Twenty years after it first aired, the clerical sitcom remains one of Britain’s best-loved TV shows – yet Catholics remain split over how relentlessly it pokes fun at the Church

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Last month the Independent website ran the headline: “Neymar kicks Luis Suarez on the backside during Barcelona training session in recreation of Father Ted’s ‘Bishop Brennan moment’”. A photograph of the two Barcelona footballers was juxtaposed with a still from that famous sitcom moment when the hapless Irish priest gave a shoeing to his bishop. It’s highly doubtful, of course, that a couple of South American sportsmen were intentionally re-enacting a moment from Father Ted, but that lengthy headline does at least demonstrate the programme’s huge impact on British and Irish culture in the 20 years since it first aired on Channel 4 on April 21, 1995.

Father Ted, like The Office, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder, is one of those comedy shows that has become an indelible part of our contemporary language, endlessly referred to, repeated and quoted. The mainstream view is clear. At the time, Father Ted was rapturously received, winning millions of viewers, critical plaudits and Bafta awards. The love has been enduring: a public vote saw it crowned Channel 4’s greatest ever sitcom in 2012 and re-runs constantly adorn the television schedules.

When the series started Catholics were immediately split. Some laughed along with everyone else, while others loathed seeing priests derided so mercilessly.

In a recent article for the Index on Censorship magazine, Arthur Matthews, who co-wrote Father Ted with Graham Linehan, admitted his uncle, a priest who passed away before it was produced, would not have approved.

Yet despite Catholic, and some Irish, opposition, there wasn’t a major backlash against Father Ted. Channel 4 never faced, for example, the kind of outrage that the BBC did after the decision was taken to screen Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2005. One of the reasons was that the misdemeanours of senior figures in the Catholic Church in Ireland and the grim spectre of the abuse scandal meant those who wanted to rail against the programme had, as Michael Kelly, the editor of the Irish Catholic, says, “the rug pulled out from under them”.

Anyone unhappy with the portrayal of Bishop Brennan, with his girlfriend and love child in America, for example, would simply have been pointed to the scandal surrounding Bishop Eamon Casey, who was forced to resign in 1992 after it was revealed that he had secretly fathered a son. Then came the uncovering of clerical abuse in the early 2000s. “So much of what the Church’s detractors were saying proved to be painfully true in terms of things like abuse, and that was in a sense the final nail in the coffin for critics of Father Ted,” adds Kelly.

Father Ted also avoided stirring up controversy because its humour was, to a great extent, uncontroversial. The show isn’t packed with scabrous gags about the Catholic Church in the vein of, say, Dave Allen, the comic who at one point was banned from the Irish television station RTE. Rather, it is purposefully, and in my opinion, brilliantly slapstick, surreal and childish.

Crucially, the characters – Fr Ted (played by the wonderful Dermot Morgan, who died of a heart attack shortly after completing filming on the third and final series in 1998) and his sidekicks, the idiotic Fr Dougal, the booze-obsessed Fr Jack and the lunatic tea maid Mrs Doyle – are the butt of the jokes, rather than precious elements of the faith.

It is this gentle humour, coupled with the excellent writing and performances, which has left us with so many memorable moments. The priests getting stuck in the department store lingerie section, and Fr Ted sticking a lampshade on his head and accidentally insulting a group of Chinese tourists, are just a couple of highlights that spring to mind.

The benign nature of the lampooning is clearly what has made Father Ted acceptable to plenty of Catholics. Criticism may have been muted by the scandals befalling the Irish Church, but it is also because Christians in Britain and Ireland seem happy to shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives, rather than fight back, fatwa-style, when they feel they are being mocked. (The small but vehement Jerry Springer protests were an exception to that rule; and it took a programme with extreme levels of blasphemy to provoke even that response.)

Fr Kieren Mullarkey, a priest in Manchester and a proud fan of Father Ted, agrees that “Catholics do have a great gift to laugh at themselves” and believes that the mockery in Father Ted shouldn’t be taken as a slight. “Humour [about Catholics] is a great compliment in a way, because if what we had to say wasn’t important then people wouldn’t bother,” he says.

He is happy to admit and accept, though, that for some people Father Ted is simply beyond the pale. Fr Jan Nowotnik, of St Brigid’s parish in Birmingham, doesn’t like the show, not because he finds it offensive, he tells me, but because he simply doesn’t find it funny. (He says this could be because he was once compared to Fr Dougal – for the record, he is nothing at all like Craggy Island’s resident dunce.)

Fr Jan does proffer a theory as to what people who dislike Father Ted might have a problem with, and at the root of it is the silliness that many others find so appealing. “When I told my secretary I’d be chatting to you she said, instinctively, don’t you think the Church needs some positive role models of priesthood and what it means to have a vocation?” says Fr Jan.

“Father Ted doesn’t give us that. It’s a laugh, but people do just end up laughing at the priests, and if people really thought we were like that then we’d be in a terrible state.”

He also says Christians do feel, to some extent, that they are “fair game” for supposedly comic attacks and that they feel they are getting “battered a bit”. As a corrective to this, I’d suggest catching up with Calvary – a film that came out last year starring Brendan Gleeson as a decent priest who is not only held up as a good man, but also presented as the moral centre of an anarchic, vulgar and unhappy secular world.

I would also implore those who disliked Father Ted the first time around to give it another chance. On top of the knockabout humour it is richly rewarding to those with a good understanding of the Catholic Church, thanks to the satirical jokes that nestle alongside the slapstick.

Fr Jack, for example, whose vocabulary is limited to a handful of words – “girls”, “drink” and another rather more colourful one – is trained ahead of a visit from the bishops to answer any questions with the phrase: “That would be an ecumenical matter”, in order to put a stop to any potentially protracted conversations.

There’s great complexity, too, in the satirising of the Church. The fact that Ted, Dougal and Jack are so unsuitable for the priesthood might be viewed as a prescient comment on how so many young Irish men entered the seminary whether or not they were cut out for it or had a genuine vocation; a development that paved the way, to some degree, for the abuse scandal.

Yet this core element of the show – Matthews describes Father Ted’s humour being founded on the idea that its “three buffoons” (Ted, Dougal and Jack) are the link between the people and God – can also be viewed as a sympathetic comment on all of the dedicated, true and hardworking priests that keep the Church going.

As Fr Kieren says: “In the Catholic community we have weak, broken priests with problems who are still loved by their people and strive to serve them.

“It doesn’t mean people turn blind eyes, but they do seem to accept priests as not being perfect, and we are not put on a pedestal like we were in the old days, thank God.”

A scene from The Passion of Tibulus episode

A scene from The Passion of Tibulus episode

But while the sharp satire is great, the real reason to either re-indulge a passion for Father Ted or give it a second chance is that the whole package – the characters, the storylines and the jokes – is utterly hilarious and joyous.

My favourite episode is the one that sees Ted and Dougal forced by Bishop Brennan to protest outside the local cinema because it is screening a controversial film, The Passion of St Tibulus.

The protest, at which the priests hold up banners proclaiming “Careful Now” and “Down With This Sort of Thing”, ends up attracting people to the cinema rather than scaring them away.

Watch this half hour of superlative television comedy, or any of the 25 episodes of Father Ted, and I’d like to think that even the show’s biggest detractors would be hard pushed to say “down with this sort of thing” ever again.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/4/15).

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