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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# all priest show
'I worked with Father Ted - and look what happened to me'
In which we catch-up with the likes of Fr Dick Byrne, Fr Larry Duff and ‘The Spinmaster’ – 20 years on.

SO, FATHER TED is twenty years old.

Jack yelled his first-ever ‘Feck, arse, girls’ on 21 April back in 1995.

It was the same episode that saw Dougal usurp Dermot Morgan’s Ted as an interviewee on Telly Éireann’s ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’.

A child, as you may recall, was also lodged in the ‘tunnel of goats’.



You were wearing your blue jumper at the time?

If you live and work in Ireland, you probably still quote the programme every couple of days. Maybe, not even consciously. (When’s the last time you uttered a ‘go on’ – or told someone to be ‘careful now’?).

Father Ted is part of the fabric of Irish life.

At this remove, it’s almost difficult to recall how refreshing it was at the time — what a departure it was to see that peculiarly-Irish kind of absurd humour captured so well, perhaps for the first time ever on television.

Actor Maurice O’Donoghue – Ted’s arch-enemy Fr Dick Byrne in the show – remembers the programme-makers having one eye on posterity, even as the sitcom was being filmed.

Well, maybe not quite posterity…

Speaking to over the phone, O’Donoghue tells a story about preparing for a particular scene, where his character had to answer the door of his parochial house to a nun.

His fellow actors had been joking around, suggesting Fr Dick hold a copy of a book by Bishop Eamon Casey as he opened the door.

Producer Geoffrey Perkins shut the idea down straight away.

“That won’t read,” was the show-runner’s take.  ”Essentially,” says O’Donoghue “he meant it might go down well now – but in five or six years’ time it won’t be funny at all”.

So, we ask, they were aware they making something that – in decades to come – might be spoken about in the same way as ‘Fawlty Towers’?

“Well… they wouldn’t say that…

“But there was so much expertise and awareness in how something should be pitched in terms of longevity, as comedy.

I’m quite sure that the values they were applying to the comedy and to the production made sure that it was going to last – that it was going to have as much resonance in five or six years’ time as now. That the essence of the comedy would still hold up. And they were right.

MrHick726 / YouTube

‘The Spinmaster’

Gerry O’Brien appeared in the ‘raffle’ episode as the gambling-addicted ‘Spinmaster’ Father Billy O’Dwyer. Like O’Donoghue, he was well-established as an actor before the show, and has had a successful career since.

Quality control and Fawlty Towers come up in our conversation with him too.

Says O’Brien, “I worked with David Kelly a lot over my career.”

“And one of the most famous things for David is his scene in Fawlty Towers. Everybody remembers David – but they forget about this vast amount of work that he had before and after that.

“So The Spinmaster, for me, is the David Kelly moment in my career. Even when you’re working on film sets, other actors go ‘oh Jesus, you’re The Spinmaster’.

When other colleagues are doing that to you it’s great.

Scarface92511 / YouTube

Over yet another phonecall, Tony Guilfoyle, who played Father Larry Duff [we were half expecting not to get through], also talks warmly of his time on ‘Ted’.

When you go for interviews for things that are supposedly comedies or are supposed to be funny – they very rarely are funny… But this was very very VERY funny.

Larry, as you’ll probably remember, was injured or killed-off in several episodes of the sitcom. Ted thought he was “tremendous fun” – but always happened to call him at just the wrong moment.

“It was an absolute joy to work on, because of the writing and because of the cast,” the UK-born actor says.

It was a running gag – and it was great to be a running gag in what I regarded as the funniest series on TV. Even if it meant I was being trampled by donkeys or eaten by dogs.

He adds with a chuckle: “Actors know many indignities.”

Scarface92511 / YouTube

It may seem odd now, but O’Donoghue recalls how, as the programme began to take off, many people in Ireland (himself included) weren’t sure if they quite ‘got it’.

“There was a phase in the first series where there was sort of an eyebrow-arched feeling… [People wondered] ‘is this mocking us?’.

It took a while before people realised – it was just funny.

Any misgivings he had faded quickly as the show’s success grew – and the Cork-born actor says he was hugely impressed by the Channel 4 publicity department as they returned for a second, and then a third series.

“By the time we had come back to do the second series, the publicity machine had cranked up to such an extent that we were gobsmacked looking at all the previews and the reviews and the publicity and so on.

We thought – ‘Jesus, it’s like its up for an Oscar’ the way they sold it and the way they had got the media talking. They had hyped it to a fierce extent.


Let’s play catchphrase

Even two decades on, the three ex-priests recall, people are still keen to come up and talk to them about their time ‘wearing the collar’.

Only occasionally, these days, do they actually have catchphrases shouted at them.

Fr Dick Byrne, you’ll remember, had a particularly shout-able one in the programme – a snarky, elongated ‘Noooo!’. O’Donoghue says that – yes, he was a little bothered when people insisted on coming up and saying it to him, non-stop.

“It bothered me in the beginning – and I know for a fact it bothered some of the others as well.

There was a brief period where it became irritating – people knocking on the door and that kind of thing, but that passed very quickly.

“People still remark on [the show]. And in the most inappropriate of places – but I don’t resent it in the slightest.”

Meanwhile O’Brien has – over the years – been stopped countless times by people asking ‘have you still got that record?’. He was even invited to a college in Scotland to DJ as his character (sadly for the students, he couldn’t make it).

“The accolade of success is when you’re recognised by London cabbies.”

As he got into a cab not too long ago, he says, “one of the cabbies in London turned around and said ‘you’re not going to believe this mate but I’ve just watched you, I’ve bought a box set of Father Ted’.”

OfficialSpecials / YouTube

Similarly, Guilfoyle recalls an encounter with a mystery cyclist just a few years ago – as he arrived in Cardiff to begin filming for the BBC’s ‘Merlin’.

“I was standing outside the railway station, and this bicycle shot up to me at breakneck speed and stopped. This young guy looked at me and said ‘Larry Duff?’.

“I said ‘yes’.

He said ‘I recognise the head on ya’ – and cycled away, straight away.

Looking back

All three men still speak in glowing terms about the writers, the actors – in fact, the whole team behind the show.

But did it have any long-term impact on their careers?

O’Brien, again: “Maybe… I don’t know.”

I haven’t been offered any more major comedy roles… It’s one of those things that you put into your canon of work that you’re very proud of.

“You say ‘people will always remember that’.”

O’Donoghue agrees: ”No, I don’t think it’s done anything in particular to be honest.”

“It wasn’t that big a role from that point of view: a recognisable role, but it wasn’t seminal in any sense.

It was a wonderful thing to be part of for a couple for years. It was something you always looked forward to.

Read: Which Father Ted Character Are You?

Read: 11 charts and graphs only Father Ted fans will understand