Happy Birthday, Father Ted

Everything just came together for the show. Ireland had just emerged from the 80s and early 90s with a bit of cultural clout, however overblown or naff many of our exports were, so the timing was good for a sitcom about the place.

Father Ted was, and is, my favourite TV show ever. Why? Well, why isn't it yours? There you go. It's always hard to say why something is your favourite. But it is, and it has been for 20 years now. If my house was on fire, I'd definitely consider popping back inside to get my three different Ted boxsets. Yes, I know it's on Netflix. No, I wouldn't actually go back in.

There's not much point in explaining what's so great about Father Ted. If you've seen it, you already know. You can't NOT get the appeal, unless maybe you're some kind of eejit. It's a glorious mish-mash of different things. It's a live-action cartoon. It's broad comedy in some ways, but not exactly. It's hilarious and bleak. It's entirely daft and somehow very real. I'd bet that anyone can understand what's going on, regardless of where they grew up, or what they actually think Ireland is like. If, for some reason, you haven't seen it and you're looking for reference points, think The Simpsons (ridiculous, experimental), Fawlty Towers (man rages against the world) and Seinfeld (you get the picture), only with three priests and a housekeeper on a godforsaken island in the Atlantic.

It's also the quickest way to show someone what it's actually like to be Irish. Not just the way we think, or how we talk, but also the semi-isolation of the place (we're a bit behind but sure we're trying our best). What better way to torment the characters and emphasise their pitiful situation than to banish them to an island off the main island, off the big island that sits there and looks over our shoulder at us every day? There's an unvarnished weirdness to the whole show that amplifies the slightly-behind-the-times, scraggly, parochial nature of much of Irish life. It said a lot about people getting "ideas above their station", not to mention our history of sweeping things under the carpet. Its harsh, unforgiving landscape is found along the west coast, where communities have simply vanished in the last few decades - in Ted's world, there's nothing left but maniacs and the profoundly stubborn. Every Irish family, as I'm sure you've heard, has a Mrs. Doyle. Most families, sadly, have a Father Jack. Nobody really has a Dougal, but you could say he's a wild country boy crossed with a farmer's dog - both of which we have in abundance. Father Ted IS Ireland.

But more than that, it's full of everything that's great and stupid in the world. It's there when you need it. It's something you can rely on. It's warm and it makes you feel good. What's more, no matter what conversation you're having, there's always a Ted quote that fits. And the little things are important, too: The attention to detail. Neil Hannon's gorgeous theme tune. The knack they had of telegraphing a joke for the fun of it and making the payoff surpass expectations. The names. Oh, the names.

Everything just came together for the show. Ireland had just emerged from the 80s and early 90s with a bit of cultural clout, however overblown or naff many of our exports were, so the timing was good for a sitcom about the place. In Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, it had two writers who were ready for something big, having honed their craft together over the years. Channel 4 gave them the leeway they needed to just get on with what needed to be done. They had the great Geoffrey Perkins on board, producing. Declan Lowney did a sterling job of directing the majority of the episodes. And I don't think it's an exaggeration to state that everyone on screen (including Brian Eno, who was suitably ambient) gave career-best performances, which is quite something. Dozens of Irish comics - old and new, big and small - appeared here and there, each raising their game. It had energy, there was a constant stream of jokes and something weird was always about to happen. I suppose it was Ireland's answer to The Young Ones.

Most characters essentially had one defining trait. The Drunk Priest. The Stupid Priest. The Dancing Priest. The manic one. The sarcastic one. The unlucky one. The boring one. The Nazi. The depressive. The gambler. Even Ted could be summed up fairly easily, although he was basically a real person. Who was he, then? The Lying Priest? The Rogue Priest? No, he was just a man with a collar, who made poor decisions and got crapped on every time he tried to talk his way out of whatever he'd previously talked himself into. A guy who felt unfairly maligned and veered between bemoaning his lot in life and wearily accepting his fate. He could be spiteful, petty, impatient, insensitive - but he usually found his way back to doing the decent thing and tried to look out for those around him, albeit in the most half-assed fashion you could imagine. He did try occasionally to step up and be the hero, too, or the dad, or the carer.

A lot of the time, of course, he acted under duress. Whether hounded by Bishop Brennan, forced to say every Mass because of the psychedelic incompetence of his housemates, blackmailed with the spectre of his accounting irregularities or simply painted into a corner by his own pathological waffle, he usually either led by default or because he was given no choice. But when all is said and done, we love Ted Crilly because, even though he was a big eejit, he was human. Most of all, we love him because he was Dermot Morgan.

Happy 20th birthday to Father Ted.


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