From Trendy to Ted: Dermot Morgan was worried that his comedic talents would not be fully recognised until too late in his life

TELEVISION

From Trendy to Ted

David Blake Knox

While recovering from a dose of Covid at the start of this year, I decided to lift my spirits by reading through an old copy of Father Ted – the Complete Scripts. This reminded me of just how original the Channel 4 series had seemed nearly thirty years ago – and how well it has weathered the intervening decades. The comedy of Father Ted is easily accessible, but it is also quite sophisticated, and its cultural impact on Ireland has extended well beyond our television screens.

In Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Irish are described as a “priest-ridden Godforsaken race”. Joyce might have recognised some of the features of Craggy Island, the surreal setting for Father Ted. When Joyce lived in Ireland, it contained the highest proportion of Catholic priests in Europe, so he would probably not have been surprised by the very large number that appear to be resident in this remote location. But the picture of Ireland presented by its writers, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, is very different from what Joyce might have expected.

The Catholic church may seem to be omnipresent in Father Ted, but its priests no longer appear to be following religious vocations. Many of them are severely dysfunctional human beings, and some do not even recognise ‑ let alone believe ‑ their own church’s basic teachings. The isolation, irrelevance and fundamental absurdity of their lives on Craggy Island is treated with a degree of compassion as well as with satiric humour. And I think Joyce would have relished the ways in which the hackneyed tropes of Irish stereotyping are used to undermine and deny their power and validity.

Dermot Morgan (left) with the cast of controversial Father Ted.

I am now so familiar with individual episodes of Father Ted that, when I was reading through the scripts, I could remember many of the shots that Declan Lowney, its first director and a former colleague of mine in RTÉ, had used – as well as the comedic rhythm with which the wonderful cast had delivered Linehan’s and Mathews’s lines. Above all, however, the series remains inextricably linked in my mind with memories of the late Dermot Morgan, who played the central character, and whose personal history has helped to inform my understanding of the role he played. Reading through the scripts, it was hard for me to believe that almost a quarter of a century has passed since Dermot’s death.

I first met him soon after I had finished my producer training course in RTÉ. My first major assignment as a producer was to work on a new entertainment series that was to be broadcast on Friday nights just after the main evening news. It was called The Live Mike, and, as its title suggests, it was broadcast live. The series was presented by Mike Murphy, who was then one of the station’s biggest stars. Some of the production team were seasoned veterans, but others were like me and completely new to working in television. For us, the experience was a heady cocktail of danger, fear and excitement.

We wanted to break down as many of the old creative and cultural barriers as we could, and we ate, drank and dreamed the series. We knew that there were some among the station’s senior managers who disliked the irreverent approach that we took to traditional Irish shibboleths. Some of them also disliked Mike Murphy’s screen persona. He conveyed an air of casual insolence and was described to me by one station manager as just a “Dublin go-boy” (whatever that means). But such semi-official disapproval only added an extra measure of enjoyment to our work. That was further increased when The Live Mike became the most watched programme in RTÉ’s schedule during the course of its first season.

Dermot was a member of our small production team, and The Live Mike was to prove his breakthrough show on television. Previously, he had contributed to Mike Murphy’s daily radio programme with a series of satirical letters that Mike would read out on air two or three times a week. At this point, Dermot was on the brink of giving up his day job as a teacher to become a professional comic. That was a hard decision for him to make, and he was worried by the prospect of giving up a secure career for one that seemed so uncertain in comparison.

Professional comics in Ireland at that time were few and far between, and many of them relied for their living on the “Irish” cabaret nights that were designed primarily to appeal to American tourists. These comics tended to avoid topical satire or anything else that might cause the slightest offence. However, from the beginning Dermot struck me as an astute and mordant observer of Irish society. His material had an edginess and a critical intelligence that was lacking in most other Irish comics of that period, and which may have been connected to the restless nature of his own character. I liked Dermot and enjoyed his company, but his temperament was somewhat volatile and even, at times, rather manic, as if driven by an internal impulse to challenge whatever authority he happened to encounter.

