A Televisual Representation of Roman Catholic Priests: Father Ted

Chapter One

Roman Catholic Priests and Television

"It's a priest thing; you wouldn't understand."
From a T-shirt worn by Fr. Dougal on Father Ted.


On my second Saturday in England, I was browsing through the television listings. To my delight, I found that Channel 4 was going to broadcast E.R., one of my favourite programmes back in the United States. Then I noticed something called Father Ted immediately following E. R. What could this be, I wondered. Back home, such a title would indicate a religious programme, and one could expect Fr. Ted to talk about scripture, prayer, or some matter of Church teaching. Such a programme certainly would not be broadcast at 9:55 PM on a Saturday night. So I asked my community members, "What is this 'Father Ted' at 9:55?" They laughed, saying it was a silly piece of rubbish. I knew I must take a look.
After E. R. I remained seated and waited for Father Ted. Thus came my introduction to the surreal world of "Craggy Island," Ireland, to Frs. Ted Crilly, Dougal McGuire, and Jack Hackett, and to their housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle. The three priests live in a parochial house on Craggy Island, but no church is ever seen. Rarely do we see the three practising or even talking about any type of priestly ministry. They usually appear in clerical dress, yet their behaviour is frequently not at all what one would expect from a priest.
I must admit that I enjoyed Father Ted. Nonetheless, the programme raises the question of the ways in which the media portray Roman Catholic priests. In the last decade priests have appeared in the news media most frequently in relation to scandals, particularly sexual and child abuse controversies, whether in the United Kingdom or the United States. Other scandals that bring priests to the news media's attention occur when a priest attempts marriage, or acknowledges fathering children-aspects of the 1996 case of Bishop Roderick Wright of Scotland.

Photo of Father Ted Cast
The cast of Father Ted

Before I continue, I must make it clear that this exploration of the televisual representation of priests concerns only Roman Catholic priests. There have been (and continue to be) television programmes representing priests from the Church of England and clergy from other Christian denominations. However, because of personal interest and for the sake of brevity I shall limit my study to Roman Catholic priests. From this point forward any use of the word "priest" will solely refer to Roman Catholic priests.

