- 20 Jun 07
30th Anniversary Retrospective: It was the funniest Irish comedy ever. A decade after Father Ted, two of the men behind the show - Declan Lowney and Arthur Mathews - reminisce about its impact.
Undoubtedly the biggest success story in Irish comedy since hotpress’ inception was Father Ted. The clerical comedy featured the cream of Irish comedy talent and has come to be regarded as one of the classic sitcoms of British television. Father Ted was created and entirely written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, the writing team who first met whilst working for hotpress in the ’80s.
“Around that time, I was in the Joshua Trio with Paul Woodful,” says Arthur, recalling his period with the U2 parody group. “When we’d go onstage, I would sometimes do this act of a priest called Father Ted Crilly. Then I met Graham in hotpress, and we moved to London and got into comedy writing. At one point we wrote this mock documentary about the parish of Craggy Island, with Ted Crilly as the main character, and submitted it to Hat Trick Productions. They liked the idea but suggested that we rework into a sitcom. That was how it started.”
Because of the sensibilities of the show, Graham and Arthur were keen to have an Irish director. They eventually secured the services of Declan Lowney, who had started out working in RTÉ before going on to direct shows for Penn & Teller and Jo Brand.
“I knew Graham and Arthur because I’d gone for a meeting about their previous sitcom, Paris,” remembers Declan. “They didn’t give me the job, they went with somebody else. But I don’t think they were that happy with the result, and I know when it came to Father Ted, they really felt they needed someone with an Irish sensibility. And I think the guys knew that they would have more access to the director with someone like me, because I was very open to their output. It was all their material, so you’d be mad not to have them around.”
When it came to casting the show, Arthur says that he and Graham had Dermot Morgan in mind for the lead role from quite early on.
“Maybe not from the very beginning, but certainly as the show began to take shape, he was someone we had in mind,” he explains. “Again, with the other roles, as the script began to develop we started to think about who we’d like to play these characters. Ardal we also knew we wanted from fairly early on. I wasn’t as familiar with Pauline, I’d maybe heard a few bits and pieces she’d done on the radio. But her audition was excellent and we knew pretty much straight away that she was perfect for Mrs. Doyle. A few different people also read for Father Jack, but Frank was just brilliant playing that part.”
Both Declan and Arthur are in agreement that it was a fun show to shoot.
“It was fantastic,” enthuses Declan. “And having Graham and Arthur around while we were shooting was great. Often having the writers around is a pain in the arse, but on that show, it was essential. You’d see great stuff just happening and being invented. I learned an awful lot from being there and watching those guys. The show was shot in-studio and on location in and around Ennistymon in Clare, which was a lovely place to go to for a film crew. A lot of English people, heads of department crew, would come over from the UK, so they were having a fuckin’ great time.”
“We worked on it over three years,” adds Arthur, “and occasionally you’d encounter problems, but generally it was very enjoyable.”
Although the first batch of shows were well received, it wasn’t until the second series that the show really started to take off.
“We had an inkling that something might happen on the first series,” reflects Arthur. “Ben Thompson, the comedy correspondent of the Independent On Sunday, came to interview us, so we were encouraged by that! In Ireland, I don’t think people really knew what to make of it at first. I remember Gene Kerrigan wrote that, ‘This wasn’t written by Dermot Morgan – and it shows.’ I think Eanna Brophy gave us a good review in The Irish Press. But otherwise the reaction was generally, ‘What the hell is this?’
“The success of the show was very gradual, it wasn’t overnight. I suppose by the third series it had become quite big. But it was on Channel 4, which never would have got huge viewing figures. In comparison to something like The Vicar Of Dibley, it was still a relatively small scale show. So in Britain, it was more of a cult thing. Whereas in Ireland, the series was a bit like Only Fools And Horses in the UK, it was really big.”
The success of the Father Ted also afforded Graham and Arthur the opportunity to invite some famous guests onto the show, including Brian Eno, the legendary record producer renowned for his work with U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads.
“When you get a certain amount of clout, you get notions,” laughs Arthur. “You just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got Brian Eno on the show and had him play a priest?’ So you ask them, and perhaps they might have heard of the show, and they’re up for it. You often hear of unlikely fans. Maurice Gibb, the unfortunate Bee Gee who died, was a big fan. Someone told me he was buried with copies of it. And I know Cher liked it as well.”