Dermot made his debut on The Live Mike playing a young and idealistic but rather naive priest called Fr Brian Trendy. This character was loosely based on a real-life priest, Fr Brian Darcy, who was well-known for his regular attempts to make the Gospel message appear contemporary and relevant to a youthful audience. In later years, Fr Darcy emerged as a courageous and principled individual who was prepared to confront his church’s hierarchy on such issues as clerical child abuse. But at the time he seemed to offer an obvious and inviting target for Dermot’s satire.

Week after week on The Live Mike, Fr Trendy would interrupt Mike Murphy during the live show to offer an excruciating spiritual “lesson” that could supposedly be derived from some banal aspect of modern life. His words were usually directed towards the young men in his audience, whom he seemed to think were in much greater danger of straying from a straight and narrow path than their female counterparts. “Lads,” he would ask, “what kind of fish are you? Do you come home full to the gills? Do you need to find a new course on the Sea of Life?” Subsequently, a collection of these scripts was published as a book, Trendy Sermons. Reading through the scripts, it seems to me that the same basic joke was repeated by Dermot every week on the show. Its repetitive nature was clearly an integral part of its appeal, but I could understand why Dermot felt a need to create some other comedic characters.

One of these was a deranged nationalist zealot who was a fanatical supporter of Charles J Haughey, then president of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach. Another character was a creepy folk singer in a discordant Republican band that resembled the Wolfe Tones. (Dermot seemed to loathe the IRA even more than he did the Catholic church.) But it was Fr Trendy who proved by far the most popular with our viewers. Perhaps that was because Dermot could not help making the priest appear so likeable and transparently well-intentioned. Perhaps it was also because our viewers were not used to laughing at priests and found they enjoyed the experience.

Dermot’s popularity on The Live Mike encouraged him to quit teaching and become a full–time comic. He was rewarded by RTÉ by being given his own six–part comedy sketch show. While that series was still in production, I heard disquieting reports that it was running into some difficulties. I was told that Dermot would arrive late for a day’s filming, or would have a sudden need of props that had not been ordered in advance, or would fail to deliver his scripts on time. The discipline of writing to a deadline seemed challenging for him, and I felt that he was often happier when performing off-script. In retrospect, it seems premature for RTÉ to have offered him such a high-profile series so early in his TV career. He may not have been ready to carry that weight of expectation and responsibility and trying to do so must have proved onerous for him. But worse was soon to follow.

All of the programmes in his new six-part series had been shot, edited, scheduled for transmission and promoted by the RTÉ press office. But when the final cuts were shown to senior management, their reaction to what they saw was extremely negative. The whole series were judged to be self-indulgent and ‑ much worse – not even funny, and its transmission was immediately postponed. Eventually, the six episodes were re-edited by a new producer into one single stand-alone “Special”. That drastic course of action inevitably meant that the series lost whatever coherence and sense of internal development the original episodes might have possessed. Dermot wanted to move beyond Fr Trendy, but the new characters he had created were not only original: they were unfamiliar to Irish viewers, and it could have taken some time for them to be understood properly and appreciated.

I remember in the first season of Nighthawks, a late-night series that I produced some years later, we included a number of sketches that were written and performed by Kevin McAleer. These featured a comedic character who delivered rambling and faux-naive monologues straight to camera in the slow and undulating rhythms of rural Ulster. At first, our audience did not know what to make of these sketches – which we presented without any explanation or context – and I can recall that one critic thought they were “about as funny as an air raid”. But we persevered, and, by the end of six or seven weeks, our viewers had got the joke and Kevin had become one of the most popular stand-up comics in Ireland.

Dermot’s new characters were never given a similar chance to become familiar to their viewers. Perhaps that would have made no difference and the series was irretrievably compromised in concept and execution. At any rate, it was viewed within the station as an unmitigated disaster. Inevitably, a lot of the blame for this failure was attributed to Dermot’s supposedly “unprofessional” behaviour, and it seemed unlikely that RTÉ would contemplate offering him a new series for some time. Since the station was, at that time, the only broadcasting game in town, this had serious implications for Dermot’s future career and personal finances. It also held consequences for other aspects of his well-being: the binning of a completed series was most unusual for RTÉ and involved a degree of public humiliation.

