Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bless Me, Father...a Surprisingly Good Situation Comedy

In the last week or so, I've been rewatching Bless Me Father, a British situation comedy that aired from 1978 to 1981, and that (as the title would suggest) concerns a Catholic priest, his curate and their housekeeper. If it sounds like Father Ted, that's as far as the resemblance goes.

Bless Me Father owes a debt, more than anything else, to the novels of John Herriot, but with priests in the place of vets. The star is Arthur Lowe, who plays a gruff but gold-hearted Irishman called Father Dudleswell, and who serves as parish priest of St. Jude's in England. We see things mostly from the perspective of Father Neil, his young and handsome curate, played by Daniel Abnieri. Their housekeeper, Mrs. Pring, carries on a running battle of barbed comments with Father Duddleswell, but one which is at never at any risk of disguising their obvious (but studiously unspoken) affection for each other.

The description of the set-up, and the fact that the show is set in 1950, instantly tells you what atmosphere the show aims to evoke; one that is nostalgic, warm, innocent, gentle, and unlikely to offend even the most pious Catholic.

When I bought the DVD (probably about five years ago), this is exactly what I was expecting, and (indeed) looking for. Since then, I've watched the whole series a couple of times, and enjoyed it, but without ever being terribly impressed by it.

But here's the thing. When you come to a show, or a book, or any other piece of work, with your critical faculties switched off-- when you've made up your mind to enjoy it as a piece of gentle nostalgia, which is the attitude I took to watching Bless Me, Father-- it's all too easy to overlook its real virtues.

Only now, on a third viewing, have I come to realize that Bless Me, Father is actually a pretty good comedy, one that doesn't really need any allowances made for it. The fact that it ran for three seasons tells you something. It also gets respectful mentions on comedy TV websites.

I don't want to overstate the case. It's certainly not Fawlty Towers, or Reginald Perrin, or even within an ass's roar of either. (I just realized that "ass's roar" is an Irish idiom. Let it stand. The meaning is obvious from the context, for you lot out there in the great big world beyond these shores.)

But, although Bless Me Father doesn't rank with the greats of British situation comedy, it's certainly a considerable cut above the vast flood of watchable mediocrity that makes up the great bulk of the genre-- stuff like Bless This House, or On the Buses, or Dad's Army, or Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, or Citizen Smith. (And those are only the ones that are remembered. Read a TV almanac and you'll realize that there are dozens of situation comedies that are totally forgotten. I shudder to think of them.)

There are several elements that go into making Bless This, Father a better-than-to-be-expected situation comedy.

The first is that it takes Catholicism seriously. Like the works of John Herriot, the show is heavily tilted towards comedy, but not without a ballast of more dramatic and emotional moments. Some episodes are pure comedy, others verge towards comedy-drama. But we are never in any doubt that both Father Duddleswell and Father Neil are very much in earnest about their priestly vocations. The life, beliefs and moral dilemmas of Catholics are often central to the plot. We see homilies-- sometimes quite moving homilies-- being delivered. We hear confessions and discussions of Catholic doctrine. The series is taken from the novels of Peter de Rosa, who was a curate himself.

The second is that-- surprisingly enough, for a show that is basically nostalgic and gentle-- it has a bit of a bite. The cut-and-thrust between Father Duddleswell and his housekeeper, as well his other sparring partners (the Mother Superior of the local convent, and a bookmaker living next door) is consistently that bit more sharp-edged than you would expect, given the general tone of the show. In fact, I find myself laughing in surprise at the wickedness of some of the digs.

The third is the use of intentional humour. I have a personal theory that intentional humour is the great divider between mediocre comedy and quality comedy. In mediocre comedy, the joke is usually entirely at the expense of the characters. They may not be constantly splurting out tea or doing exaggerated double-takes, but they're not too far from it. And if they deliberately make jokes, it's usually of the belly-laugh, chortle-chortle, finger-pointing variety.

In more subtle comedy, characters are allowed to make witticisms, to see the joke, to have a sense of irony, and to respond to jokes at their expense without comic indignation. Most importantly of all, the gags are allowed to slide past without anyone making a face or turning purple, or even registering them at all.

The dialogue in Bless Me, Father is pretty snappy. I've had the show on while I'm typing and I just heard this exchange, which would be typical:

Father Duddleswell: These days, even the Catholic girls are pushing the white wheelchairs up the aisle.

Father Neil: Father, I'd like to start something new in the parish.

