STAND UP DOUGAL

Irish comic ARDAL O'HANLON talks with James Rampton
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Bishop Len Brennan, the ferocious Irish Catholic prelate in Channel 4's culty sitcom, Father Ted, has a secret love-child. Before the bishop comes to stay with the reprobate priests who reside on Craggy Island, the paternalistic Father Ted tells the goofy Father Dougal that "on no account'' should he mention this clandestine offspring. Sure enough, Dougal's very first question to his irascible superior is: "How's the son?'' As Dougal says about himself in the same episode: "the lights are on, but there's nobody home''. And therein lies his charm.

Pete Thornton, the associate producer on Father Ted, puts it down to the skill of the man who plays him, the Irish stand-up comedian, Ardal O'Hanlon. "He manages to capture that look of child-like wonder. It would be very easy for him to play Dougal as a `tick Paddy' or some sort of retard, but there's much more to the character than that. Ardal doesn't just look vacant, he has a sense of wonderment about things. He's always one step behind the game. He's almost there, but not quite catching up. There's a lot of subtlety in the performance; it's not a simple question of looking stupid.''

The part has struck a chord. O'Hanlon says the reaction to the series in Ireland is "akin to Beatlemania''. He gets a bulging bag of Dougal fan mail and has become the year's most unlikely sex symbol. "He does seem popular in that way, which is odd,'' Thornton laughs. "He has that cuddly appeal. It's possible that there's some element of `I want to mother you'.''

The comedian's eyes light up when he is asked what he thinks of his character. "I absolutely love him,'' he smiles. "I like his innocence, his naivety, and the fact that he's oblivious to everything around him. He's the way I'd like to be. He's my ideal man. He doesn't have to worry about women or decision-making.''

Father Ted certainly has a timeless comic ring to it. "The series works best when it doesn't make explicit references to current affairs or satirise specific aspects of the Church,'' O'Hanlon reckons. "The Church does a very good job of satirising itself; it doesn't need Father Ted to do it for it. Contemporary references are too easy. Father Ted would never have got off the ground if it had depended on that.

Perhaps surprisingly, the series has attracted no complaints from the Catholic Church. "In Ireland, they see it as humanising the Church,'' O'Hanlon maintains. "It makes priests seem more sympathetic. The reputation of the Church has been seriously tarnished by a few deviant people who happen to work for it. Father Ted is an antidote to that.''

O'Hanlon now brings his warm persona to the job of hosting The Stand- Up Show on BBC1. On stage, as on screen, his knack is to look at the world through permanently bewildered eyes. "I have a general air of puzzlement,'' he affirms.

"I never wanted to do stand-up,'' he tells the studio audience, "I always wanted to be a dancer... I feel I am a dancer trapped in the body of a tree.''

He also peddles the best line in surrealism this side of Salvador Dali. Introducing one act, he urges the audience to "whoop like you would if you were the last panda in the world and you'd just spotted another panda in the distance, not realising it's just some mad Chinese man in a costume.''

In person, the man is equally likeable. Looking appealingly dishevelled in several-days'-old stubble and a blue roll-neck jumper, he is working his way through a chain of cappuccinos in a north London cafe.

He is at the leading edge of the wave of Irish comedians currently sweeping over Britain. "Irish people do comedy well because people there tend to put a big emphasis on humour,'' he explains. "People conduct business - and politics - in a humorous fashion. In pubs, you don't find gambling machines, pool tables or jukeboxes. People look for diversions elsewhere by telling each other tall tales.''

At the end of his national stand-up tour in December, O'Hanlon is taking six months off to spend more time with his novel. He is aware that he is following a path already well-trodden - with varying degrees of success - by the likes of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rob Newman, Adrian Edmondson and David Baddiel. "I know that,'' he concedes, "but it's brilliant to get the opportunity to do something different. Otherwise, you end up doing television that isn't as good as Father Ted. I don't want to get sucked into doing some celebrity game show.''

O'Hanlon owes all these achievements to Father Dougal, the holy-fool cleric with more interest in patterned tank-tops than the Church. He ventures to explain the show's success. "If it's about anything,'' he muses, "it's about the vulnerability of men. That's a new departure for sitcoms - look at Men Behaving Badly. These programmes show men being crap and useless and pathetic. People like that.''

Ardal O'Hanlon hosts `The Stand-Up Show' on BBC1 from next Saturday and is on tour with his own show until Christmas

Repeats of the second series of `Father Ted' continue on C4 tonight

A `Father Ted' Christmas special will be broadcast in Dec

ARDAL O'HANLON'S FAVOURITE DOUGAL MOMENTS

1. Fathers Ted and Dougal make a video for the Eurovision Song Contest. "We do a lifestyle video in dreadful jackets. We think we are being really cool.''

2. The Priests' Sports Day. "At the end of one episode, there are some out-takes from this sports day where Dougal is kicking someone on the ground. It's the most daring thing he's ever done in his life. Very childish.''

3. Dougal sitting on a wall with Father Damien. "He's a naughty boy and I'm totally enthralled by him. He's asking me whether I prefer Blur or Oasis, and I'm looking at him in awe because he's wearing an earring and is really bad.''

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