- 20 Mar 01
According to producer LISSA EVANS, the third and final series of Father Ted is the most fitting tribute possible to its late star. Interview: BARRY GLENDENNING
The greatest tribute I can pay to Dermot Morgan is to confess that upon hearing the tragic news of his death, my initial reaction was to speculate that the the world was being duped by a brilliant hoax engineered by Morgan himself, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews.
Think of it. You've just finished filming the third series of one of the most popular sit-coms in British television history and the first episode is due to be screened in a week. What better way to publicise it than to fake the death of the actor who plays the leading character?
True, Father Ted's profile is such that the show doesn't actually need much publicity, but my feeling was that the lads would have done it anyway, for a laugh.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Dermot, but I have encountered Arthur and Graham along the way. I've also heard enough about all three, and witnessed enough of their work to be able to say that it's the kind of stunt I reckon they would have been proud to have been associated with.
Now, I only wish my theory had been correct. As wind-ups go it would have been a macabre work of comic genius, right up there with War Of the Worlds, Orson Welles' unwitting hoax which resulted in a sizeable percentage of the American public evacuating their homes because they believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians. Much more importantly, Dermot Morgan would still be alive.
He has, of course, left us a final legacy, a third series of Father Ted, which according to producer Lissa Evans adds up to a powerful tribute to one of Ireland's funniest men.
"I really do think it is," she told me on the eve of the first show's broadcast. "We were all terribly worried about whether this series would live up to the first two and it definitely has. It's different but it's brilliant, so I really do think it's a fitting tribute.
"I think Ted's actual role expanded and became more interesting over the three series. So while Ted always drove the plot, I think his actual input into plot became more interesting as the programmes went on. We've actually spoken endlessly about releasing some sort of official tribute to Dermot, y'know, but I think the series itself is the best possible one. He was absolutely marvellous in it and he knew the series was brilliant. I just hope he knew that he was very, very good in it."
I ask Lissa to divulge her own particular favourite Ted "moment".
"It's funny you should ask that. I've just been looking through them all, because we're going to end the very last episode with a clip from every show there's ever been. We're not actually going to have credits, we're just going to show these clips and then fade to black.
"I have two favourite Dermot moments and they're both from the second series. The first would have to be the essay competition from 'Flight Into Terror', y'know, where the plane is crashing and all the priests have to write 200 words on why they should get the parachute. I think that's one of the best bits of comedy writing ever. The other one is when Ted and Sister Assumpta are trying to get Dougal to remember the first time he ever met Sister Assumpta. This whole string of unlikely events happened on their first encounter but Dougal only remembers upon being reminded that he was wearing a blue jumper.
"In the new series, in the very last episode, there's an amazing scene where you see Dermot and Tommy Tiernan dancing to Isaac Hayes' 'Shaft'. That is fantastic! Personally I think the last episode contains four of the best scenes Graham and Arthur have ever written.
"Another one to look forward to is Ted being a sort of lawyer in 'Chirpy Chirpy Sheep Sheep'. It's a very, very complicated plot which ends up with Ted unravelling the wicked scheme behind the rigging of a sheep competition."
"A sheep competition, The King Of The Sheep," Lissa giggles.
When I ask her which scene Dermot Morgan himself was most fond of she replies without hesitation.
"I know he absolutely loved the swearing scene in 'Song For Europe'. Ted and Dougal are writing their song and he's swearing at Dougal for getting everything wrong. I think it's based on that infamous Troggs tape, where they're in the studio and Reg Presley launches a tirade of abuse at the drummer who keeps making mistakes. It's fantastic."
Lissa reveals that only a single small change has been made in one of the episodes in the new series of Ted, in the light of Dermot's death.
"We thought very hard about it because there's lots of macabre, black humour in Father Ted," Lissa explains. "It's difficult, because while you don't want to upset anyone it's part and parcel of programming. Anyway, Dermot loved that kind of stuff. He was always the first person to laugh at anything that was in fairly bad taste."
Father Ted has a plethora of unofficial websites on the Internet, the most impressive of which is undoubtedly the Graham Linehan-endorsed Craggy Island Examiner, which affords Ted-heads the opportunity to log on and worship at an alter laden with trivia quizzes, quote competitions, drinking games and myriad lists of summaries, scenes and characters. Is Lissa alarmed by such devotion?
"No, I think it's great," she enthuses. "It's great, because being so close to the show I tend to forget what an extraordinary phenomenon it is. Seeing a list of not only every priest that's ever been on the show, but every priest that's even been mentioned makes you realise what an extraordinary exercise it is. I think it's very funny because The Examiner is written by a bloke with real wit; it's very impressive. I haven't actually seen it since Dermot died, has there been a lot of stuff on it?"
She seems lost for words when I tell her of the many moving tributes: "Oh God . . . that's . . . that's really nice."
With the last episode of Father Ted in the can, Arthur and Graham plan to turn their talents to other projects, with a sketch show reputed to be next on their comedy agenda. For Lissa, too, the parochial party is over, but she has thoroughly enjoyed the whole, er, ecumenical experience.
"It's been very absorbing," she muses. "I didn't produce the first series but I did the second one, the Christmas special and the third one, so I've been working with the same group of people, on and off, for three years now. It's been tremendous to be associated with something we can all be so proud of. It's very odd for me to be associated with something that trendy and groovy and hip because I'm not, and never have been, any of those things. My involvement with Father Ted gives me a certain amount of kudos I would never have otherwise."
* The final series of Father Ted is currently being broadcast on Channel Four, Fridays at 10pm. Log on to The Craggy Island Examiner at http://www.geocities.com/paris/2694/craggy.html