This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spiked and the series cancelled.
‘Nobody comes. Nobody goes. Nothing happens. It’s awful!’
– Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett
Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser.
And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.
But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for.
Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?
Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.
Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.
Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.
Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’
Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’
‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’
‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.
They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.
Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’
Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’
You know my mother??
Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’
Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’
What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another?
Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’
Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’
Where did the idea for Ted come from?
Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’
Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’
It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.
Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’
Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’
The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust.
Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’
Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’
Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….
Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.
Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted.
Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’
I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?
Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’
Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise.
‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’
Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.
‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’
Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?
‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’
Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on.