Television Priests

In recent years priests have been portrayed less frequently in popular light-entertainment media than in the news media. When they are portrayed, it is usually in supporting or bit roles-seldom as title characters. The introduction of the priest as a principal character in television and film appears to owe a great deal to do with the work of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton's series of "Father Brown" stories, about a priest-amateur detective, have spawned three films-two made for television-and two television series, one each in the UK and the US.2
Father Brown's film and television career began in 1954, when Columbia Pictures produced a film entitled Father Brown. Also known as The Detective, the film starred Alec Guiness as Father Brown and was directed by Robert Hamer. In 1974, Anglia Television produced the first Father Brown television series for British television, starring Kenneth More as Father Brown. The series consisted of thirteen episodes broadcast on ITV between 29 September and 19 December 1974.
3 The most recent UK incarnation of Father Brown was in Sanctuary of Fear, a made-for-television movie produced in 1979. Also known as Father Brown, Detective, John Llewellyn Moxey directed the film, which starred Barnard Hughes as Father Brown.
Across the Atlantic in the US, "Father Brown" first appeared as a made-for-television movie entitled Fatal Confession: A Father Dowling Mystery. Even though the title character is Father Dowling and not Father Brown, the creators acknowledge basing the film on Chesterton's "Father Brown." The film starred Tom Bosley as Father Frank Dowling and was directed by Christopher Hibler. The movie's success prompted a television series entitled Father Dowling Mysteries, also starring Tom Bosley in the title role. The programme ran on US television from 1989-91.
A common plot line appears in all the "Father Brown" stories. Father Brown either has too much time on his hands or is genuinely concerned for the safety of his parishioners-thus he turns to practising detective work on the side. However it happened, Father Brown has become known as the "detective-priest."
The priest as a main character in films extends back to the 1940s and 50s with stars such as Bing Crosby portraying happy parish priests. One of his films, Going My Way, became a television programme produced from 1962-63. The series starred Gene Kelly as the main character, Father Charles O'Malley. This is the first such appearance of a priest on US television.
US television viewers in 1972 saw the film M*A*S*H come to the small screen as a series. The programme, about an army surgical unit during the Korean War, starred an ensemble cast. One of the programme's main characters was Father Francis Mulcahy, portrayed by William Christopher. M*A*S*H was one of the longest running programmes in US television history, airing from 1972-83. Even though the show featured an ensemble cast, eleven years worth of episodes gave the writers ample opportunity to explore all the main characters in depth. Over the course of those eleven years Father Mulcahy grew into a compassionate, caring, fun-loving and sympathetic person. Perhaps more important to this study of the televisual representation of priests, other characters treated Father Mulcahy with respect, even the often irreverent Hawkeye and Trapper John.
In 1985, a darker representation of priesthood appeared on US television with the arrival of Hell Town. Hell Town was the creation of actor Robert Blake, who portrayed the main character Father Noah "Hardstep" Rivers. Father Rivers was a priest whose parish was in an extremely rough area of town referred to as "hell town" by its inhabitants. Somewhat like Father Brown, Father Rivers was torn between the pastoral duties traditionally assigned to TV and movie priests, and a more hands-on approach, which occasionally included detective work or even violence. The programme lasted for but a single season.
Finally, one of the most recent US television programmes to regularly feature a priest was a situation comedy. Just the Ten of Us, which aired from 1988-91, dealt with a stereotypical Roman Catholic family of ten, the Lubbucks. The Lubbucks moved from New Jersey to an unnamed town in California. Here the father, Graham Lubbuck, obtained a job as football coach at the local Catholic High School. The head teacher of the school was Father Hargis, portrayed by Frank Bonner. Father Hargis did not appear in every episode, but he did play an important role in several episodes and smaller roles in others. The fact he was a priest was often less important than the fact he was the head teacher. However, he also came across as the stereotypical bumbling priest.
Back in the UK there was little in the way of Roman Catholic priests besides Father Brown, until 1994 and the cinematic film Priest. Directed by Antonia Bird and produced by the BBC, Electric Pictures, Miramax Films and Polygram, Priest explored the lives of two priests-Father Matthew, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, and Father Greg, portrayed by Linus Roache-stationed at a parish in Liverpool. The film was controversial in that it depicted Father Matthew's ongoing affair with his housekeeper, and Father Greg's experience with a homosexual relationship. At the same time, Priest showed how priests wrestle with moral issues amidst the confusion brought about by the Roman Catholic Church's official positions. Priest attempted to depict priests as imperfect human beings, struggling with their lives and their pastoral responsibilities. The frank representation of priests in the film makes it an important addition to this survey.
Finally, BBC Northern Ireland introduced Ballykissangel to British television in February 1996. Virtually a contemporary of Father Ted, Ballykissangel takes an entirely different approach to the priest as principal character. Father Peter Clifford, portrayed by Stephen Tompkinson, is an English priest transferred from Manchester to Ireland's County Wicklow. The programme is directed by Richard Standeven and was created by Kieran Prendiville.
Comic moments notwithstanding, Ballykissangel is a drama about a young priest coping with life in an Irish village. Father Clifford struggles with the fact he is an English priest in Ireland. He struggles in his priestly ministry, and most of all he struggles with the parish priest, Father MacAnally, played by Niall Toibin. Father Clifford finds an unexpected ally in Assumpta Fitzgerald, the local pub owner, played by Dervla Kirwan. Assumpta is a fallen away Catholic who has little need for priests or the Church-nonetheless, there is something about Father Clifford that both attracts and repels her.
Thomas Sutcliffe notes:

The fact the protagonist is a priest is neither here nor there. . . . [T]here isn't much interest in theology as such. Peter's status simply provides him with a direct route to the heart of the community (a doctor or a vet would do as well, as we know to our cost). His faith also adds a certain spice to that tantalising incompatibility [with Assumpta], but he's polite enough not to mention his beliefs too often. Which is why the townspeople have almost unanimously signed a petition demanding that he stay on as their priest.4

A review in The Times links the two main characters to a third, Brian Quigley-a lavatory importer, portrayed by Tony Doyle. "These three represent faith, doubt and sin, I suspect; so good luck as they thrash it out." As for Father Clifford's house, the reviewer says: "Father Peter's house is done out like a Cotswold cottage. Oh yes, a little piece of heaven fell from out of the sky one day, but it wasn't in Ireland exactly."
As shall be made clear in the next chapter, life in Ballykissangel is not exactly like life on Craggy Island. Father Clifford has been sent to Ireland on a sort of working holiday from his parish in Manchester. By contrast, the priests on Craggy Island are there for far more serious reasons. While Ballykissangel is a drama with comic moments, Father Ted is a comedy, and more specifically a situation comedy, or sitcom.

