"Is this really happening?" said Father Peter, clutching Assumpta to his clerical bosom on the shores of a lough certified for its beauty by the Irish Tourist Board. "I bloody well hope so," I thought, having waited through innumerable episodes for this long postponed consummation. "If it's a dream sequence I'll be demanding a refund." As it happened the scene in Sunday night's Ballykissangel (BBC1) wasn't concluded with an overhead shot of Father Peter lurching awake from twisted sheets, but then it didn't end with a proper kiss either. Earlier there had been a gentle neck nuzzle - decidedly outside the celibacy guidelines but still decorous for all that - and here, despite months of heroic self-restraint, despite the intensity of moment, despite the romantic encouragement of a mirror-perfect lake, the loving couple contented themselves with hugs and a chaste bit of hand-holding. Oh, there'll be time enough for all that face-chewing and bodily-fluid stuff, they were probably thinking.
They reckoned without God, who wasn't going to take Peter's intended defection lying down. He's a dreadful loser, on this evidence; no sooner had Father Peter declared his intention to leave the church and make a new life with Assumpta than He sent down an avenging thunderbolt, travelling through the cruelly bathetic medium of a dodgy pub fuseboard. At least He couldn't be accused of playing a dummy. From the beginning of the episode the lights had been giving trouble and various characters had been sucking their teeth disapprovingly at the state of Assumpta's electrics. After three people had asked her if she was sure she knew what she was doing I stopped counting. Father Peter didn't even get to give mouth-to-mouth, becoming embroiled instead in a theological debate over Assumpta's pallid corpse. Would he give the last rites or not? He knew she would have hated the idea (you were reminded by a flashback to one of their very early encounters) but then what if her anti-clericalism was a bed bet? Could he risk her soul for the sake of his lack of conviction? In the end he did the business apologetically, then went outside to stand in an Irish monsoon and pitch his dog collar into the river.
It was an unconventional way to end a long-running comedy drama, to say the least, but nothing like as strange as Monday night's episode, which had to occupy itself entirely with communal bereavement. This struck me as a bold piece of dramatic structuring - a crowd will always gather for an accident, after all, but they tend to drift away when the body has been removed. How could the writers sustain us through the anti-climactic ache of the day after? One solution was a narrative patch, the coincidental appearance of that most reviled figure in the secular demonology, a tabloid journalist. Would she ferret out BallyK's secret romance or would rural wiliness defeat the serpent? (If you need to be told then you haven't been paying attention). The other solution involved realising that no solution was really necessary - because if Princess Diana's funeral taught us anything it was that bereavement can be mass entertainment. I wonder whether last night's programme would have looked quite as it did without the model provided by last year's top-rating television broadcast. Short of having Elton John turn up on an Irish touring holiday, Assumpta's wake couldn't have been much more like that solemn variety show in Westminster Abbey - gathering on a hilltop outside the village her grieving friends sang songs, read poetry (Yeats) and delivered epitaphs both wry and solemn. Than Father Peter packed his rucksack and walked out of town by the way he came.
He wasn't the only priest to depart our screens last weekend. Friday saw the final episode of Father Ted (Channel 4), an ending also ratified by premature death, though in this case a real one, that of the actor Dermot Morgan. It was a fitting send-off for a brilliant series - beginning at the "It's Great To Be A Priest 98" convention and ending with Ted's last-minute escape from a posting to a ghetto parish in Los Angeles. I shall miss him far more than Father Peter.Reuse content