A Televisual Representation of Roman Catholic Priests: Father Ted

Chapter Five


It's Surreal, It's a Sitcom, It's Father Ted!

Fr. Ted: "You know, with something like this,
it would have been so easy to make it look cheap and tacky."

From the "Flight Into Terror" episode of Father Ted


Introduction

In at least one Jesuit community, in the home of producer Peter de Rosa 1 , and in thousands of homes across the UK, part of Christmas Eve was spent in front of the television watching the Father Ted "Christmas Special." Were these people ignoring the importance of a holy night? Were they substituting television for traditional religious celebrations? Perhaps they were simply enjoying the Christmas season with their television 'friends' from Craggy Island.
In this final chapter, I will attempt to draw together the intentions and reflections of Father Ted's creators (Chapter Two), the responses of my sample viewing audience (Chapter Four), and my reading of the programme (Chapter Three). Throughout this dissertation my goal has been to examine the televisual representation of Roman Catholic priests in Father Ted. As I shall explain, such an evaluation is not without its dangers.

Audience Fascination

The popularity of Father Ted cannot be denied or ignored. After just two series, the programme has won several awards, and has garnered an audience of over ten million weekly viewers. It is currently one of the most popular programmes on Channel 4 in the UK and on RTE in Ireland, and has huge numbers of devoted fans. There are, for example, over twenty web pages dedicated to Father Ted. The largest web site is "The Craggy Island Examiner," 2 named after Craggy Island's newspaper. Over the past year and a half, "The Craggy Island Examiner" has recorded over 246,000 visits. The site includes: pictures, audio clips, links to other Father Ted sites, episode summaries, and general trivia. The site's creators also host the "Craggy Island Examiner" Annual General Meeting at a London pub.
Such loyal fans show that the programme touches something in people that brings them back repeatedly. Not only do they tape the programmes for later review but they take time to post comments about episodes on the Internet. Sales of Father Ted T-shirts, which began just before Christmas, have been brisk.

Photo of Mrs. Doyle
Pauline McLynn as Mrs. Doyle

Just because Father Ted has a large following does not mean that others are not offended by the programme. Those who are fans appear to come from a much younger age group than those who are offended. This may reflect the programme's style of humour. Very few young people I have spoken with dislike the programme, while many middle-aged and older persons find it offensive.
Sophie Gorman, of the Irish Independent, spoke with young people concerning their feelings about the programme.
3 The comments were largely favourable, giving high praise for the programme and expressing little concern about a negative depiction of the Catholic Church. The following is a sample of the comments:

In my opinion, it's probably one of the best programmes on television at the moment. It shows that priests are not superhumans, they're just ordinary people. It manages to break down all barriers and make them more approachable. -Neala Dunne, age 17

I wouldn't miss it for the world. I always video it, too, to make sure that I can watch it over and over. I don't think about the Church at all when I watch it; it's just a brilliant comedy. But I do think that the Church could find it offensive. -Glen Hogan, age 16

People don't think that all priests are like Fr. Jack or Fr. Dougal, but these characters are very funny. A sense of humour is a new addition to the Church. Some priests may find it insulting, but I don't think that it will change anybody's opinion about the Church. -Pentony O'Hagan, age 15

I go to a boarding school in New Ross and every week we all sit down to watch it with the nuns. I think that they actually love it more than we do. Their favourite episode is the one where the priests bring in strict nuns to help them keep their Lenten promises ["Cigarettes and Alcohol and Rollerblading"]. -Maria Kavanagh, age 16

I have cited these comments at length because they are in contrast to the opinions expressed in Chapter Four by priests. These comments come from four Irish teenagers. Unlike the priests, they were not suspicious of the programme. In fact, they were able to enjoy the show with no guilt or shame. They saw no connection between Father Ted and Church-bashing. Some, like Neala Dunne, even felt the programme made priests more accessible and approachable.
Certainly media researchers would not expect teenagers to have the same impression of Father Ted as priests. They are an entirely different audience. From my limited research, I would claim they make up a larger share of the Father Ted audience than priests. This is not to say priests do not watch Father Ted because they do, but they are naturally a much smaller audience group.
However, from this limited and most likely skewed sample of four teenagers we can see that it is possible to watch Father Ted and not come away with a negative view of the Catholic Church. Indeed, viewers with a positive view of the Church are not likely to change their minds after viewing one or even sixteen episodes of a television sitcom. Likewise, those who already held a negative view of the Church might find some consolation in Father Ted but generally they should only find humour.
The popularity of Father Ted signifies that it contains a style of comedy viewers like, and that the jokes and gags are well written and well performed. The loyal following of fans indicates there is something in the characters' personalities that inspires compassion and even devotion among some viewers. However, the programme's popularity is only one indication of its impact. We can see that it is popular with the mass viewing audience and a number of television critics, but what about the rest of the viewing audience?