Dermot retreated to work on the cabaret scene as a stand-up comic. That was an exacting and unglamorous occupation, and, for the next few years, he would only resurface on occasional RTÉ programmes, usually as a guest on The Late Late Show – whose presenter, Gay Byrne, was an admirer of his work. Pat Kenny was also an admirer, and, towards the end of the 1980s, Dermot was given a regular slot on Kenny Live, a new chat show on RTÉ. However, that ended abruptly for him after just a few months – and, once again, I heard reports of scripts arriving late and erratic behaviour.

Around that time, I was producing Nighthawks from the office next door, and Dermot invited me to come and watch his cabaret act at a hotel in north Co Dublin. I went along one night and joined those diners who were being served beef-or-salmon while Dermot performed before them. His act largely consisted of impressions of leading politicians, sports stars and TV personalities. It reminded me of routines performed by the Scottish comic Rory Bremner: not surprising, perhaps, since Dermot was a big fan of his. Like Bremner, Dermot was a very gifted mimic, and his set was warmly applauded by the audience. We had a few drinks afterwards, and he asked if there was any possibility of him appearing on Nighthawks. I was happy to include him in our future plans as I thought he could bring a lot to the series.

A few weeks later, Dermot came to me with some scripts he had written. These largely consisted of satiric monologues, most of which featured the current taoiseach, Charles Haughey, someone whom I knew Dermot despised. We recorded a few of these sketches, but they proved more difficult to complete than I had expected. Dermot had very precise requirements for the prosthetic make-up that he needed, which could only be ordered from England. I also had some concerns about some of his references to Haughey – in particular, to the taoiseach’s rumoured sexual liaisons. Even if such rumours were true – and I believed they were – I thought they were neither the most pertinent nor the most serious of Haughey’s failings. Indeed, for some supporters of Haughey rumours of an overactive libido might even have added further glamour to his image.

Apart from that, the overall feel of Dermot’s sketches did not quite fit the ethos or goals of Nighthawks. They seemed aimed at a somewhat older audience than our intended viewers, so we only made a handful of his scripts. However, these may have helped him to pitch a new comedy series to RTÉ radio. It was called Scrap Saturday: a wordplay on an RTÉ children’s TV series called Scratch Saturday. The radio show was co-written and co-performed by Gerry Stembridge in a highly effective partnership. It proved very popular, and it seemed that Dermot had at last found a niche in Irish broadcasting. He continued to sail fairly close to the political wind – due, in particular, to his apparent preoccupation with Haughey – but Scrap soon became required listening on Saturday mornings.

Broadcaster Gay Byrne; President Eamon DeValera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

The character of “Mara”, based (very) loosely on Haughey’s suave and savvy aide-de-camp, was a regular feature of the show, much to the amusement of the original. But not everyone in RTÉ management shared PJ Mara’s liking for the series, and, when it was dropped after just a few seasons, it aroused immediate suspicions of political censorship. It may be tempting to view Dermot as the recurring victim of RTÉ’s censorious and conservative management, but I don’t believe it was quite as simple as that. I felt that there was a component in Dermot’s character that sometimes tempted him to flirt with disaster, or sabotage his own success, and it was clearly difficult for him to work within the bureaucratic constraints of a large organisation like RTÉ. Dermot told me on several occasions that it was his decision to bring Scrap Saturday to an end, but I believe that resulted in a serious setback to his career.

Around that time, he approached me again about a possible return to our TV screens. I was then head of the station’s entertainment department, and what he had in mind was a topical quiz show that was very similar in format to the BBC’s Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). The BBC series had only recently begun, but has now run for almost seventy seasons ‑ with no ending yet in sight. Perhaps that series was not an ideal model for Dermot: like so many British television programmes, HIGNFY involves an underlying tension between different social classes that cannot be directly reproduced in Ireland. (Ian Hislop, one of the HIGNFY team captains, was privately educated and read English at an Oxford college: Paul Merton, the other captain, went to an inner-city comprehensive, and didn’t attend any university.)

