Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Father Ramboola Conundrum..."

I have been thinking recently about Father Ted, the Channel 4 comedy starring Dermot Morgan and Ardal O'Hanlon, from back in the nineties. When it was first broadcast it provoked a fair amount of controversy. Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, the writers, denied they had any animus against the Catholic Church, but as I remember Dermot Morgan was rather more gleeful about the opportunity to pelt the institution.

I loved Father Ted when it came out, and I like it still, though it's some time since I watched it. The third series was a let-down, plunging too far into zaniness, but the whole programme, though not really a satire, was fiendishly perceptive of the quirks within Irish life, and even the Church. At one point, I remember, Father Ted asks Father Dougal how he actually became a priest, and whether it was a result of collecting a certain amount of crisp packets. In another scene, Father Dougal tells a TV journalist "I don't even believe in organized religion". Unfortunately, it's quite easy to imagine a certain kind of Irish priest boasting that he doesn't believe in organized religion.

But then again, the show could also make fun of anti-clericalism. There was the episode featuring the radical feminist pop singer, more than a little reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor, putting forth some bizarre theory about the Church closing the "potato factories" during the Irish famine and turning them into prisons for children. The TV presenter Henry Sellers, during a bout of drunkenness, cries "Priests! Ruined my life!", and since this is being played for laughs I imagine the show is here satirising Irish people who automatically blame the Church for everything, especially when drunk.

Even though some priests were shown as baboon-like, degenerate or even psychopathic, the whole thing was too surreal to really seem like a concerted attack. And is it my imagination or did the show seem to become more affectionate as it went on? After all, there is something very peaceful about the parish house on Craggy Island, even with the tacky Jesus rug hanging over the couch. The whole set-up has an air of the idyllic about it, with all the islanders knowing each other, the local cinema manager giving priests half-price concessions, and an underlying air of leisureliness.

I remember in one episode, Father Ted quotes the famous closing passage of James Joyce's short story The Dead, while holding vigil over (what he thinks is) a dead Father Jack. This also rang true to life to me. It is quite easy to imagine an Irish priest quoting classic literature in such a situation. It seems to me that Father Ted actually painted a picture of a more cultured, leisured and innocent society, and to that extent it was somewhat pro-Catholic, even despite itself.

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