Priests and Reality

As we saw in Chapter Four, the reading of Father Ted by Roman Catholic priests is not as favourable as that of the loyal fans mentioned above. Priests, not unlike other professionals, are sensitive about the way they are depicted on screen. Father Ted is not the first representation (televisual or otherwise) of priests to have caused concern. Indeed, some other portrayals, such as in the film Priest, have caused much more controversy.
The life of a priest, in many ways, is not that different from that of a doctor. They are both professionals, are both given a great deal of responsibility and control over people's lives, and they both require many years of education and training. Most of us have no idea what goes on in the everyday life of our GP or local priest, just as most of us have no idea what a barrister does all day long. The mystery behind such lives provides the media with a vast amount of material for both dramas and sitcoms. However, the media has never claimed to portray reality in any programme except for news and documentaries.
It is wrong to assume that a situation comedy, let alone a drama, depicts life as it exists. It is almost impossible for television to depict life as it is, because life only happens as we live it. The narrative of life is far more complex than any television narrative can achieve. Television comedies and dramas, at their core, are about storytelling and characterisation. Thus if television is depicting reality, the reality it is depicting is that of actors moving through their paces and lines on a sound stage while they are being recorded. That someone might think they know a priest like Fr. Dougal or Fr. Jack does not necessarily mean Father Ted depicts reality.
That television does not depict reality may be more obvious to some than to others. Even those to whom this is obvious may, while watching, slip into the belief that it does depict reality. In many situations this is what the producers want, all the while declaring the programme to be total fiction. There is a tension between the knowledge that television does not depict reality and the sensory experience that it does. This tension is what makes television enjoyable, but also dangerous. Some even claim that certain people, such as children, are unable to distinguish between reality and what is merely a television programme. These claims have been disputed as inconclusive by researchers like David Buckingham.
4 Nevertheless, this brings us back to the reader reception theory.
As Stuart Hall has proposed, the reader reception theory recognises three basic categories for reading a media text: the preferred reading, the negotiated reading, and the oppositional reading.
5 Normally the preferred or dominant reading is the one intended or desired by the author of the text. In the case of Father Ted the preferred reading would be that the programme is harmless comedy, generating laughter. That is the goal of a television sitcom. A negotiated reading would find some humour in the programme but also might be offended by some of the content, while an oppositional reading would not find any humour in the programme. An oppositional reading need not be offended by Father Ted, but rather simply might not find anything funny about the programme. The teenagers' comments above would primarily fit into the preferred reading category, while the opinions of the priests in Chapter Four are primarily negotiated readings with a couple of oppositional readings.
As John Fiske notes, Hall has "shown that what readers bring to their negotiation with the text is determined by their place in the social structure; … [and] Morley has shown … that we must recognise that social forces other than class help to determine the negotiating position of the reader."
6 Thus the dominant or preferred reading usually comes from the upper class or those with power to communicate their message to the masses. On the other hand, oppositional readings generally come from those with little or no power, such as the working and lower classes, the marginalised and oppressed.
However, the reverse seems to occur with Father Ted. The Catholic Church has frequently been seen as the source of great power and authority, forcing its dominant world view on the masses. Here the Church is the oppositional reader of a sitcom poking fun at priests. While the masses, or at least a couple of common Irish comics, are behind the preferred reading-stressing that Father Ted is a television sitcom and is not intended as a factual depiction of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Hall and Morley, however, ask whether individual priests, representing the Church, can step out of their role as Church officials and have a preferred reading of Father Ted. As we saw in Chapter Four, priests had a difficult time seeing themselves as others might. They appeared to have a similar problem viewing the programme from a preferred position, choosing instead a negotiated or oppositional position. However, theoretically, some priests should be able to enjoy Father Ted for what it is a television sitcom.
I believe the writers and producers of Father Ted have no reader reception problem. Due to the popularity of the programme and the limited number of priests who could even hold an oppositional reading, the vast majority of television viewers in the UK and Ireland seem to adopt a preferred or at least negotiated reading of Father Ted. As even one priest commented during discussion: "The characters are such exaggerated caricatures, no one could believe they represented reality!"