The Situation Comedy

A brief look at situation comedy is necessary before examining Father Ted in more detail. In 1981 Mick Eaton claimed there had "been virtually nothing written about the television situation comedy as specifically televisual form. . . . In academic work on television the situation comedy has been all but ignored." This was surprising to him because of the specifically televisual nature of the sitcom "and of what one television practitioner (Michael Grade) has called the audience's 'insatiable demand for comedy'."6
According to Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, one recognises comedy by the generation of laughter. However, they point out that this is but one of comedy's markers. Of equal importance to comedy is a happy ending in the narrative. In fact, the distinction between the two is of vital importance, and marks the difference between 'comedy' and 'comic.' Comedy is at the centre of the situation comedy but narrative gives it life.
Any type of programme can include comic or funny moments. A variety show may include a humorous sketch but that does not make the entire show a comedy. A drama may contain humorous dialogue but that does not make it a comedy. For a programme to be a comedy, there must be material intended to elicit laughter, and there must be a happy ending. "A happy ending and the generation of laughter, the two main criteria, are simply not of the same order. A happy ending implies an aesthetic context; the generation of laughter does not. A happy ending implies a narrative context; the generation of laughter does not."
7 'Comedy,' for Neale and Krutnik, is an aesthetic and narrative term, while 'comic' is descriptive.
The situation comedy, or sitcom, is one of many forms of comedy. "The term 'sit-com' describes a short narrative-series comedy, generally between twenty-four and thirty minutes long, with regular characters and setting."
8 "Situation comedies are series, as opposed to serials."9 From week to week the situation and the characters remain the same, and viewers expect few major changes. This is not the case with serial programmes-in serials the situations and characters are constantly growing and changing. The future of a character in a serial may be uncertain from episode to episode, which is not the case in a series programme such as a sitcom.
Sitcom "episodes have a 'classical' narrative structuring in that the narrative process is inaugurated by some disruption of or threat to a stable situation, necessitating the movement towards the reassertion of stability. . . . The end of the episode represents a return to the initial stability."
10 Stability is central to the situation narrative, and necessitates a happy ending. Eaton explains:

Nothing that has happened in the narrative of the previous week must destroy or even complicate the way the situation is grounded. . . . [E]vents from the outside can be allowed to enter the situation to provide for a weekly narrative development, but these events/characters have to be dealt with in such a way that the parameters of the situation are ultimately unaffected by either their entry or expulsion so that the situation can be maintained and taken up again the following week.11

Neale and Krutnik also talk about the stability of the sitcom: "The situation is not allowed to change but is rather subjected to a recurring process of destabilization-restabilization in each episode."
12 To achieve this circularity week after week, the sitcom encourages viewers to forget many of the events and characters of past episodes. However, many sitcoms also include repeated bits, gags, situations and catchphrases providing "the elaboration of a (more or less) continuous internal 'mythology' and hermeneutic for the series as a whole. In other words, the sit-com relies upon a trammelled play between continuity and 'forgetting'."13
The term sitcom not only describes "the formal properties of the half-hour narrative TV comedy, but it also carries pejorative connotations. It tends to be associated with its most pervasive and obviously conventionalized type, the domestic or family sit-com."
14 Such well-known and highly regarded sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, All in the Family, and Till Death Do Us Part were all domestic sitcoms.
The domestic sitcom sets up an 'inside/outside' dynamic between the family and the rest of the world. Challenges to the stability of the situation usually come from within the family unit, or the 'inside'; but they may also come from the 'outside:' "The disruptions which provide the motor for the individual plots come either from conflicts within the family-which tend to be trivialized and disavowed of serious repercussions-or from intrusions from the 'outside' which can easily be rejected."
Even sitcoms without nuclear families as their principal social group tend to be built around "principles of unity, allegiance, and obligation [and] are structured in a 'surrogate' family network. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and programmes which followed in its wake, such as M*A*S*H, Taxi, Cheers, and the more recent Throb, are structured around a 'family of co-workers'."
Work-oriented sitcoms function as domestic sitcoms in that they are also centred around group unity. "The machinery of the sit-com form functions in each case to preserve the stability of the recurring situation and to protect the relationships it comprises from disruption."
17 Eaton also recognises "that two basic situations used continually over the years are 'home' and 'work'." He concludes that these basic situations provide material for the constant repetition of characters and themes, and "fit the economic demands of the company's budget in allowing for the use of stock sets, and little or no use of filmed footage."18
Whether grounded in the home or the place of work, all sitcoms provide their writers the same security. They provide a stable cast of characters and settings from which the writer may elicit the interactions of everyday life. They reflect the average viewer's world of existence and profit from the fact that people occasionally feel trapped at home or at work. Eaton explains:

The necessity for the continuity of character and situation from week to week allows for the possibility of comedy being generated by the fact that the characters are somehow stuck with each other. . . . It is as if the formal necessities of the series provide the existential circle from which the characters cannot escape.19

The essential stability of the sitcom allows the audience to identify with and even create an imaginary relationship with the characters. Audiences can relate to characters who might feel trapped by their jobs or lives. Neale and Krutnik observe: "The regular setting and the regular characters are bonded together into a repeatable unity, with the structure of the sit-com representing an activity of 'communalization,' reaffirming the stability of the group and the situation."
20 The 'group' includes more than simply the characters in the programme because the sitcom, like broadcast television in general, "attempts to inscribe the viewer as part of its own family."21 When the sitcom sets up an 'inside' perspective on the world, the television family addressed includes the characters and viewers.
For Neale and Krutnik, the principal way a sitcom places the viewer on the 'inside,' or makes the viewer a part of the televised family is through joke-telling:

The telling of a joke. . . serves to establish a demarcation between an 'inside' ('we who share the joke') and an 'outside.' . . . Such jokes create a communal bonding between participants which establishes a relationship of power, of inclusion and exclusion. The sit-com, then, represents an institutionalizing of the pleasures and processes involved in such joke-telling.22

So far I have been addressing the comedy involved in a situation comedy, but what about the situation? Without a situation the comedy would simply be a series of unconnected jokes, gags or skits. Without a narrative there can be no sitcom. According to Neale and Krutnik, the basic narrative of all comedies-including sitcoms-contains three or four parts:

According to Evanthius, then, a narrative comedy consists, or should consist, of the following components or functions in the following order: a protasis, or exposition, an epitasis, or complication, and a catastrophe, or resolution. (A catastasis, a new and further element of complication, was proposed during the Renaissance by Scaliger as a possible additional component in the structure, following the epitasis).23

Most sitcoms are likely to possess only the first three components, simply because of their brevity. However, one can easily understand these terms in the language of the sitcom mentioned above. The 'protasis' is the stable situation every sitcom perpetuates, and can be seen in the introductory scenes of each episode. The 'epitasis' is the disruption which occurs during each episode, whether it is generated from the 'inside' or the 'outside.' Finally, the 'catastrophe' results in a return to stability for the sitcom family. Viewers are assured that everything is fine, and can safely turn off their televisions.
A final point about the study of sitcoms: Eaton, borrowing terminology from Heath and Skirrow, says that we must examine "the range of codes and systems at work in television over and across its matters and expression" together with "the particular inscriptions and movements of subject and meaning and ideology."
He perceives a danger if either area is undervalued:

If the first of these terms-the range of codes and systems-is undervalued then there is a danger of a possible collapse back into a debate over the ideological (never defined) 'message' or 'effect' of a particular programme. . . If the second-inscriptions and movement of subject and meaning and ideology-is undervalued then the danger is of a return to the formal aesthetic reading of the 'television message.' There is, however, a third danger which is harder to guard against: any reading of an instance of television in its production of meanings should be consistent with analysis of the actual conditions of production (defined in the widest possible way) within the television companies themselves.25

