20 years on

Anarchic writing sessions and battles with RTÉ: Dermot Morgan's collaborators remember the comedy icon

20 years on from his untimely death, we sat down with Barry Devlin and Morgan’s Scrap Saturday co-creator Gerry Stembridge. / YouTube

TWENTY YEARS ON from his death, Dermot Morgan’s place in Ireland’s public consciousness shows no sign of fading.

The comedian, who found his greatest success in his 40s playing Father Ted in the beloved sitcom, died on 28 February 1998.

Hundreds of fans of the clerical comedy made their way to ‘Craggy Island’ (Inis Mór) for Tedfest celebrations in recent days, and the show itself is rarely off our screens – the Christmas special (the one featuring the country’s largest lingerie department) has become as much a part of the annual seasonal festivities as Turkey, Wham and Indiana Jones.

Morgan, of course, was already a huge comedy star in Ireland in the years before Ted took off.

His greatest triumph, before he made the move to the UK, had come just a few years previously with the radio satire Scrap Saturday: his spot-on and often merciless impressions of CJ Haughey, Eamon Dunphy and Mike Murphy proved an instant hit with Irish audiences.

A decade before that, Morgan’s first major TV success was as part of the lineup for the Murphy-fronted RTÉ variety show the Live Mic. His appearances – particularly as the unhinged GAA man – were a highlight of the show. His too-cool-for-school priest character, Father Trendy, became a pre-internet meme.

Alongside the successes, along the way there were plenty of false starts and projects that didn’t quite live up to their potential.

A planned six-part RTÉ sketch series in the mid-80s, fronted by Morgan, ended up being chopped down to one hour-and-a-half special.

In the 90s, a topical quiz show, Newshounds, featuring the Scrap Saturday team, never got past the rehearsal stage.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of his death, two of Morgan’s collaborators from those Irish projects - Barry Devlin and Gerry Stembridge - sat down with to share their memories.

It’s no secret that he was often at odds with RTÉ, they said – and that he relished the opportunity to move on to new pastures that ‘Father Ted’ represented.

Interestingly, both said he was on the fence about taking up the role of what turned out to be, as Devlin put it, “the most subversive straight man in television history”. / YouTube

On writing

Barry Devlin, formerly of Celtic rockers Horslips, first worked with Morgan on the Live Mic, where he was a musical director.

He and Morgan, he recalls, didn’t particularly get on the first time they met – “I think he thought I was a bit surly and I thought he was a bit odd” – but ended up becoming friends and worked on a range of projects over the years.

Devlin pitched in with sketch-writing on the Live Mic, was part of the lineup of Morgan’s ill-fated sketch series, and also produced some of the comedian’s best-known parody songs.

He sat down with us at Kiely’s in Donnybrook – a spot they often visited together with a view to “causing bother” in the early 80s.

“For the Live Mic and for his own show, the writing tended to be Dermot would write a bunch of stuff which was really funny and at which I’d laugh and then I’d add in a bunch of stuff which he would completely ignore.

I’m not a good collaborator as a writer – he was absolutely terrible as a collaborator… I mean, how co-writing with him worked was that, long before he wrote stuff down he’d hear something you were saying that was funny and that would appear.
He’d be perfectly happy to credit it – that thing that you said that was funny – but actually writing together with him at the time, that just wasn’t going to happen.
He’d claim he was writing stuff down and then later on you’d read it back and go ‘Where was that really funny thing?’ and he’d go ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that’.
And you’d go ‘Are you going to write it in now?’

The answer:

Em… Will we go and have a drink?

Said Devlin:

“I was a useless collaborator, but I think I added to the gaiety of nations in other ways.

I think possibly the only person who really worked well with him as a collaborator was Gerry Stembridge for Scrap Saturday.

Stembridge, sitting down to speak to us a day later in‘s offices, said nothing could have been further from the truth.

Morgan regularly came up with inspired ideas – but sitting in a room actually trying to write a sketch together simply ended up being too much fun.

Our attempts to collaborate always ended in us enjoying ourselves so much so that we wasted time and got nothing actually written.

Stembridge, who co-created and co-wrote Scrap Saturday, said Morgan often felt that once he had said something out loud, there was no sense in even putting it in a sketch, as the joke had already gone stale.

“I’ll praise Dermot for much, but I’ll certainly blame him for the time wastage – he was a terrible man for it … he spilt his seed unnecessarily, in that old Catholic sense.

So much funny stuff would just happen in the conversation and at first I foolishly thought – because my instincts were always as a writer – I foolishly thought that this would reappear, and often it didn’t.
It was almost like he felt he’d said it already and therefore couldn’t write it down the second time.

