|Dermot Morgan, actor, comedian and writer, died yesterday aged 45 after collapsing at home. He was born on March 3, 1952. |
The part of the blundering Father Ted made Dermot Morgan famous throughout the British Isles, but his comic talent had long been appreciated - and feared - in his native Ireland. For two decades he had been sending up everyone in Ireland whom he considered pompous, and causing regular scandals. Although Father Ted was filmed in Co Clare, it was made for Channel 4 - and for Morgan as for many others, it was success in Britain that finally forced open all doors at home.
Father Ted is the head priest on Craggy Island, off the west coast of Ireland, where he lives in the zany confinement of Parochial House with two other eccentric priests, Dougal and the unhinged Jack, and their housekeeper, Mrs Doyle. Their surreal adventures became a cult. As well as meddling around the island, betting, and chasing local wildlife, Ted was also revealed to have an illegitimate son.
Naturally, the show was condemned by some Catholic bishops, who complained that it made the clergy look like idiots. No doubt that piece of idiocy - with 200,000 earnest leaflets being sent to homes around Dublin - helped to boost it further.
Playing the well-intentioned but ineffectual Father Ted was but the last round in Dermot Morgan's struggle with the Roman Catholic Church. As what he called "a severely lapsed Catholic", he remembered and resented the influence the Church had had in his youth. He was educated at a Christian Brothers college, which he later described as "good paramilitary training", and for a while he intended to become a priest. Compulsory religion in adolescence, however, inoculated him against the idea, and behind his adult lampoons stood a conviction that the Church was systematically hypocritical.
After University College, Dublin, he became a teacher in 1974, but always knew that he wanted to write and perform, and appeared as a stand-up comic in small clubs. He left teaching in 1978, and broke into television with a four-year stint on Mike Murphy's popular comedy show The Live Mike.
As well as sending up politicians, Morgan played the young and eager priest Father Trendy, who was hooked on modern communications and given to elaborate metaphors. His book Trendy Sermons, published in 1982, took many well-aimed potshots at the Church. Some of his targets condemned him as blasphemous (though others thought him hilarious), and he found himself dropped by every Irish radio and television station. He was forced to return to the small-time comedy circuit, and briefly faced bankruptcy.
Three years later, however, he topped the Irish charts with Thank you very much, Mr Eastwood, a record mocking the boxer Barry McGuigan's habit of thanking his manager, Barney Eastwood, for everything after his fights. Morgan was also renowned for his mimicry of politicians such as Charles Haughey, and in 1992 he greeted Albert Reynolds's entry into office with another record, A Country and Western Taoiseach, with fine impressions of Reynolds and the Justice Minister Padraig Flynn.
In 1990, with Gerry Stembridge, Morgan began writing, directing and performing in Scrap Saturday, a sharp satirical radio show akin to Spitting Image. It tore into Irish politicians, making many distinctly uncomfortable. Morgan won a Jacob's radio award in 1991, when he was also voted Ireland's National Entertainer of the Year.
However, despite its popularity, Scrap Saturday was abruptly cancelled in 1992, apparently because the originating broadcasting service, RTE, with its dependence on the Government, considered it too risky. RTE, however, claimed that the programme had simply "run out of steam". Morgan later said of Irish politics that "it was getting harder and harder to outstrip reality", and last year his demotic and unwitty abuse of Irish MPs made front-page news in Ireland.
When Father Ted began in April 1995, RTE declined to screen it, though some parts of the Republic were able to receive it on Channel 4. Later, however, with the series winning plaudits in Britain, RTE caved in and quickly found it had a popular hit. The humour, after all, was not only at the expense of the Church and the Pope, or even the Irish, but attacked every kind of taboo. Although considered too incorrect for American audiences, it was screened in many other countries.
"Before Ted, my fame ended at Howth," Morgan said, but after Ted he was to be seen as a personality on high-profile shows such as Have I Got News for You and The Late Late Show, and chatting with Clive James and Russell Harty. He continued to give one-man performances, although a tour of Ireland last year, with a show called Addressing the Nation, drew mixed reviews.
In 1996 Morgan won an award for Top TV Comedy Actor for his part as Ted, and Father Ted, produced by the production company Hat Trick, which specialises in comedy, also won a Bafta award for Best Comedy and several others. It was also successful on video.
A third eight-part series of the madcap half-hour comedies, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, begins on Channel 4 next Friday. As one of the station's great successes of recent years, it is being promoted by an extensive advertising campaign.
A clever and fluent wit, Dermot Morgan was always on the lookout for a gag. His writing was remorsely mischievous and derisive, and his success could be measured by the controversy that he continued to excite. He had recently been working on a drama series and developing two further sitcoms, as well as a novel. He was passionate about football, and also wrote a film about the Archbishop of Dublin in the 1950s who condemned a football match in the Republic against players from communist Yugoslavia.
Dermot Morgan was separated from his wife, Suzanne, for several years before their recent divorce. He is survived by two sons from his marriage, and by his long-term partner, Fiona, and their son.