With remarkably ill-chosen timing, perhaps the only two new home-grown programmes worth watching this festive season were broadcast head-to-head: Eric and Ernie on BBC2 up against Father Ted Night on C4. Of course with the joys of iPlayer and 4OD – and I gather some new fangled technology of ‘video-recording’ – one can watch them anytime. But still …
Not being able to cope with Victoria Wood in E&E, I opted for FTN, and the delights of writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, plus many, but inevitably not all, cast members from the finest comedy of the 1990s.
As with all the greats – Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp and Mr Benn – there were remarkably few episodes: just 25. That’s little over a season of some US shows. Within this, they invented a unique comedy – one that clearly has proved hard to live up to for some.
Linehan is the subsequently more successful – having gone on to write the IT Crowd – and has embraced new tech comedy garnering 77,000 followers as @glinner on twitter.
Arthur Mathews gave the impression of being the spitting image and soundalike of their own Most Boring Priest. Linehan clearly admires him as a comedy god (did the Greeks have a god of comedy?), which is a little lost on the viewers, as he seems to say only the mildest of remarks.
And as befits the subject, the evening was pretty loosely structured. ‘Unintelligent Design’ on the comedic inspirations and origins in the opening 9.05 pm slot, could just as easily have been merged with ’Small, Far Away – the World of Father Ted’ at 10.05 pm, with two favourite episodes interspersed.
Small, Far Away was kept together broadly around a travelogue across different locations in Ireland, and featured actors and comedians who populated the programme.
The sites – the Parochial House, the Caravan Park – have become points of pilgrimage for fans. And the minor characters likewise are also rightly venerated, as the myriad small and brilliant inventions that added comedic depth.
Many of the performers were Irish stand-up comics – seemingly everyone got a cameo in there somewhere, as Graham Norton (Father Noel Furlong) admitted. Perhaps most striking was to see a dapper Frank Kelly – a fine Irish actor – transform into the grotesque Father Jack Hackett.
And I now realise why the show’s Eurovision parody “My Lovely Horse” is actually one of my favourite songs – it was written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon who also created the evocative theme tune. And nice that their fabulously crap video was based on the real 1975 Irish Eurovision entry.
Most movingly, of course, it extolled the virtues and didn’t hide the acting vices of Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted, and died the evening after filming the last episode of the third, and what was always intended to be the last, series.
It is hard to envisage how Morgan would ever have grown beyond the role. Perhaps for such reasons Pauline McLynn who played housekeeper Mrs Doyle didn’t take part in this retrospective (she may also regret reprising the role for the unspeakable HMRC Income Tax ads).
At the end of it all we were actually left with an sense of wistful sadness hanging over the whole night, and not just because of the tragically early death of Morgan (and Geoffrey Perkins the inspiring producer behind this and many other shows).
It was perhaps because being such a huge success few manage to escape its shadow – Ardal O’Hanlon may be happily living his life after Ted, but seems destined forever to be Father Dougal. And Linehan and Mathews admit to only now realising what an extraordinary creation they were part of.
I didn’t stay up to watch their own favourite film comedy, Charles Grodin’s The Heartbreak Kid. That looked to be one step of devotion too far. Maybe one day.
posted by arialbold