File Photo Next week Feburary 28th is the 20th anniversary of the death of Dermot Morgan. End. Stembridge, Morgan, Owen Roe and Pauline McLynn recording 'Scrap Ireland'. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

The pair discovered, relatively quickly, that the best way of working was to meet at the start of the week to generate ideas, then to split up and write separately.

“One of the things that ended up being fantastic about it, I found that by separating, it really focused both of us.

We both knew that we both have to produce fifteen minutes of material each, fifteen minutes of good usable material, because otherwise we don’t have a usable half-an-hour programme at the end of the week.

Writing sessions for The Live Mic, a decade earlier, weren’t quite so well-planned, recalled Devlin.

“We tended sometimes to write up at the counter. The funny thing was I wasn’t actually much of a drinker, I was quite likely to be at the ginger ale, and Dermot drank but he wasn’t a man who went ‘let’s go and get a feed of pints’ – he was a man who would go ‘there’ll be fun in a pub somewhere’ … it could be here it could be Madigans across the way.

Dublin, axiomatically, was a different place in 1982 or 1985 from what it is now – so there was much more of a social caché around the RTÉ thing … Ireland, for a long time, was a one-channel TV place.
So there was plenty going on, plenty of fun to be had around here, around Donnybrook – that’s where we tended to hang out.
Dermot also had an office at home, so we tended to go up there as well and get stuck in or not stuck in, which is what usually happened.
We’d start writing and we’d go ‘That’s really brilliant – let’s go and find trouble’.

RTÉ Republic of Comedy / YouTube

On impressions

A mark of Morgan’s success as an impressionist, Devlin and Stembridge agreed, is that, nearly 30 years on from the start of Scrap Saturday, people are still attempting to emulate his interpretations of the likes of Bertie, Haughey and Dunphy.

Said Devlin:

He did the thing that Peter Sellers did in that that’s who you remember … Not the real Mike Murphy, you remember Dermot’s Mike Murphy, you remember Dermot’s Charlie Haughey.
In a way, if you want to define what makes a great impressionist, it’s that it’s the impressions you remember and associate with the real person.
He was a brilliant mimic and a brilliant impressionist but he didn’t just do impressions. He was a very smart guy, very well read, and so, you know, if he was doing Eamon Dunphy and Johnny Giles, let’s say – and he was brilliant at both of them - Dunphy would be Immanuel Kant and Giles would be Thomas Aquinas.
But the thing was, he knew his Aquinistic philosophy so he was well able to match the two of them together, and you’d get these mad riffs.

EAMON DUNPHY NEW RADIO STATIONS LAUGHLING "Dunphy would be Immanuel Kant and Giles would be Thomas Aquinas." Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

While there had been successful Irish satire series before – most notably Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, starring a pre-Father Jack Frank Kelly – Stembridge said Scrap Saturday was the first show to actually use real names.

[You'd hear] “and now we have Eamon Dunphy” … not Ramon Smumphy, do you know what I mean? Not some funny, makey-uppy name.
So the effect of that was really particular. A lot of kids who subsequently became comedians themselves … it entered into their brain, it’s like a drug that we fed them during that time.

The Scrap Saturday double-act of Haughey and PJ Mara starred in the programme’s best-known series of sketches. Mara, longtime press advisor to the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, was nothing like his unvarnished alter-ego in real life – but the device worked, as the general public had no idea what he really sounded like.

The whole notion of the master-slave relationship was Dermot’s – so that PJ, if you like, was the slave. That developed, as always happens, where the master-slave becomes a slightly more complex relationship.

File Photo Next week Feburary 28th is the 20th anniversary of the death of Dermot Morgan. End. Dermot Morgan and Pauline McLynn recording 'Scrap Ireland' in 1997. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

‘Scrap’, which also featured Owen Roe and Pauline McLynn (later to portray Craggy Island’s Mrs Doyle) ended after just three seasons in 1991 – but the team returned for a one-off live show during the launch of Radio Ireland in 1997.

Haughey, even though he had toppled from power years previously, simply had to be brought back.

We couldn’t possibly do the programme without him, so we actually reversed the master-slave … we had PJ doing remarkably well as a PR guy and this rather pathetic figure who was found scrabbling around in the bins at the back of Patrick Guilbaud’s looking for tapes that he had lost. We presented this kind of pathetic, bewildered Haughey.
I think Dermot got particular pleasure from doing that – a lovely feeling of schadenfreude about the whole thing.

Charlie Haughey PJ Mara alongside his "boss" Charles Haughey. Eamonn Farrell Eamonn Farrell

On battles with RTÉ

Contrary to popular myth, the end of Scrap Saturday was not brought about as a result of direct political interference, Stembridge insisted (slightly exasperatedly – he actually said, “How often do I have to answer this question?”).