As shall be seen later, Eaton's claims are important for sitcoms in general, and especially a sitcom such as Father Ted. A balanced evaluation of the programme is necessary because the sitcom is not only a narrative, but it involves the generation of laughter. As stated above, a happy ending implies both an aesthetic quality and a narrative, while the generation of laughter does not. When constructing a sitcom, the writer must find a balance between these two areas. The same is true of the critic who deconstructs a sitcom.
If we accept that the generation of laughter is part of "the range of codes and systems at work "in sitcoms and that a happy ending-i.e., a positive conclusion to the narrative-is part of "the particular inscriptions and movements of subject and meaning and ideology" we can begin to understand the dangers Eaton seeks to alert us to. If we confine our examination of a sitcom to the generation of laughter, we risk producing only an aesthetic critique of the programme, focusing on the televisual message. On the other hand, if we limit our analysis to an examination of the narrative we may produce nothing more than a set of ideological pronouncements about the programme's meanings and long-term effects. Both aesthetics and ideology are crucial to the development of a quality sitcom; thus the critic must find a balanced way to analyse them. This will be one of the tasks of the following chapters.

Concluding Comments

We could watch Father Ted and ask many questions: about the sitcom as a genre; about the quality of the production; about the performances therein; or even about the depiction of Irish Catholics and the Irish Catholic Church. Instead, I plan to focus on Father Ted's televisual representation of the Roman Catholic priest. My study has involved the viewing of multiple episodes,26 examining both the storyline and the activities of the three main characters. Two key episodes-to be explained in more detail in Chapter Two- provide a focus for my study.27 Using these episodes, I held group viewing and discussion sessions with Roman Catholic priests and seminarians in the London area. The data from these viewing sessions helped me to analyse the way in which Father Ted actually represents the lives, activities and spiritualities of priests. As well, the sessions helped me to gain an understanding of how priests and seminarians believe Father Ted affects their own lives and the lives of those to whom they minister. In addition, I shall draw upon my own experiences in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) as a Roman Catholic seminarian and priest.
I shall now briefly outline the following four chapters:
Chapter Two provides an introduction to Father Ted-a brief history of the programme and its characters. I will also include the background of the production company, writers, director and actors. Finally, I shall outline the two episodes that form the focus of my analysis.
Chapter Three shall focus primarily on the main characters, beginning with an examination of Fr. Jack Hackett, the alcoholic, portrayed by Frank Kelly. There follows an examination of Fr. Dougal McGuire, the naïve simpleton, portrayed by Ardal O'Hanlon, followed by that of the title character, Fr. Ted Crilly, the good-natured bumbler, portrayed by Dermot Morgan. Finally the character of Mrs. Doyle, the housekeeper, shall be briefly examined in relation to the other three characters.
Chapter Four considers audience appraisal of the programme and its characters. Specifically, the chapter details and examines the data from the group viewing and discussion sessions with Catholic priests and seminarians.
Finally, Chapter Five shall provide a conclusion by drawing together the critiques presented in Chapters Three and Four, and by suggesting answers to the question of how Catholic priests are portrayed in Father Ted. Does the show really affect viewers' impressions and opinions of Catholic priests? Or is Father Ted nothing more than good-natured fun?

Notes for Chapter One

1. Reasons for this decision will be explained more fully in Chapter Four.
2. This information on Roman Catholic priests as characters in film and television was collected from the Internet Movie Database, Ltd.
3. Additional information was collected from the British Film Institute film and television database.
4. Thomas Sutcliffe, "Review," The Independent, Dection 2. 18 March 1996, p. 24.
5. The Times. 12 February 1996, p. 43.
6. Mick Eaton, "Television Situation Comedy," Popular Television and Film, eds. Tony Bennett, et al. London: BFI Publishing/Open University Press 1981, p. 26.
7. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy. London: Routledge 1990, p. 17.
8. Neale, p. 233.
9. Eaton, p. 32.
10. Neale, p. 234.
11. Eaton, p. 33.
12. Neale, p. 235.
13. Neale, p. 235.
14. Neale, p. 236.
15. Neale, p. 237.
16. Neale, p. 239.
17. Neale, p. 240.
18. Eaton, p. 34.
19. Eaton, p. 37.
20. Neale, p. 241.
21. Neale, p. 242.
22. Neale, p. 243.
23. Neale, p. 27.
24. Eaton, p. 27.
25. Eaton, p. 27.
26. A brief synopsis of every episode of Father Ted can be found in Appendix One.
27. A more detailed synopsis of these episodes can be found in Appendix Two.

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Changes last made on: Tue May 15, 2005