup’s sarcastic responses also involved being sent by NASA to carry out important work in space. And it doesn’t stop there: Mathews and Woodfull had previously written The Starship Róisín, a sketch series for The Ian Dempsey Show on RTÉ Radio in the late 80s. A Star Trek parody, its crew included Capain Bono, his Vulcan sidekick Stephen “Spock” Roche, cook Darina Alien, and chaplain Father Ted. It was deemed a little strange for its slot, and when RTÉ suggested launching a spin-off called Tea and Toast with Tony and Ted, the writers fled.

Mrs Doyle’s hint, “The thing you’ll be eating likes pheasant as well!”, is a callback to the opening scene of “Are You Right There Father Ted?”, where Mrs Dunne, the housekeeper of the perfect parish, really does promise Ted pheasant.

As in the first episode aired, Ted goes to great lengths to conceal an important truth from the other inhabitants of the Parochial House. With the former deception, Ted hoped to get on television, callously leaving the others behind so that he could take the spotlight in Faith of Our Fathers. In “Going to America”, that lie is reversed: rather than become part of a show, he hopes to quietly depart from one, leaving the others behind. In other words, he’s thinking about quitting Father Ted. As he returns to the others, we hear the slow, melancholy synth version of the main theme that’s previously only been used to mark Jack’s death in the first episode written. Nothing changes on Craggy Island, even when everything does.

Conversely, “Going to America” is also an episode of new perspectives and new beginnings. As the Tarot reader in the first episode told us, the card represents not only the Death of an old way of life, but the beginning of a new one.

Ted’s vision of Jack performing “Apple Blossom Time” is certainly unprecedented – the moment was essentially written as a gift to Frank Kelly, a rare chance to act without make-up and deliver some non-exclamatory lines. Unfortunately, we don’t get the scripted shot of Jack singing with the Dougal-dog in his lap and the Mrs Doyle-child at his side, presumably because it was too difficult to film. (At Dougal’s confused “I am going, aren’t I? You wouldn’t— you wouldn’t leave me behind, would you?”, there’s a moan of amused but genuine sympathy from the studio audience. The only moment in the entire show to elicit a comparable reaction is Mrs Doyle’s breakdown when Ted replaces her with the Teamaster in the Christmas special, but this time there’s an element of real drama in the equation.)

After the episode’s first Mass, Ted tells Dougal about a film he’s seen recently: “And Harrison Ford jumps off the plane, and as he’s falling, he fires back up at the plane!” This description is lifted, almost word-for-word, from the 1995 Seinfeld episode “The Engagement”, where characters discuss a sequence from Firestorm, a fictional Harrison Ford film. (It’s mentioned again in “The Pool Guy” and “The Rye” later in the season; other sequences allegedly involve an underwater escape and a helicopter landing atop a car.) This is the first time Ted has ever referred directly to fictional elements from another work. The Craggy Islanders often watch real-world films or read real-world books, but here that tradition is suddenly inverted, with Ted casually referring to something that exists only in the Seinfeld universe. Presumably Linehan and Mathews simply wanted to acknowledge the third series’s debt to that show, but they do so in a curiously roundabout, almost fourth-wall-breaking manner – it seems to suggest a lateral or equal relationship, almost as if the show is beginning to meld with a wider world in preparation for its approaching end. (Father Ted, in turn, would receive a similar reference in the final episode of The IT Crowd. The story “The Internet Is Coming” involved a video of Roy and Jen going viral, so Linehan went online to ask fans to send photos of themselves “reacting” near landmarks for a fictional Channel 4 news montage. Two unrelated photos that made it into the episode have people standing outside the Ted house, though, of course, whether they’re diegetically standing outside Glanquin House, Craggy Island Parochial House, or Rugged Island Parochial House is open to interpretation.)

Buzz’s presence as an American interloper also provides a chance to view Craggy Island from an outsider’s perspective. We’re given genuinely new pieces of information, like Dougal’s status as Ted’s curate, and for the first time we’re asked to consider the parish (and, therefore, everything we’ve seen the priests get up to) as a business, one that pulls in £150–200 a year. The fact that Ted and Dougal sleep together is mentioned directly for the first time. We even get to see a baby Dougal, courtesy of an old photo of O’Hanlon. The audience laughs when Mrs Doyle announces that she’s had all the furniture taken away and burnt, but when we cut to the stark, empty living room, there’s a genuine sense that something has been lost. (And let’s spare a thought for poor old Father Jessup, who presumably burnt to death within the underpants hamper, Wicker Man-style.) The Parochial House is as familiar to us as our own homes, and the wholesale destruction of its clutter and paraphernalia is a distressing act of iconoclasm.

When the scene cuts to the airport, it’s startling to consider that we’ll never see Craggy Island again. Except for a brief interlude recorded on the old “Flight Into Terror” plane set, the rest of the episode was shot on location at Shannon Airport. Identifiable and familiar, it feels disconcertingly real, right down to the Aer Lingus logos plastered all over the walls (the writers forgot to have those “Flyanair” signs made). The Oifig Fáilte sign over the tourist office seems to be the first instance of the Irish language in the entire show – it’s a little too late to worry about alienating English viewers now.

In her final line (ever), Mrs Doyle casually mentions that she hasn’t told her sister about going to America – a sister whose existence has never even been hinted at. Is it someone we’ve already met – perhaps the nun McLynn played in “Flight Into Terror”, or even Mrs Dineen? There’s a sense that the writers are setting up potential storylines that they have no intention of ever exploring – it’s a definite ending laced with possibility, and the earlier suggestion that the show is set in the Seinfeld universe plays into the conclusion’s shaggy-dog-story nature. It’s not just the episode that’s ending – it’s much more than that, and we can almost feel the disintegration.