I don’t believe there was any political interference at all in the narrow political sense of this sinister idea of a minister making a phone-call and RTÉ complying.

Instead, the pair simply wanted to move on to other projects. Morgan’s attempts to get later planned programmes off the ground at RTÉ came to nothing. With little competition for talent, negotiations would inevitably founder on the issue of money, Stembridge said.

“He would love this new world … one of Dermot’s constant themes was ‘those bastards in RTÉ think they run everything’.

The way they treated talent, you know, that used to really get up his nose – the sense that there was a management layer there that just made the decisions and there was nowhere else for an artist to go.
He would have loved the world where the media is so different.

Devlin, who was brought on board as part of what, in the end, became ‘The Dermot Morgan Special’, said his friend often had a vision for a finished product entirely at odds with what the broadcaster had envisaged.

What Dermot was looking to do often required a much greater mustering of resources than had either been planned for or possibly than there was money for.
It’s not telling tales that Dermot felt RTÉ had done him down all over the place.
It was the frustration of there being only one channel with RTÉ and if they didn’t like the show that was the end of the show.
Nowadays there are so many places that you could bring things around and so many platforms.

late "The fact that I appear on Irish television at all, is very much courtesy of Gay Byrne," Morgan told Hot Press in 1994. He was a regular guest on the Late Late. RTÉ Stills Library RTÉ Stills Library

On his doubts about playing ‘Father Ted’

Morgan recognised that Father Ted could be a huge opportunity for him, and knew and respected the sitcom’s writers, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews.

Even so, he was unsure the role was the right move for him at the time – and, even after the first series had been recorded, never dreamed it would end up being quite the hit it became.

Said Stembridge:

“I remember him coming up and saying ‘I’ve been asked to do this thing, it’s kind of like a Father Trendy character, and they’re good writers and it’s Channel 4′.

“But reasonably he said: ‘It’s only an acting thing’. Because really Dermot was most interested in the writing, in the creation of something, in the concept.

“If I was to guess what he would’ve most liked to do on foot of the success of Father Ted it’s to create his own comedy series.

He was always going to do [Father Ted] I think because he liked the guys and because it was Channel 4 and it was clearly a good opportunity but it was a thing for him that it was ‘only an acting job’.

Devlin recalled:

“I remember him bringing me in to show me the very first episode of the Craggy Island saga … it was the one where the nurse went to get the kid who was trapped and who was herself trapped in the cave of goats.

I saw fifteen minutes of it, less, and I turned around and I went ‘Dermot, this is Steptoe and Son … this is the one that will define this decade!’.
He went ‘Come on?’ … I went ‘Honestly that’s what you’ve got here!’
And I think it took him a while to realise that was what he’d got here, that this was a decade-defining TV series, and there’s no doubt that it was. It shows no sign of diminishing in people’s consciousness.

Morgan was, in a way, “bemused” by the success of Father Ted, Devlin said.

“There’s an irony in that the thing that he’s most famous for he didn’t write himself.

But you could say that he really made Ted – I can’t imagine any other actor would have played Ted with that combination of innocence, naivety, pride, pomposity, and you know, lickspittle quintessential Irishry, that he brought to it.
If you watch it, it’s really a masterclass in comedy. You know, while he was writing his own stuff he never in my view gave it the attention, in a way, that he was able to give to bringing Father Ted to life because normally he wrote and acted.
In this case he didn’t write – I’m sure he had a lot of input – but the fact that he was just doing the one thing, I think, helped to ensure that Ted is as brilliant a character as he emerged.
Can you think of any other actor doing it? It just wouldn’t be the same. / YouTube

‘Dermot sadly died before it ever got made’

Morgan was working on several writing projects in the years before he died. Gerry Stembridge remembers being asked to read a draft of his screenplay ‘Miracle of the Magyars’ – based on an incident in the 1950s when the Archbishop of Dublin banned Catholics from attending a football match between Ireland and Yugoslavia.

Devlin had been working with Morgan on a planned Channel 4 drama about another real-life event, a World War II Curragh camp where prisoners from the US, Britain and Germany were detained together.

“We worked away at it and Dermot sadly died before it ever got made – but that was fun to work on.

There was an attempt, after Dermot died … I think Channel 4 wanted to continue with it but it petered out.
I think without him – he was supposed to be the lead, he was the camp commandant – and I think without him, people a bit lost heart.

Dermot Morgan memorial The 'Joker's Chair' - erected in Morgan's memory in Dublin's Merrion Square. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Read: Watch Dermot Morgan’s spot-on impressions of Dunphy, Michael Noonan and Michael D >

Read: Arthur Mathews answered the nerdiest Father Ted questions readers could think of >

Read: ‘I worked with Father Ted – and look what happened to me’ >

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