TV Review: Father Ted & The Last Salute

There are few things as heartless as an audience in search of pleasure. When a venerable Hollywood actor dies, for example, it is slightly shocking how often the first thought is "Oh good, now we'll get a retrospective season of the films". The news of Dermot Morgan's death was rather different - because he was still in middle age and because his role as Father Ted was just opening up a larger career. But for English audiences, who knew him only because he played Father Ted, any sadness felt was still subject to some selfish consolations. They had managed to complete the series, for one thing, and we all knew it was to be the last anyway because the writers (and Morgan himself) wanted to move on to other projects. And despite its title, the series had always been very democratic about its comedy, sharing it out evenly amongst an ensemble of actors - so that even in imagination the idea of Father Ted (C4) without Father Ted would never have been quite as unthinkable as, say, Porridge without Ronnie Barker.

But it was still a little odd to watch the first programme in the new series - and hard not to concentrate on Morgan's now absent qualities. I'd always felt that his performance was a bit too stand-up, but watching this episode - in which he has to defend himself against accusations of racism after being caught doing a slitty-eyed act with a lampshade by Craggy Island's chinese community - you could see how well-suited it was to the material - which has no logic but the pursuit of audience laughter, and so needs a bit of surreal detachment from the dialogue. The programme was a fitting memorial anyway - and particularly rich in the double-beat punch lines which are Linehan and Mathews' particular strength. "Lookit this Ted, I can write my name on this table, it's that dirty," says Ardal O' Hanlon's Dougal. "There's a G in Dougal," replies Ted wearily, getting a big laugh. "Where?" replies Dougal, staring down at the table with genuine inquiry, and getting another. Sometimes the second hit is deferred for a while. "Her back is very bad since she fell off the roof," says Dougal, referring to an earlier scene in which Mrs Doyle had plunged past the window. Just then she flashes past again: "See," says Dougal matter-of- factly, "she can't keep her balance at all".

The Last Salute (BBC1), squarely aimed at the late-afternoon teacake audience, is an unchallenging family comedy based on Sixties AA men and is co-written by Tim Binding and Simon Nye, currently demonstrating that the sit-com is not incompatible with risk in the excellent How Do You Want Me. The first episode began with a loving crane-shot of three vintage vehicles - a milk float, an AA motorcycle and side-car and one of those mumsy Sixties sports cars - a Sunbeam Alpine, I think (but please don't feel you have to write if I'm wrong). For the children there are some carefully constructed passages of slapstick, involving malfunctioning inventions and out-of-control vehicles (the series promises to maintain the long and dutiful tradition of Last of the Summer Wine in employing the full resources of the BBC Comedy Crash Sound Effects disc). For grown- ups there is an amiable exercise in the mock-heroic - "you're asking tightly- coiled men of action to handle pens," complains one AA man to his pompous superior, and much fun is had with the notion of a corps d'esprit based on the unreliability of the internal combustion engine.

The thing itself is perfectly genial and cosy but there are also some unexpected grace notes to it. The AA commanding officer is passionate about Esperanto, so that early morning briefing sessions include solemn exchanges in that effortlessly preposterous language. And the writers also exploit the nostalgic comedy of vintage values. It is set at the time when the AA high command are considering whether to abandon the traditional salute to members, a development which only confirms Harry Thorpe's sense of falling standards. "The roads are becoming so raucous and unsettling..." he notes anxiously, "people cutting each other up, ladies driving with the radio on." You need to watch with the attitudes of a kinder, gentler age but as long as you do, it's fine.

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