ARTS TELEVISION In the name of the Father

`Father Ted' is a sit-com with a difference - it's funny. Ben Thompson witnesses a miracle in the making
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The Independent Culture
"SITUATION comedy is not what it used to be" - if I had a frigate for every time I'd heard that, I'd be an admiral. The uncomfortable truth is, of course, that for every Rising Damp there was always a Mind Your Language, just as for every Absolutely Fabulous there is an Upper Hand. As of last Friday night, though, the annals of sit- com greatness are newly cluttered. "A child has been lodged in the tunnel of goats": with these immortal words the first episode of Father Ted drew to a close. And Father Ted is undoubtedly the finest comedy about three Catholic priests stuck on a tiny island off the Irish coast ever made.

As with most aesthetic revelations that seem to come from nowhere, Father Ted in fact has a complex pre-history. Writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews met while working for the Irish rock magazine Hot Press. Their comedy partnership began with a group called The Joshua Trio, whose bag was re-enacting key moments from U2's career at inordinate length. Their TV sit-com dbut, last year's rather creaky Alexei Sayle vehicle, Paris, was similarly lacking in universal appeal. But Linehan and Mathews' contributions to BBC2's excellent sketch programme The Fast Show - especially "Ted and Ralph", a hilarious, celibate-gay re-write of Lady Chatterley's Lover - gave a clearer indication of what they were capable of.

It's the attention to detail - both cultural and emotional - that makes Father Ted such a delight to watch. A fairground scene at the end of the first episode contained more comic invention than you'd expect in a whole series of a standard-issue sit-com. And the writing blends originality with respect for form, in that the three main characters are, in the classic tradition of Porridge and Steptoe and Son, "trapped somewhere with people they don't necessarily want to be with". The causes of their collective exile, Arthur Mathews continues, are "deliberately vague". For noble, dissatisfied Father Ted Crilly, it was some kind of financial irregularity; for child-like, angel-faced Father Dougal it was a baptism that went wrong. And the venal old wino Father Jack? "His crime is so big they can't even talk about it."

"The great thing about priests," Graham Linehan observes clinically, "is that when someone comes into a room and they've got a dog collar on, there's no exposition needed: all you need to write about is what's above the collar." The other great things about priests, Mathews observes from personal experience, are that they prefer to talk about almost anything other than religion, and they all know each other. This makes them, in Lin-ehan's words, "ideal for a sit-com".

"One thing we learnt very early on," Linehan says, "is that whatever you do with the characters, they have to be in - I never know how to pronouce this word - stasis. Every show is a circle that begins and ends in the same situation. That makes it very easy to structure, because all you have to do is figure out how to get these people back into exactly the same position they were in at the start."

The characters have to be fully formed from the beginning then - there's no room for the sort of personal growth you might get in an American sit- com. "The great thing about British sit-coms," Linehan argues, "is that the sadness has always been implicit, whereas American sit-coms have to stop and then do the sad bit." The mischievious suggestion that there doesn't seem to be much sadness in Father Ted provokes a prolonged burst of near-hysterical laughter from Mathews. "Yes there is," Linehan insists, "Ted's situation is awful: he's quite an intelligent man, and he's stuck in the arse-end of nowhere with these two awful people!"

Awful people they may be, but there's no doubt that the dominant tone of Father Ted with regard to the church is affectionate rather than vituperative. "There's no way you could call either of us practising Catholics," Mathews admits, "but we didn't want to make a Sinead O'Connor album."

"If you take it as a social thing," Lin-ehan says, "which you shouldn't really, I think we're probably doing more of a service by not attacking the church but just being a little bit silly about it."

Devotees of the great Irish hum-ourist Flann O'Brien may delight at a kindred tone in some of Father Ted's finest flights of fancy, but the series' authors insist they only read him after they'd finished writing it, to see why his name had come up. "It would be nice if we could say that we were influenced by some great Irish comic tradition," says Mathews, "but really it's just Reggie Perrin, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones - stuff like that."

"One thing we did want to illustrate with the show," Linehan says in a rare didactic moment, "is that there's definitely a one-way thing - which is that the English know nothing about the Irish, but the the Irish know everything about the English, because they watch British TV. We just wanted to make it clear that people in Ireland are paying attention." Perhaps this is the origin of the "all-priest Stars in Their Eyes look- alike competition" which forms the cornerstone of episode four.

The unfamiliarity to British audiences of the actors playing the elder two thirds of Father Ted's priestly trio - Dermot Morgan, Ireland's answer to Rory Bremner, and veteran radio comic Frank Kelly - illustrates Lin- ehan's "one-way" point perfectly. The real star of the show though is Ardal O'Hanlon, the London-based Irish comedian whose Father Dougal has a holy-fool innocence worthy of James Stewart. What makes this thespian triumph all the more gratifying is that O'Hanlon is clearly not one of those comedians who can't wait to use their stand-up act as a stepping stone to other careers. "I always had it in for actors," he confesses with engaging candour. "I never understood why anyone would want to be one."

The last word though should go to the writers. What's the difference between a stereotype and an archetype? "Basically," says Linehan, "Stereotypes aren't funny." "The comedy answer," Matthews butts in helpfully, "is that an archetype makes buildings . . . Oh no, that's an architect." His colleague fixes him with a withering chuckle - "I don't think you needed to explain that."

! `Father Ted' continues at 9pm on Friday, Channel 4.