The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: Catholicism (page 1 of 1)

How I Killed Father Ted

This year is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the much-loved UK sitcom Father Ted. This unpublished interview with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which I pointed out how many priests drop dead in their hit sitcom – was commissioned by Deluxe magazine in February 1998. The day after I handed my copy in, Father Ted, alias Dermot Morgan, 45,dropped dead of a heart attack. The interview was spiked and the series cancelled.

‘Nobody comes. Nobody goes. Nothing happens. It’s awful!’

Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett

Every decade has its sitcom. In the Sixties it was Steptoe and Son – generational conflict between two junk men left behind by Progress. In the Seventies it was Are You Being Served? – class war, campery and skiving in a department store going to the dogs. In the Eighties it was Blackadder – doomed get-rich-quick schemes of an ambitious, selfish, spineless loser. 

And in the Nineties it is Father Ted – crap priest exiled to a crap house on a crap island by the crap Italian-based multinational he works for, which forces him to mouth a crap corporate dogma which, try as he might, he can’t quite sound convinced by.

But Ted, now about to air its third series, is not just the best sitcom in years. It’s High Art. This is Beckett, but with better gags. Ted (Dermot Morgan) and his Holy Fool sidekick Dougal (Ardal O’Hanlon) are waiting for a Godot that will never come in a wasteland of frustration, bereft of any certainties, any values, any purpose or any decent night-clubs. A place where the only consolation is an endless supply of hot tea from Mrs Doyle which you didn’t ask for. 

Father Ted is so inspired that even Ted’s hair, with its enigmatic greyness and mysterious, shifting voluminousness, is a character in itself. Naturally my first question to the writer-creators Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan is, was it scripted?

Arthur: ‘It came with Dermot’.

Graham: ‘Dermot suggested it’.

Arthur: ‘Dermot suggested his own head’.

Time passes. 

Graham: ‘And it was just as well, because we were going to go for someone else’s head.’ 

Despite their occasionally Beckettian conversation, they seem like nice if slightly naughty Irish boys. They look the approximately the same age – thirty going on fourteen – but Arthur is actually ten years older than Graham who is 29. Graham talks more than Arthur, and seems more confident, but it’s not clear who wears the trousers in this relationship. Arthur grew up in Drogheda, a country town; Graham in Dublin. ‘I’m the City Slicker and Arthur’s the country boy,’ explains Graham. ‘I provide the hip cultural references and Arthur provides the authenticity.’

‘Thanks,’ says Arthur sarcastically. ‘I think that what Graham is saying is that it’s helpful for me to be from the country.’

‘And it’s helpful for me not to be,’ adds Graham.

They met when working on the Dublin listings mag Hot Press; Graham as a writer, Arthur as art director. After experimenting with a U2 pastiche band called The Joshua Trio they moved to London and wrote some sketches for Alas Smith & Jones before writing a very surreal series called Paris for Alexei Sayle in 1994. It wasn’t a hit.

Says Graham: ‘If you’d put it next to Ted and asked me which one was going to be a hit, I don’t know I’d have given you the right answer. I think perhaps it didn’t work because it didn’t have as many rules as Ted, and we didn’t realise that the central character is never as funny as all the satellite characters.’

Like Mrs Doyle, for instance, who is a seer and a prophet and deserves to be worshipped. Why don’t they give her more lines? There’s so much more that needs to be said about tea and sandwiches.

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ responds Graham, ‘because in this series we’ve tried to work a plot around each character and you get to meet Mrs Doyle’s friends. Who are, of course, exactly the same as she is. I’m sure you recognise some of your mother in Mrs Doyle…’

You know my mother??

Graham: ‘Well, you know the sort of thing I mean – you go round to your friend’s house and their mother….’

Arthur: ‘…will almost kill themselves if you ask them to nicely. “Would you mind killing yourself?” [Putting on a Mrs Doyle voice]: “Well, I don’t know…. Okay, I will.’

What do our dynamic comedy-writing duo like about one another? 

Arthur: ‘Graham’s a perfectionist. To a fault. He knows what works – he has really good instincts.’

Graham: ‘What do I like about Arthur? Er, well, it’s kind of like an imaginative haemorrhaging. He’ll sit down at a typewriter and millions of ideas will come out. That is so useful when you’re trying to get started. Arthur also has a lovely feeling for the way that priests talk.’ 

Where did the idea for Ted come from?