Morgan’s death came a day after recording wrapped on the final episode; a day after the actors threw their collars into the audience. All sorts of moments and phrases in earlier episodes take on a near-prophetic quality afterwards, almost as if the ending were preordained. Ted drawing three Death cards in that early lift from Terry Pratchett’s Mort; Father Liam Finnegan and Bishop Jordan succumbing to heart attacks; Dougal mistaking Ted for a too-young ghost. We could even implicate that fifth figure, that ill omen shadowing our heroes at the beginning of each episode as the doomed helicopter closes in. Linehan has often said that he believes Morgan, on some level, kept himself alive those last few weeks out of sheer determination – that his body finally “gave up” once he had completed the project he loved, cementing his legacy. Forget the usual “Ireland’s Princess Diana” comparison: Morgan was our Bowie, and the third series was his Blackstar – his parting gift to the world. He remained excited about future projects until the end, but on some primal level, he may well have known this would be his last.

In earlier drafts, the episode jumps forward a month after Ted announces the news to the others, and has him become enormously popular because the prospect of America is inspiring him to write brilliant sermons. Teenagers queue for autographs, and everyone on Craggy Island signs a petition to Bishop Brennan asking that Ted be made to stay – including, to Buzz’s confusion, Ted himself. Continuing the boxing metaphor, Buzz has the reluctant Ted “throw” a Mass, deliberately disappointing his parishioners so that they will allow him to leave. It’s an extraneous subplot, and its removal doesn’t change the plot substantially, but these details further illustrate the sweep of Ted’s struggle. Indeed, if he’d already decided (more or less) that he did not want the promotion this early in the story, why stop there? Perhaps Ted, on some level he cannot consciously acknowledge, actually wanted his financial indiscretions in Castlelawn to be noticed – wanted to be sent back to Craggy Island? We might even look farther back, and speculate that a sense of alienation from the normal world, a jaded longing for something different, may well have been operating on some level of his mind the fateful day he took that trip to Las Vegas.

The show originally ended with a flash-forward to the “It’s Still Great Being a Priest!” conference, where Ted finds Kevin on the same window ledge, on the verge of suicide once again. Rather than attempting to coax Kevin back in, he joins him on the ledge, saying “Move up a bit.” As Ted struggles to decide whether to end his life, the episode ends. This scene was filmed, but the audience found it baffling and unfunny. One problem was that it made the episode a little too symmetrical, to the point that viewers might have mistaken it for some sort of dream sequence or flashback to the opening scene. Another was that it was a jarringly morbid ending for a light-hearted sitcom – not that that can’t work (eg, Blackadder Goes Forth), but Ted simply hadn’t laid the groundwork needed for that kind of darkness and intensity to feel earned and satisfying. Another issue was the implication that Ted spiralled into depression after learning that the others never really wanted to go to America, that he could have abandoned them with a clear conscience. This doesn’t sit well with the rest of the episode, or the show – Ted is a man who has grown entwined with Craggy Island, and his unorthodox flock have become as fundamental to him as he has to them. After Morgan died, there was no question – Father Ted could not end like this. Something had to be done.

The suicide ending was cut and hidden away, and to this day has never been released. (In 2004, producer Lissa Evans took to the show’s Wikipedia talk page in an attempt to quash rumours that the third series had been edited heavily following Morgan’s fatal heart attack. She stated that she had made only two cuts, each to a different episode; the other change remains unknown.) Replacing the scene is a montage of clips from the previous 24 episodes, in the reverse of the broadcast order. Not all clips feature Ted, as one might expect, but a broader selection of scenes and characters, the effect being to celebrate the legacy of the show itself as much as Morgan. The end credits are removed entirely to make space (both temporal and emotional), and it’s all set to an affecting, extended version of the main theme, with “Down with this sort of thing! / Careful now!” from “The Passion of Saint Tibulus” the only other sound making it into in the mix. The very last moment combines audio of Ted and Dougal saying goodnight to each other (taken from an early scene in “New Jack City“) with footage of one of the Parochial House’s upstairs lights turning off. This was really the only practical way to give the character a peaceful send-off without having Morgan available for filming – every viewer is aware, on one level or other, that “Night, Ted” really means “Goodbye, Dermot”.

Aside from casting a retroactive funereal pall across the show, Morgan’s untimely death effectively serves to seal Father Ted away, preserving it from any impulse to meddle or expand. The writers soon had to field phone calls from agents who hoped their clients could be cast as the new Ted, but the idea is as laughable now as it was then. There can be no ill-advised revival, no sequel to mar perfection. The day Morgan died, Father Ted became immortal.

As the artist Shota Kotake points out, each episode of Ted works as a straightforward Catholic morality play: sinful behaviour (such as Ted’s selfish lies) is always followed by punishment, while the innocent (often Dougal) are left unscathed or even rewarded. But there’s another twist in this tale. If Craggy Island is purgatory, a place where sinners serve their time before the day they can pass to the next world, then “Going to America” is that day – Ted’s reckoning. In that case… what sort of a man, at the brink of escaping the fires of purification, chooses to stay behind?

Father Ted is the story of a man who learns the value of the outcast, the imperfect, the disaffected; a man who decides to stop chasing the shallow dreams that cloud his view of the family he has found, and learns that the grass is never greener on the other side; a man who realises that purgatory can be a kind of home, too, and that purity is no good if it burns away what you are. I think it’s the best story, and I hope I’ve gone some way towards explicating why.

Night, Ted.

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