Father Duddleswell (suspiciously): Something new?

Father Neil: Family groups.

Father Duddleswell: What for?

Father Neil: So married people can discuss family problems.

Father Duddleswell: God save us. I tried that when I was a young priest.

Father Neil: I'm surprised you can remember that far back.

Father Duddleswell: Didn't work.

Father Neil: Your failures are hardly a blueprint for my career.

Father Duddleswell: Are they not?

Father Neil: No. There's no future in the past.

Father Duddleswell (taken aback): There's no!-- [with a bitter smile] I didn't know you could speak Irish.

Not Oscar Wilde, perhaps. But not bad, either.

Don't get the wrong idea. Bless Me, Father is pretty standard sit-com fare. Misunderstandings, backfiring schemes, and continually upped stakes are the order of the day. Many of the jokes are more sign-posted than Buckingham Palace. But there's just enough of a twist, now and again, to lift it above most entertainments of its sort.

What kind of stories does it come up with? Spoilers ahead. (Sigh. I hate succumbing to internet conventions.)

In "Fatal Lady" Father Duddleswell forces Father Neil (whose good looks are a recurring motif) to put up with the attentions of a local lady, as she is a benefactress of the parish. (We later discover that Father Duddleswell's motives are as much humane as they are mercenary.)

In "A Back to Front Wedding", Father Duddleswell forgets about a wedding he was supposed to solemnize. The couple end up having the reception before the ceremony, and it turns out that they are not legally married as the ceremony took place too late in the day. The two priests have to break this to them on their honeymoon.

In "The Doomsday Chair" (one of the more original plot-lines) Father Duddleswell decides to confront a local superstition which has everyone terrified to sit in a particular seat in a pub.

In "The Season of Goodwill", life in the parish house becomes unbearable when Father Duddleswell makes his annual resolution to stop being a curmudgeon. As Mrs. Pring explains: "When he's bad, he's hard to live with. But when he's good, he's awful". The two conspire to find some way to break his resolution in time to enjoy Christmas.

You get the picture. The usual plot mechanics of situation comedy are very much in operation.

But what's wrong with that? Only a very few episodic comedies, like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and (to a lesser extent) the US version of The Office manage to dispense with such formulae and get away with it. Most efforts to make ground-breaking, eccentric sit-coms are merely painful-- a bit like Father Duddleswell's efforts to be pleasant, in fact.

From what I've read about writer Peter de Rosa, he seems to stand firmly in what one might call the liberal or dissident school of Catholicism. (He wrote a book with the sub-title The Dark Side of the Papacy, which seems to question Papal infallibility.) But you wouldn't guess it from watching Bless Me, Father, which is studiously inoffensive in every way.

It's true that, though supposedly supernatural or miraculous events play a part in several plots, there's always a non-supernatural explanation for them in the end. But that seems to be a convention of comedy and drama. I've never understood this myself. Why shouldn't supernatural events occur in a film or TV show that has not been flagged as a horror or fantasy? I've heard that Larry David, who I am pretty sure in an atheist, goes to Heaven-- and back-- in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I applaud this.

Father Duddleswell, who is the hero of the show, is an uncompromisingly orthodox and old-fashioned cleric. It's true that in one episode he reassures Fr. Neil, who is distressed at the death of an unrepentant sinner, that even though Hell certainly exists, you'd be mad to think anyone is there. This is expressed a little too forcefully to be orthodox, but it is indeed open to Catholics to hope that all shall be saved.

Come to think of it, here we find another argument in favour of orthodoxy in matters of faith. Could you write a comedy about a liberal Catholic priest? Could you have a funny calendar full of pictures of casually-dressed nuns? Of course not. There's nothing funny about liberal Christianity.

As somebody once said, nothing would be funny if nothing was serious. You might even say that nothing would be funny if nothing was sacred. Jokes about religion only makes us laugh because so many people take religion very seriously. And it's the people who take it the most seriously who are usually the ones laughing the loudest at the jokes.

I've never done Netflix, but if you do, you might consider renting Bless Me, Father.


  1. I've never understood its popularity!


  2. Part of its popularity, I think, is down to the array of species of Englishness on show - chippy and bumptious lower middle class in the shape of Manwairing, urbane upper middle class Sergeant Wilson, genteel upper class Godfrey and so on - and the way they all rub along together and rub up against one another.

    And some great comic moments: "Don't tell him, Pike!"

  3. Try this

    Godfrey's contribution at the end nearly had me crying with laughter