My life as a priest

Father Ted may have been Dermot Morgan's passport to fame and fortune on both sides of the Irish Sea, but as James Rampton finds out, it has not softened his uncompromising views on the Church

At the end of our meal, Dermot Morgan asks the waitress for a coffee. "Right away, Father," replies the starry-eyed woman. Morgan smiles at her with the patient indulgence of the priest he isn't.

The actor who takes the title role in Father Ted is by now well used to this confusion between fact and fiction. He good-heartedly takes it as an indication of the way in which the series has permeated the national consciousness in both Britain and Ireland. People are constantly coming up to him in supermarkets and saying things like, "Bless me, Father".

Morgan, 45, is unfailingly lively company, always on full gag alert. His eyes dance mischievously beneath a thick helmet of grey hair. When the waitress in the posh Dublin hotel offers him the bread-basket, he says, "I'll have a little roll," before paying off with a twinkle: "not something thespians often ask for."

All the same, even Morgan can grow tired of being on permanent comedy duty. "I always like that Harry Enfield story," Morgan recounts. "He was on holiday in Cornwall, and someone came up to say, `I don't believe you meant to do that'. Harry answered, `I don't believe you meant to be the thousandth person to say that to me,' and just watched the man's face fall.

"My standard response to people asking me, `Will you hear my confession, Father?' is `I only handle the heavy stuff. So if it's just stealing from your mother's purse, forget it. But if you've been a senior member of the Conservative Party, I'll hear it'."

He has little time for celebs who whinge about being celebs. "Before Ted, my fame ended at Howth," he recalls. "There's something disingenuous about comedians saying, `Oh fame's so heavy'. Obviously sometimes it's intrusive, but it's ungrateful to bellyache about the effects of fame if you've actively sought it. If you don't like it, then piss off and sell insurance."

There seems no danger of Morgan toddling off in the near future to try to flog us full life policies. Father Ted, a new video of which is released on Monday, has propelled Morgan to fame. He is in no doubt about why the series has been such a success: it's funny. "Things that give us a good laugh are not that plentiful," he reckons. "OK, political life gives us enormous laughs. As a professional comedian, one feels miffed that the amateurs are upstaging us. I had a satirical radio show on RTE, and it was getting harder and harder to outstrip reality."

Morgan is the first to admit that the set-up of Father Ted - three unhinged priests (Ted, Dougal and Jack) trapped in a remote parochial house off the West Coast of Ireland - does not immediately seem promising. "It doesn't at first glance look like a winner," he concedes. "But people like the characters. If you want the audience to stick with you, you have to have attractive characters."

In the wake of the recent EastEnders-in-Eire debacle, Irish stereotyping has become a political hot potato. But Morgan denies that Father Ted plays up to hackneyed "Oirish" images. "The show's patently too smart for that," he contends. "It's not about `Paddywackery' cliches. It's essentially a cartoon. It's demented. It has its own world and as much integrity as The Simpsons."

Surely, though, it runs the risk of offending the Catholic Church? Not according to Morgan. "One trendy priest had a cut at us in an article," he reveals. "But the reasons why he didn't like it can't have been cogent, or they would have stayed with me. The Church has greater problems than Father Ted. It's a spent force. I've heard they have zero admissions at some seminaries. I'm old enough to recall the clout they had in the 1960s, when people used to talk about "the belt of a crozier" whenever they cracked down on secular society. Now I genuinely sympathise with priests for what is a largely untenable position. Anyone suggesting that it is the infallible will of the Church that priests should remain celibate is talking nonsense. That is going to do far more damage than Father Ted."

For all the show's success, however, the series being shot in the New Year is likely to be the last. "The writers have always felt, to quote a previous Home Secretary, that Father Ted should be a short, sharp shock," Morgan says, somewhat ruefully. He reveals his true feelings when he adds: "That's a decision for themselves, as a politician would put it. `Your wife hates you, and your kids have set fire to your house.' `That's a matter for them.'"

For his part, Morgan is developing a raft of projects to float across the Irish Sea. These include a movie about the Archbishop of Dublin in the 1950s, a novel, and a sitcom he is writing with Nick Revell. He is hurrying them all along so he can beat the backlash he anticipates against the trendiness of all things Irish.

"I want to get in before the portcullis drops," he laughs. "But many others would go before me. As long as Eamonn Holmes is working, I'm all right. If they're rounding us up and sending us home, I expect to see him on the first plane."

The new video of `Father Ted' is released on Monday. The new series will be seen on C4 next year