Arthur: ‘Growing up in Ireland we were surrounded by priests, of course, and so we didn’t have to look very far. The other day I saw a TV documentary from 1964 about Mods and there was a clip where we saw priests blessing their scooters. Now that’s pure Ted.’

Graham: ‘Arthur also used to do Ted as a stand-up character, so that makes writing for Ted very easy, because Arthur just has to start putting on his Ted voice and we’re away.’

It seems that the Irishness of Ted is the key to its success. Croft-Perry classic shows like Are You Being Served? and Dad’s Army, which Ted is very much in the tradition of, depended upon a repression which no one would really believe in if it were set in ‘classless’, individualistic Nineties Britain.

Graham: ‘I think that British repression is kind of dull now because it’s been done. But no one knew what a repressed Irish person would do.’

Arthur: ‘And in Ireland, of course, Catholicism takes on the role of class. Everyone’s very deferential to the priests.’

The lads claim Ted isn’t anti-clerical, and certainly Ted’s bungling, agnostic vanity (i.e. his human-ness) is probably a PR victory next to newspaper headlines of be-cassocked kiddie-fiddling. But I put it to them that priests do tend to die on the show like flies. Every time Ted calls a dog-collared mate on his mobile another one bites the dust. 

Graham: ‘S’funny, no one’s pointed that out before. But… people dropping dead is funny. In a comedy.’

Arthur: ‘As opposed to a drama. Where it’s not.’

Come on, you don’t see many people dying in comedies. It isn’t that funny. But dead priests are for some reason. [At this, Arthur laughs very loudly]. Maybe it’s because they wear black and talk about death all the time. Or maybe it’s because they’re just not very real people….

Graham: ‘Well, we certainly trade on unreality in the programme. We’ve constructed a kind of mythology around the priesthood. Because being a priest is a closed book to most people you can make up stuff…’.

Or as Ted put it: ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Catholicism, Dougal. It’s so vague that no-one really knows what it’s about.’ If Catholicism were a movie, it would have to be a cartoon. And there is a very strong cartoon, ‘surreal’ element to Ted. 

Arthur: ‘We’re big cartoon fans. Especially of The Simpsons.’

I can see there’s some Homer Simpson in Ted, but isn’t there more Daffy Duck?

Graham: I’d say it was Rain Man and Daffy Duck. We had a joke which we never used where Ted drops some toothpicks on the floor and Dougal instantly says, ’4,777’ and then cut-to an hour later and Ted, whose been counting them, says: ‘4,777 indeed. It’s 4,776, actually.’

Catholicism also provides a useful reason why Ted and Dougal are stuck together and why they share the same bedroom in such a big house – like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise. 

‘Yes, there’s something that connects them all,’ admits Graham. ‘It’s as if they were non-sexual lovers, as if they were co-dependent brothers.’

Or just married – most marriages are non-sexual and co-dependent.

‘Maybe,’ laughs Graham. ‘I always hoped we’d get a gay following for Ted, in the same way as The Golden Girls did. But it didn’t happen.’

Probably because you don’t have enough drag-queen female characters. Will you be having a fourth series, now, boys?

‘You have to be careful not to outstay your welcome,’ hedges Graham. ‘We have to make each series better than the last. And that gets harder each time. At the moment we’re not sure.’

Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on. Just in yer hand. You will. Go on. 

Ban the folk mass! Interview with Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright confesses his priestly urges to Mark Simpson  

(Pride magazine, 2005)

The man who has been described as the ‘Joni Mitchell of his generation’, lionised for his genius by such as the Scissor Sisters, Elton John, Neil Tennant and Michael Stipe, is changing onstage from jeans and shirt into a blue glitter thong, red pumps — and a hairy chest.

He’s singing a song from his new album Want Two called ‘Old Whore’s Diet’ — “Gets me goin’ in the mornin‘” — as the finale to his show in Reading, England, the first of his UK dates. Rufus Wainwright, the rockstocracy son of folk legends Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, keeps turning round and showing us his thirty-one-year-old decidedly, commendably non-circuit-party ass. A little later he turns into the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, before ‘melting’.

Rufus may or may not be referencing British Music Hall, but he’s definitely channelling Monty Python and Judy Garland. He may or may not now be teetering on the edge of global domination after years of critical praise and modest sales, but he’s clearly teetering on some kind of edge. Bless ‘im.

Before tonight’s spellbinding show got underway, he took the time to answer some probing questions in his dressing room.