Priests and Surrealistic Comedy

Even though television does not depict reality we can still learn from it. That Father Ted does not attempt to tell a true story of three priests in Ireland cannot keep the viewer from learning something about priests, or even about those who produce the programme. While not depicting reality, Father Ted provides an imaginary glimpse inside a parochial house. In the process, it provides the audience with a view of priests unlike any other it may have had. Some believe this view is scandalous and irreverent, but others think it highlights the humanity and frailty shared by all.
As a surrealistic comedy, Father Ted makes use of exaggerated caricatures. However, every caricature is based in reality at some level; allowing the critical viewer to realise that these characters, however fictional, have the potential to teach us about priests and about ourselves. Father Ted does raise questions about the Roman and Irish Catholic Church. This may not be the intent of the producers, but viewers cannot help reflecting on their personal experiences.
I am not claiming that Father Ted causes the viewer to reflect on personal experiences with individual priests, but it does provide an opportunity for the critical viewer to think about the Church. An example might include the way the Church treats her faithful followers and even those who minister for her. The viewer could also be prompted to consider the way the laity and non-Catholics view the Church and her ministers. The priests involved in the discussion groups in Chapter Four briefly touched upon this sense of critical reflection but generally stayed away, concentrating instead on the humour or on a completely negative reading of the programme.
To learn from a programme such as Father Ted we need to have an open mind. We must be willing to accept that Father Ted is a surrealistic comedy and continue from there, asking what more we can learn. The Church has a long history of condemning what it does not agree with or approve of, but with the success of programmes such as Father Ted this trend could be turning around. The Church, particularly her priests, must learn to dialogue with such programmes and be able to speak to parishioners about such programmes. It serves no purpose to ascend to the pulpit and condemn a programme like Father Ted; those who enjoy it will continue to watch. Instead, the critical priest would make use of the programme to speak about problems in the community and parish. Father Ted would be an excellent tool for priests to use when opening discussions with their parishioners. It could provide a real opportunity for parishioners to discuss what they want from their parish priests.
There remains a strong sense of authority and hierarchy in the Church and this trend continues to question any challenge from the laity (or the mass audience). However, the Church is slowly coming to understand that television, like art and literature before it, can be used as an educational tool. The only problem this time is that the Church has been the last to discover this and not the first. Father Ted is not the only programme a critical priest could use to instruct his parishioners. The parish priest must remain in his 'priestly culture,' similar to that described in Chapter Four; while at the same time experiencing and understanding the mass culture of his parishioners.
Thus Father Ted provides an opportunity for the priest to learn something about himself and his parishioners (provided he speaks with them). However, this can only occur if he is willing to let go of any fears and misconceptions he has about television and in particular about situation comedies such as Father Ted. Someone who sits down to watch Father Ted thinking it to be another stupid show about priests is likely to take away that view. Priests must learn to be critical and open-minded viewers of television.

Conclusion

At the end of this examination of Father Ted I must conclude that it is a basic television situation comedy, and a rather surreal one at that. As a sitcom the programme is required to provide characters whom we can laugh at, or ridicule, or cheer, or love. The popularity of Father Ted has proved it is a successful sitcom with the viewing audience and with most of the critics. All television shows have detractors and Father Ted has had its share.
The priests portrayed in Father Ted are not like priests one is likely to meet in the average Catholic parish. They are caricatures based on some characteristics that may be found in priests, but also may be found in any person. The humour of the programme builds upon these caricatures and on the situations these strange priests stumble into week after week.
The televisual representation of priests in Father Ted is not the one the Roman Catholic Church would choose to foster vocations to the priesthood. However, Father Ted is not written to be an advertisement for the Catholic Church; it is light entertainment for mainstream television. As some of the young viewers commented, the programme may encourage the young to be more open to the Church and see priests as more approachable. By not publicly condemning the programme the Church itself has been able to show it has a sense of humour and is willing to see itself in a different light.
At the close of this study on the televisual representation of Catholic priests in Father Ted, there remain three unresolved factors. First, Father Ted is popular because it is about the Church and priests. Second, this is despite the fact the creators claim it could be about anyone, like police officers or doctors, and is despite the fact that some viewers claim it does not affect their view of priests. Third, there is the possibility that Father Ted is successful because it is a way to express one's feelings about the Church in a public forum without fear of reprisal. Ultimately, one's understanding of the televisual representation of Catholic priests in Father Ted depends on which factor, or factors, correlate with your viewing experience.
The televisual representation of Roman Catholic priests in Father Ted will continue to be a matter of discussion as more series are produced. Fans of the programme will proclaim it does not affect their view of priests, while opponents claim it criticises the Church and her priests. But one thing is certain, Father Ted will continue to be popular and this is due largely to the fact that it makes people laugh, even many of the priests in the audience discussions.
Father Ted takes the UK viewer to a place few have been before, inside a Roman Catholic parochial house. The writing is tight and clever. The casting is superb as the actors seem born to play their parts. The performances themselves have been highly praised and rightly so, as many of the programme's gags depend on the execution of simple facial expressions and one-liners. Finally, as Fr. Ted said in the "Flight Into Terror" episode: "You know, with something like this, it would have been so easy to make it look cheap and tacky." As Fr. Dougal would say, "You're right there, Ted."


Notes for Chapter Five

1. Peter de Rosa is a former Catholic priest and a television producer for RTE. His most recent series was Bless Me Father. He wrote about Father Ted in the Irish Independent -- "Weekender," January 4, 1997, p. 1.
2. "The Craggy Island Examiner" can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/Paris/2694/craggy.html.
3. These interviews can be found along with the Peter de Rosa article listed in footnote #1.
4. See the works of Buckingham, et al: In Front of the Children (1995), Children Talking Television (1993), and Moving Images (1996).
5. See "Encoding and Decoding in the Television Message" in Culture, Media, Langiage. Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., and WIllis, P. (eds.) London: Hutchinson, 1980.
6. John Fiske, introduction to Communication Studies. London: Routledge, 1990, p. 112.



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Changes last made on: Tue May 15, 2005