What are Declan and Arthur’s favourite memories of working on the show?
“The clip that always makes me laugh is when Ted is playing golf, and then gets knocked down by Jack, who drives a cart through frame,” says Declan. “I remember on the day setting up the shot, with Dermot in the foreground, and in the background you saw the cart coming over the hill. And Graham said, ‘The thing is, that’ll take five seconds to get to – you’ll know what’s gonna happen. If you bring it into the side of frame, it’s a half-second after it comes into shot.’ He was totally right, and the shock is fucking terrible! It was a really well done stunt, because there was no digital trickery in it.”
“I like the Father Stone episode,” says Arthur. “That’s something I just say now, there’s probably lots I like, but I do like the simplicity of that show. Unlike a lot of them, it’s not too hectic. And I like the fact that it’s based on a true story. These friends of mine were teachers, and they’d been to teacher training college with this guy who’d come visit them every year. They couldn’t get rid of him. They’d go and play golf and they’d find him cheating. Then they’d go down to the pub and he wouldn’t buy them a drink. I like that fact that we wouldn’t have had the story unless it had happened in real life.”
One episode that took on a life of its own was ‘Song For Europe’, in which Ted and Dougal enter the Eurovision with ‘My Lovely Horse’.
“I’d directed the Eurovision in 1988, so it was a subject I had an extra interest in,” says Declan. “I love that episode, and making the video for it was great, with the two of them playing together in the hay. My favourite bit in that is when the guys are trying to write the song, and we dissolve to later that night, and Dermot’s going, ‘Play the fucking note!’ Obviously it’s all bleeped out in the broadcast version, but on the night we shot it in the studio, we couldn’t do that, so the audience were completely shocked. There’s a great howl of laughter at that moment.”
“Neil Hannon is a terrific songwriter,” says Arthur of the Divine Comedy man who penned ‘My Lovely Horse’. “Did you see the perfect Eurovision song he wrote for The Culture Show on BBC2 recently? It was fantastic. I met him last week and I said, ‘Jesus, you should enter that next year. You wouldn’t have to sing it yourself; you couldn’t lose.’ It’s a great song, good enough to win, and post-modern and ironic and all that stuff. So he couldn’t go wrong.”
Although Dermot Morgan’s untimely death bought a definitive end to the Father Ted story, Graham and Arthur had already decided to conclude the series.
“I was doing a DVD commentary for the third series with Graham yesterday,” says Arthur, “and we thought it would have been really hard to do anything else. We would have ended up revealing Mrs. Doyle’s bedroom, or with Jack’s twin brother coming to visit. Or they would have gone off to Barcelona for a one-off special. Because, apart from Ted, the characters are kind of cartoonish, it’s more limiting than if they were in a company like in Peep Show or The Office.”
It goes without saying that Dermot Morgan’s death came as a huge shock to all involved with the show.
“I was shooting Cold Feet in Manchester when I heard,” says Declan. “We found out the night before that my girlfriend was pregnant, so we named our son Ted. I remember hearing at lunchtime and I just couldn’t connect it. I’d seen Dermot only a few days before; I’d popped into the studio the night they were shooting the second last show. It just came out of nowhere.”
“We finished the show on Friday, and Dermot died on Saturday evening,” says Arthur. “Then we had to come in on Monday to do the editing, which was absolutely surreal. It was very shocking. I remember Mick McCarthy in tears at the funeral.”
To end on a lighter note, it must be very gratifying to have been involved in a show that’s considered one of the great sitcoms.
“It’s like the show that keeps giving,” considers Declan. “I think all of us involved in the show have done very well out of it. Graham and Arthur launched their careers, as did Ardal and Pauline, and Jack was as popular as he ever was anyway. We’ve got a nice BAFTA downstairs, and it’s a really brilliant thing to have been part of.”
“It’s now nine years since we did the final episode,” concludes Arthur, “and I remember doing an interview the year after it ended. The guy asked ‘Will it last?’ and I said, ‘You’ll probably have to give it 10 years before we find out’. Well, it’s nearly 10 years now, so it probably has passed the test of time.”