Despite that, I felt that Dermot’s show had real potential, and might hold a place in RTÉ’s schedules for several seasons. Although there was some reluctance from senior management, we were given the go-ahead to make a pilot episode. That pilot worked well, and I think everyone involved breathed a sigh of collective relief. However, it was a measure of RTÉ’s lack of trust in Dermot’s professional judgement that the production team had been asked to make a second pilot – a relatively unusual requirement at that time.

Even before preparations for the second pilot had begun, some misgivings had arisen in my mind. I thought that Dermot would be better suited as captain of one of the show’s two competing teams, rather than acting as the series host. This was suggested to Dermot, but he was not prepared to accept that role. By that stage of his career, it seemed he felt he had earned the right to be the host. It was not possible to convince him that the host’s role was not as significant as he imagined, and that acting as a team captain would play better to his comedic strengths. On this, Dermot was immovable, and eventually his terms were accepted by me. (Since then, there have been dozens of hosts of Have I Got News for You – including the current British prime minister ‑ but Hislop and Merton have both remained in place for more than thirty years.)

Plans for the second pilot episode of Dermot’s new show went ahead, with the same (excellent) producer. Given the perceived success of the first pilot, it was generally assumed by the creative team ‑ and by me ‑ that the series was about to go into full production. I was away from RTÉ attending a meeting of the European Broadcasting Union in Switzerland when the second pilot was made. On my return to Ireland, I found that a tape had been left on my office desk. I started to watch it, and it confirmed my prior belief that Dermot had found the role of host to be something of a comedic constraint since he had clearly been tempted to answer his own questions as well as ask them. Overall, I thought the second pilot was somewhat less successful than the first, but that did not concern me unduly. However, about half-way into the tape, a more serious issue arose.

Some still photos popped up on the TV screen, and the two teams were asked by Dermot to identify which was the “odd one out”. The photos included Charles Haughey, mounted on one of the horses he owned ‑ as well as a picture of the well-known social columnist Terry Keane. It was then fairly common knowledge within media circles that Ms Keane was Haughey’s long-term mistress. Indeed, I knew this to be the case since she had once spoken to me about their relationship. The obvious inference was that only one of those whose photos appeared on screen had not been “ridden by Charlie Haughey” ‑ and that someone was not Terry Keane.

Of course, this was not the (clearly disingenuous) answer that was given by Dermot to his own question, but, as soon as I saw this sequence on screen I knew it would trigger a crisis of confidence in the series with those of RTÉ’s senior managers who already regarded Dermot as a “loose cannon”. In this instance, their distrust was not only because of the implicit reference to the taoiseach’s extra-marital affair – which had not yet been acknowledged in public and which would not have been known to many of our viewers. It was also because it was cavalier in its treatment of Ms Keane, coming close to what is now termed “slut-shaming”. And, unlike Charles Haughey, Terry Keane had never posed as a defender of traditional Catholic values.

To my dismay, I learned that the pilot tape had already been circulated to my senior colleagues in the station. Within a few minutes of my viewing this pilot, I received an urgent call from one of them, informing me that the series was to be cancelled with immediate effect. After some further discussion, that position was modified: the series would not proceed until a further pilot had been made and approved. I was greatly relieved by this apparent concession and passed the news on to the production team. However, a few hours later, that decision was rescinded, and I was told that there would be no third pilot in the immediate future. Although the production of another pilot was never explicitly ruled out, and remained as a distant possibility, I knew this meant, in effect, that the series was dead in the water.

