Obituary: Dermot Morgan

AS FATHER Ted Crilly, the calamity-ridden star of an irreverent Channel 4 situation comedy about a Roman Catholic priest on a remote Irish island, Dermot Morgan found fame in his forties on the other side of the Irish Sea after years as a stand-up comic in his native Ireland.

Screened in 10 countries around the world, with a third series completed and due to start this Friday, the anarchic Father Ted has been one of the most successful new television comedies of the Nineties, winning honours at Bafta and the British Comedy Awards - and sailing close to the wind with a cutting-edge humour that is rare in British television.

The bizarre events experienced by Father Ted, his fellow-priests and housekeeper on the fictional Craggy Island are of the surreal variety rarely seen since the days of Monty Python. "It doesn't at first glance look like a winner," said Morgan in an interview with the Independent last year. "But people like the characters. If you want the audience to stick with you, you have to have attractive characters. Dougal and Ted are an idiot who knows nothing and an idiot who thinks he knows something but actually knows nothing. Ted is an Everyman guy, bumbling through life with a half-wit - half may even be overstating the fraction."

During his childhood, the Dublin-born entertainer - brought up as a devout Catholic - had thoughts about joining the priesthood himself. After giving up such ideas, he became a teacher of English but started writing scripts for Irish radio and television before becoming a stand-up comic. He even topped the Irish record charts with a single entitled "Thank You Very Much, Mr Eastwood", a comic song about the Irish world boxing champion Barry McGuigan and his manager, the Belfast businessman Barney Eastwood.

Morgan gained a cult following as Father Trendy in both his stand-up comedy act and on Irish television in The Mike Murphy Show. But his increasingly risque routine led to Irish broadcasters' banning him from the air. He became well known for his impersonations of the former Prime Minister Charles Haughey in the satirical RTE radio show Scrap Saturday, but the programme was axed. The Irish president Mary Robinson and the broadcaster and journalist Eamon Dunphy - a former international footballer - were also targets for Morgan's satire.

When the writers Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan created Father Ted for the British independent company Hat Trick, Morgan was considered ideal for the starring role of a priest spouting his cranky philosophies. Ardal O'Hanlon and Frank Kelly were cast as his fellow unhinged priests - the novice Father Dougal McGuire and the drunken, elderly Father Jack Hackett - trapped in a parish house off the west coast of Ireland, with Pauline McLynn as their housekeeper, Mrs Doyle.

On its first screening in 1994, Father Ted proved an instant hit and attracted a loyal following of "Ted Heads". Although there was some criticism from outraged Catholics and others who claimed it was anti-Irish, the series was critically acclaimed, too, winning the Best New Comedy prize at the 1995 British Comedy Awards and subsequently taking the honour as Best Situation Comedy for two years running. Morgan himself won the 1996 Best Comedy Actor award following the screening of a second series that year.

Dismissing criticisms of the programme as being anti-Irish, Morgan said: "The show's patently too smart for that. 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."

One of Father Ted's greatest moments was in a 1996 Christmas special, when he went on a shopping expedition with six other priests and ended up with Dougal in the lingerie department of a big store. The new series includes a scene in which Father Dougal drives a bomb-rigged milk float at four miles an hour, in a sequence parodying the action film Speed.

Shortly before his untimely death, less than two days after finishing work on the third series, Morgan announced the intention to hang up his dog collar after three series of the comedy for fear of becoming typecast. He hoped to star in a film about an Archbishop of Dublin who in the Fifties tried to stop a football match between Ireland and Yugoslavia because the Yugoslavs were Communists, and in a situation comedy that he was writing with Nick Revell, as well as returning to the stand-up comedy circuit.

"There's a great buzz about stand-up," he said. "I've always loved it and that's hard to turn your back on."

Anthony Hayward

Dermot Morgan, actor: born Dublin 3 March 1952; married (three sons); died Isleworth, Middlesex 1 March 1998.

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