To coincide with the launch of a new Jersey sitcom (Open-Mic, written by Islander Colin Lever), Tom Ogg spoke to Father Ted creator Graham Linehan about the origins of his classic TV comedy, the joys of working with the late Dermot Morgan and the ongoing difficulties surrounding Father Ted the musical
FATHER Ted. Black Books. The IT Crowd. Count Arthur Strong. Motherland.
When it comes to classic British TV sitcoms, there are few who can boast quite as impressive a résumé as that of Graham Linehan.
Primarily working with long-time writing partner Arthur Mathews, the Dublin-born writer initially made his name penning sketches for such acclaimed TV shows as Harry Enfield and Chums, The Day Today and The Fast Show (Graham co-devised the much-loved Ted and Ralph characters), before he and Mathews hit comedy gold with Father Ted.
Today, the sitcom – which was produced by Hat Trick Productions and ran for three series from 1995 to 1998 – is widely regarded as one of the finest and funniest TV comedies ever made, with Father Ted finishing second in a Radio Times poll of the greatest British sitcoms of all time (the top spot was taken by Fawlty Towers).
Sadly, Graham’s life has taken a downward turn in recent years, with the writer becoming the living embodiment of cancel culture, losing lucrative work opportunities and being ostracised by fellow comedians and former colleagues over his much-publicised women’s rights activism and views on transgender issues.
A planned stage musical of Father Ted was until recently in the works, co-written with Mathews and with songs and music by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy (Hannon penned the gorgeous Songs of Love, which was used as the theme tune for the Father Ted TV series). But then Hat Trick Productions abruptly pulled the plug on the production, seemingly as a result of Graham’s activism (the company offered him £200,000 to remove his name from the musical, which he refused).
Here, in an exclusive interview with the JEP Weekend, Graham discusses the issues surrounding the musical, as well as the origins of Father Ted and the joys of working with the late Dermot Morgan…
Hi Graham. Father Ted is considered by many to be a comedy classic. From where did the idea for the sitcom originate? Did it stem from your own upbringing in Dublin?
‘No, not really. I certainly grew up going to a Catholic school and all that, but I didn’t really have much interest in priests as a subject matter. In fact, I was sick of seeing priests when I was growing up. I thought they dominated the cultural landscape to an extent that I found annoying. I was busy reading Stephen King books and my interests were horror movies and sci-fi. There was nothing less on my radar than priests.
‘But Arthur Mathews – who had the best sense of humour of anyone I had ever met – had a few uncles who were priests. He would tell me about these uncles and some of the stories were just so funny. I started to realise that there was a lot of comic gold in those particular hills.’
Were you and Arthur worried about any pushback from the Catholic Church?
‘That’s a good question. I don’t think we were ever worried, no. We didn’t think that they had any power in the sense that they wouldn’t have been able to stop us, at least certainly not in the UK. There are parts of Ireland where we might have been in a bit of trouble if the Church had disliked it and had put pressure on RTE [Dublin broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann], but the UK is not a Catholic country and so the Church doesn’t have the same kind of power that it has in Ireland. It wasn’t really on our radar that it might get us into trouble.
‘In the end, the opposition was quite muted because it’s hard to finger-wag at a funny comedy. If it hadn’t been funny then it would have been easier for them to attack it, but, because it was funny, it would have been like them attacking jelly. It didn’t really give them any purchase to launch a real critique.
‘The only time we ever had any trouble was when we had an actor come in to audition for the role of one of the bishops who Dougal accidentally convinces to give up Catholicism [episode Tentacles of Doom]. This one particular actor got very angry with us and challenged us and was absolutely outraged at the jokes we were writing. We explained to him that we weren’t making fun of the Church and that it was just the way this one particular character thinks, but he wasn’t having any of it and he stormed out of the audition.’
The late Dermot Morgan is perfect as Father Ted. Did you write the part with him in mind?
‘No, we wrote it with Arthur in mind. Arthur used to do Ted as a stand-up character and it was his voice that we used when we wrote Ted. When we wrote it, we didn’t know who was going to play Ted, and I was initially against anyone but Arthur playing him. To me, it was just Arthur’s voice. But Arthur kept pointing out that he wasn’t an actor, which I really had no answer for. When we met Dermot, he was really ferociously ambitious to get the part, and that reminded us a little bit of Ted’s own drive. So eventually we realised Dermot was perfect for it.’
Do you have a favourite memory of working with Dermot over the course of the series?
‘Well, Dermot didn’t like the country at all. He was very Dublin-centric and it was tough for him to be out of Dublin, and so he used to escape to a nearby pub to read the newspapers. He was at heart a satirical comedian, you know. And one day Dermot was sitting at the bar in this pub and the barman comes over to him and says: “You see that fella at the other end of the bar?” And Dermot says: “Yeah”. And the barman says: “That fella killed his wife, put her in the trunk of a car and pushed her off a cliff. So you’re not the only celebrity in town”.’
It must have been such a shock when Dermot died of a heart attack, aged just 45. Is it true that you had already decided not to write a fourth series of Father Ted prior to Dermot’s death?
‘Yeah, we felt that we were beginning to repeat ourselves and that some of the jokes were getting a bit samey. We felt that Dougal can be stupid, but if he is stupid for too long then you just begin to feel a bit worried about him. So we decided to wrap it up. We might have come back for a special perhaps.
‘One of the possible titles of the Father Ted musical is Father Ted’s Final Episode. It’s not just a musical, it’s the end of the Father Ted story, which makes it all the more disappointing that it is currently being held hostage by Hat Trick.’
You were pilloried for speaking out against transgender charity Mermaids and the NHS Tavistock clinic, both of which specialise in the treatment of children. But now MPs are calling for a police investigation into Mermaids following a series of scandals and the Tavistock clinic is being closed down and sued by 1,000 former patients and their families. Given that your concerns have proven rather well-founded, what are the reasons for the continued postponement of the Father Ted musical?
‘I really don’t know but, right now, I’m having to take legal action. I don’t know what Hat Trick Productions are waiting for. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to die. But there is no way that I’m not going to do this musical.
‘Essentially, they are telling me that, because I think children shouldn’t be sterilised and mutilated at gender clinics, the Father Ted musical can’t happen. I don’t understand why the two things are connected. They are discriminating against me on the grounds of belief. And they’ve been allowed to say “oh, we’re just not doing it” and then disappear from sight, so I’m going to get them into court and have them explain precisely what it is I’ve said wrong that means I need to be removed from my own musical.
‘I think what is happening with Hat Trick is something that is happening with institutions all over the UK, which is that you have a number of activists within the organisation who believe in all this stuff and they are filling their colleagues’ ears with a load of nonsense.
‘It’s going to take a series of scandals before this whole movement goes down. But it will go down eventually. There is no way that it can’t. Just look at the latest news from Scotland. A six-foot-plus paedophile has just been relocated to a women’s prison because he attacked a man. So, what, he’s a violent male prisoner and, because he’s violent, they’re moving him into a female prison? It’s madness. There is apparently a mother-and-baby facility in the prison to which he has been moved. I don’t know if people are waiting for somebody to be killed before they speak out about this kind of thing happening. The Geneva Convention prevents male prisoners from being housed with females, and yet Scotland is doing it. It’s just extraordinary.’
*For more on Graham Linehan, and for updates on the Father Ted musical, visit The Glinner Update at grahamlinehan.substack.com