When news of this development reached Dermot he was distraught. I arranged to meet him at a pub near my home, and, when he arrived, he was already in a highly agitated condition. In fact, he appeared to be in a state of complete despair, telling me that he believed he would never be seen again on Irish TV screens. I did my best to calm and reassure him, but he was deeply disturbed by what had happened. Any long-running TV series holds an obvious attraction for most performers: it represents a form of financial (and, often, emotional) stability in an uncertain occupation. This security had been denied to Dermot for several years, and it must now have seemed to him as if a prize he had wanted – and deserved ‑ had been within his grasp but once again had been snatched away.

As it happened, the RTÉ Authority was meeting at the station a few days later. By then, Dermot was so distressed that he arrived unannounced outside the RTÉ boardroom and begged to be allowed to make a third pilot of the show. The Authority members were never involved in that sort of everyday editorial decisions, and most – if not all – of them would not have had the remotest idea what Dermot was talking about. All that his anguished intervention may have conveyed to those who had gathered for a routine meeting was that he was having some sort of breakdown. I was shocked when I learned what had happened and felt that Dermot’s desperate action had ensured that any future relationship with RTÉ was bound to prove problematic.

Fortunately for Dermot, RTÉ is not the only broadcaster on these islands, and it was not too long before he landed the title role in the Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. Dermot sent me a copy of the pilot episode, but, despite persistent rumours, RTÉ was never invited to become involved in its production, and therefore never turned the series down. Perhaps, it is just as well that an approach was never made to the station since it might well have been rejected.

That would not only have been because RTÉ management had developed a deep and fundamental distrust of Dermot: the originality and brilliance of the writing, casting and direction of the Channel 4 series might not have been immediately obvious. Father Ted is now regarded as a classic sitcom but the early episodes were not uniformly well-received in Ireland. Several critics believed initially that it pandered to predictable British stereotypes of the Irish. Fr Brian Darcy, Dermot’s former inspiration, even wrote a lengthy and impassioned article in which he condemned the “Father Jack” strand in the series for what he considered to be a crude and grossly insensitive portrayal of alcoholic priests.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, rural Ireland had been idealised in the political and popular culture of this island – often by RTÉ’s programme-makers. But in several respects Father Ted introduced an urban sensibility which worked consistently against that grain, and most of the natives of Craggy Island come across as venal, vicious and deeply hypocritical. (Most of them are also, in their peculiar and perverse ways, appealing characters.) Perhaps equally significant, the series displayed an ability of Irish people to laugh at themselves – and to do so on British television ‑ without believing that they were, in some sense, letting the side down.

It helped that most of the cast were actually Irish, and we were spared those woeful versions of a “brogue” that are often inflicted by actors from the UK and USA – along with the accompanying cultural assumptions. It was also clear that, while much of Ireland remained Catholic in a generic sense, the political and social hegemony of the church was fast becoming a thing of the past. In some respects, Father Ted both embodied and contributed to that process of transformation. Viewers were invited to laugh at Bishop Brennan, and to be amused – rather than be shocked or outraged ‑ by his cynicism, his harshness and his sexual hypocrisy. This was not only the laughter of recognition: in its own way, Father Ted reflected the emergence of a more self-confident and secular Ireland.

I only met up with Dermot on one further occasion after Father Ted had established itself as a resounding critical and popular success. For years, Fr Trendy had seemed to be Dermot’s definitive role – and one that he had found difficult to shake off ‑ but now that priest had been eclipsed by another. However, when we met, Dermot did not want to talk about the phenomenal success of the Channel 4 sitcom. It seemed to me that he might even have harboured some ambivalent feelings about that success. Perhaps that was because the series was not his own creation; perhaps, it was because his role in Father Ted was sometimes that of the straight man, feeding the pay-off lines to other actors; perhaps, it was simply because his sights were already set on other goals.

Instead of talking about the hit series, Dermot spoke to me about projects that he was developing and which he had written or planned to write. One of these was a film drama based on events surrounding two soccer matches that were scheduled to be played in Dublin in the early 1950s, and which Dermot had first discussed with me some years before. The first of these matches, in 1952, was intended as a friendly game between Ireland and Yugoslavia. At that time, Yugoslavia was a communist state, and John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, objected strongly to the idea of Ireland playing any such “Godless country”. McQuaid lobbied the Football Association of Ireland to withdraw their invitation to the Yugoslav federation. For Dermot, the capitulation of the FAI to McQuaid’s pressure represented an abject and shameful surrender.

