Altar egos of the sitcom

With a reverential love of classic comedy, the double-act behind Father Ted is pushing TV gagdom in a new direction. By James Rampton
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Unsolicited sitcom scripts that make it to the screen are about as common as cabinet ministers resigning out of a sense of honour. When the manuscript of Father Ted was sent in on spec to Geoffrey Perkins, then director of Hat Trick Productions and now the BBC's head of comedy, the premise wasn't promising. "A show about three priests on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland was not a priority," Perkins recalls, "but it was a joy. I live in hope of picking up a script like Father Ted again."

He's not the only one. It may have a daft "sit" - Father Ted (Dermot Morgan) has to find ever more bizarre ways to alleviate the boredom of life at the Parochial House on Craggy Island with the terminally stupid Father Dougal (Ardal O'Hanlon) and the terminally drunk Father Jack (Frank Kelly) - but that merely adds to the "com". In just one series, the show has established itself as a cult classic and breathed new life into the supposedly moribund sitcom form. It won the title of Best New TV Comedy at last year's British Comedy Awards, and the Daily Mail enthused that it was "quite the funniest thing on TV" (although its Sunday sister was less keen: "an orang-utan could produce something funnier," it lamented.)

In the process, the series has made stars of its writers, two sparky young Irishmen called Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews. Filling in time in the production office before a recording of the show at the London Studios, Mathews - small, balding, fair - picks at a baked potato while Linehan - tall, shaggy, dark - smokes his way through a fistful of Marlboro Lights. Taking it in turns to feed each other punchlines, they are something of an off-screen double-act.

They met on Hot Press magazine in Dublin - Linehan was the film critic, Mathews the art director. Linehan remembers that "we just fell in love. Arthur fell down the stairs on purpose just to get a laugh." Coming over to London in the early Nineties, they bombarded companies with scripts. After a few years of lowly billing on such shows as Alas Smith and Jones, The All New Alexei Sayle Show, The Day Today, The Fast Show, Saturday Night Armistice, Paris and Coogan's Run, they are now topping the bill.

They admit to failures. "On Paris, we couldn't find a tone," Mathews says. "The main character [a Parisian artist from the Twenties played by Alexei Sayle] was the weakest. All he did was react to the madder characters around him." He also concedes that "our plots are kind of flimsy. What we really enjoy is the dialogue and the messing around. It's not what happens; it's the silliness that counts."

But that has not stopped them being very much in demand. Perkins and Seamus Cassidy, his counterpart at Channel 4, were deep in conversation at the launch of Father Ted, held in the gloomy crypt of St Ethelreda's, the oldest Catholic church in London. Could they - like free-spending football managers - have been bidding for the talented striking partnership of Linehan and Mathews? Cassidy laughs: "If I had my way, they'd be put in a big room with a computer and all the music they wanted and gourmet food carried in to them. Through a window into the next room, they'd see huge piles of dosh, and I'd tell them, 'You're not leaving until you write your next series.' They're gold dust."

How have they become such hot properties? What distinguishes their writing from run-of-the-mill, three-piece-suite sitcoms? Cassidy continues in eulogy overdrive. "They have a lightness of touch, an ability to float from a real situation to an extremely bizarre interlude. They are able to do jokes that are extremely subtle and that you have to be up very early in the morning to understand right alongside man-getting-covered- in-sewage jokes. With Father Ted, they've created a world with its own logic; in that world, you can have a priest as stupid as Dougal. Like all good comedy writing, however far the setting is from your life, something in it illuminates the human condition. There are moments in Father Ted when you think, 'Ah, yes, I've felt that, too.' "

Morgan, lounging on a sofa in denim mufti at the London Studios, delivers his own hero-gram to Linehan and Mathews. "On a hard, pragmatic level," he reckons, "there are several laughs a page. There has been a bad tradition of a laboured laugh or a pun every three pages - 'My Situation Next Door'; you know - the kind of cardboard things that came on in the Seventies. Father Ted is light years away from that."

It certainly is. You can't imagine the surreal sight of priests taking part in an Elvis lookalike competition on, say, 2.4 Children. Like the most memorable sitcoms (Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave, Men Behaving Badly), Father Ted has a healthy appetite for violence. In the opening episode of the second series, a naked man clutches on to Ted's bonnet as the priest blithely drives along for several miles before stopping suddenly to eject the unwanted passenger. "The best humour has a bit of cruelty to it," Morgan smiles. "Graham and Arthur come from the sado-comic school. At one point, Ardal and I have to stand there while a lorry-load of raw sewage is disgorged on us. Amnesty have done nothing about this. People are talking about East Timor, but what about us? Release the Craggy Island Two."

Not everyone is so flattering about Father Ted. One woman went on Right to Reply to accuse it of being anti-Irish. The show was also flagellated by a priest in Ireland's Sunday Press, and it keeps the Channel 4 duty officer pretty busy on the nights it is screened. Linehan argues that the callers are ecumenical in their attacks on the programme. "One said it was anti-Catholic propaganda, and the next that it was Catholic propaganda. They were united in their hatred of the show."

Both agnostic, Linehan and Mathews claim that Father Ted is not an assault on the Catholic Church. "It's too easy to be wry about the Church," Linehan contends. "If anything, we're giving priests a better name. Our priests are far better-behaved than some of those in real life. At least if Ted gets upset about something, it's nothing worse than a raffle. The Catholic Church should sponsor the show to distract attention from their troubles."

Cassidy concurs. "They're not having a go at the Church. I have a friend at home in Ireland who is a priest and a big fan. Graham and Arthur are not creating a satire about power, corruption and lies in the Catholic Church. With a bit of a tweak, the priests could be other things. They're comic archetypes."

Morgan, a noted and vicious satirist in Ireland, has a more sceptical attitude. "The guys always say - disingenuously if you ask me - that it's just a happy show about priests," he chuckles. "But anything so deranged has to have a subversive element. It's like when the Gestapo caught British soldiers planting explosives under a bridge, they'd say, 'Oh, that's nothing. It's just Playdo.' For all their protestations of innocence, the fact that they'd hire me at all shows their true intent. It's like saying, 'We're setting up a general practice. Let's get Dr Mengele in.' "

Linehan and Mathews obviously take great pleasure in the absurdities of life - they can even find humour in politics. "There are one or two Irish politicians who are just loons," Mathews enthuses. "One guy called for Babe to be banned because he thought it would lead to a reduction in pig sales at Christmas. Another stood up and said, 'The Internet must be stopped.' "

They are steeped in comedy, and their conversation is peppered with references to Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave, Dad's Army and Only Fools and Horses. They watch old sitcoms on video for relaxation. "I'm obsessed with comedy," Linehan says, sounding like a founder-member of Sitcom-aholics Anonymous. "I'm a bit of a trainspotter. I'm fonder of things I can't get my hands on. The most exciting thing for me is getting an unscreened copy of The Simpsons or Seinfeld - that's a concept of heaven."

They will be able to pursue their obsession by working on new series for Chris Morris and John Sparkes, as well as, in all probability, another series of Father Ted. Mathews has to dash off to be kitted out in a dog- collar and wig- a cast-off from Sir Les Patterson apparently - for a walk- on as Father Ben, leaving his partner to reflect on their job. "We enjoy it so much that it writes itself," Linehan reflects. "It's like transcribing a conversation. When someone says, 'Come and sit and talk shite for hours,' it doesn't feel like work."

n The new series of 'Father Ted' begins next Friday on Channel 4 at 9.30pm