Three years later, the FAI had summoned up enough courage to defy McQuaid’s objections. A game against Yugoslavia was played at Dalymount Park in Dublin, despite a boycott from Eamon de Valera, who was then taoiseach, and Sean T O’Kelly, then president. Radio Éireann’s regular soccer commentator, Philip Greene, responded to a direct appeal from Archbishop McQuaid by announcing that he would not attend or commentate on the game “as a matter of conscience”. Although he had refused to fulfil his professional obligations to the national broadcaster, no disciplinary action was taken against Greene, and he was subsequently promoted to become RTÉ’s head of sport.

Despite the clerical opposition, more than 20,000 fans made their way to Dalymount to see the game. It was said that many of those who attended were not soccer fans but wished to express in public their defiance of the Catholic church. They had to cross picket lines that had been mounted on all the entrance gates to the stadium by members of the Legion of Mary. Dermot believed this marked one of the first acts of public resistance to the Catholic church’s authority in Ireland. As he recounted these events, it seemed clear to me that Dermot’s anti-clericalism still burned as intensely as it had when we first worked together. It was also clear that he felt an emotional affinity with the scenario he had outlined. Perhaps, he had conflated the church’s historic role in suppressing certain freedoms in Ireland with his own more recent treatment by RTÉ’s management.

At the time of The Live Mike, Dermot had struck me as an archetypal “young man in a hurry”: now he had grown middle-aged, but the underlying sense of urgency remained much the same. He spoke about his fear of “running out of road” as far as his future career was concerned. This was an image – and a fear ‑ that he had raised with me on several occasions in the preceding years. I knew he worried that his comedic talents would not be fully recognised until too late in his life.

I could understand why he had felt such anxiety in the past ‑ there were often times when his future had seemed bleak and insecure. But, following the triumph of Father Ted I felt that he could finally put such concerns to bed. By then, he had even appeared as a (slightly subdued) guest panellist, sitting beside Ian Hislop, on Have I got News for You. Sadly, the road ahead for Dermot proved much shorter than either of us could have predicted. He died of a heart attack less than twenty-four hours after he had finished recording the last episode of Father Ted in what proved to be its final series.

In that last episode, Father Ted plans to move from Craggy Island and make a new life and career for himself abroad. When it comes to the crunch, however, he finds that, for all its maddening frustrations, he is locked into Craggy Island and cannot ever leave. Given Dermot’s premature death, there is a particular sense of pathos in that scenario: on our TV screens, at least, Dermot can never leave that godforsaken place.

There is also irony in this. Dermot’s relationship with RTÉ was intense and tortured while he was alive. His talents may have proved difficult to harness, but there was also a failure by RTÉ to manage them effectively. (I include myself in that collective failure.) Since his death, however, the station has clasped Dermot firmly to its corporate breast, and episodes of Father Ted are shown so regularly on RTÉ they might almost be played on a continuous loop.

These episodes repay frequent viewing, but, when I reread the scripts a few months ago, I could not help but think of the ways in which two priests book-ended Dermot’s television career. There is, of course, a further irony in someone who was so deeply and consistently anti-clerical during his life being remembered primarily for his roles as a priest. I am also tempted to view the distance between Fr Trendy and Father Ted as reflecting Dermot’s own journey. While one priest was naive, optimistic and eager to please, the other seems bruised, resentful of his treatment by those in authority – the Bishop Brennans of this world ‑ and craving some measure of wider recognition, even if that only means winning the “Golden Cleric” award. I think the two priests also hold some qualities in common: there is a basic decency and vulnerability in both their characters, and a degree of tolerance for the failings they find in themselves and in others. Such tolerance was not, to say the least, an outstanding feature of the Catholic church in Ireland during the decades in which Dermot grew up. But it was a quality that he may often have needed on his bumpy ride through life.

1/5/2022

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