M: Want One had you dressed as a knight in armour, apparently dead. Your new album Want Two has you dragged up as a kooky, drowned Ophelia figure. This is horribly Freudian, but it occurs to me that you have now enacted the deaths of both your parents — your distant, armoured father, and your ethereal, spiritual mother.

R: [laughs] I haven’t heard THAT before! But I’m willing to go there. I’m going to see Bella Freud tomorrow, so I’ll ask her! I’ve had a real yin and yang existence: my mother’s very bohemian and Irish Catholic; my father is quite rigid and a disciplinarian and logical. Both of those forces have been necessary for my survival. I’ve had to learn to accept my parents for who they are, taking what you need, and not blaming them for it.

And, besides, you have your own gay daddy now, don’t you?

R: Yeah, I’ve got several actually, Elton John, Neil Tennant, Michael Stipe..

M: It could be argued that you’ve found another kind of daddy now in the ‘higher power’ of AA, now that you’ve kicked alcohol and crystal meth.

R: I don’t like to talk about whether I’m in that or not. Once I went to rehab, that was where it ended. My drug using and alcohol became a very private issue. Just because if I say, ‘Oh, I don’t drink’, then people see you drinking. What I will say is that I was spiritually bankrupt. And I needed God, really, in some form.

M: Were you looking for discipline?

R: It was just like surrender really. The thing about show business is that you spend so much time being in such control you think you can really rule the world. And that’s maddening – because you can’t! I wish you could. At some point you have to admit that there is something greater than myself.

M: I understand that Quentin was your fairy godmother.

R: I was thirteen when I was introduced to Quentin. Was that specific summer when I came out to myself about my sexuality. I had a lot of sex that summer but I definitely do believe there’s something called statutory rape. I was just too young to be in that world, but I wanted to go there so I went there! And both of my parents, understandably, just really kinda freaked out and didn’t know what to do, so my father called up Penny Arcade. She was a friend of the family and had been involved with the Warhol Factory and all those drag queens and was now Quentin’s babysitter so she had a lot
of experience of handling gays! My mother and father aren’t particularly homophobic, but my mother was not happy and my father just didn’t do anything really. He didn’t want to talk about it at all.

M: Would you perhaps have preferred a passionately negative response to one of apparent indifference?

R: I got what I got – and that’s what I have to work with. [laughs]. I think he handled it in the only way he knew how to. Sending me to hang out with Penny and Quentin was a pretty good option. I think I fared pretty well.

M: Did Quentin offer you any advice?

R: Gee, I don’t think he every really acknowledged me, to tell you the truth! I was in the same room with him many times. I noticed that the way he operated was that there was the audience and there were the servants. And I chose to be an audience member. But then, he deserved servants!

M: Your work seems to own that melancholy that contemporary gays have disowned. I have a theory that your music is what’s playing in the heads of circuit party boys when they’re coming down. But they don’t want anyone to know.

R: [laughs] Right, right! I would say, that it’s definitely not the sound in their heads when they’re going out! I have had a difficult time with the gay press in the US. It seems to be coming around now. I don’t think that they have a choice but to acknowledge me. They’ve tried their damnedest not to in the past.

M: Well, you’re a movie star now, you did that rather wonderful cameo as the strung-out lounge singer in The Aviator.

R: Yeah! They’ve got to notice me now! I think it’s due to this limited aspect of gay life that is worshipped and publicised — one of FUN!, y’know, style, SEX!, nice physiques, and all that, which you know I’m prone to as well, I’m prone to the same fucking disease, the obsession with the middle of the body, and so forth, but I have always tried to illustrate the other side of the rainbow and be the Sunday morning music, the alone time. It’s very difficult to get that across to certain gay people. I remember a long time ago doing my first show in London. It was a real cross section of fans, young women, middle aged women, my father’s fans, gay people — gay people were the first ones to leave. Most people stayed to the end, but the gay people had somewhere better to go, something way better to do.

M: Today’s gay culture seems to be in denial about the ‘alcoholic homosexuals’ you sing about in ‘Hometown Waltz’ on the new album — The Judy Garland factor. Someone whom I understand was a friend of the family…

R: It’s true! She made my grandfather’s school sandwiches! Look, given the amount of kind of treachery tragedy that the gay male community has gone through for the last 2000 years, not to mention that the worst of it has been in the last 25yrs with AIDS, there is no kind of bouncing back fast from this. Homosexuality right now is really enemy No.1 whether it’s Islam, or Catholicism, or even Judaism in my opinion, look at the Kabala. I don’t think you should live your life under constant awareness of oppression, but I think that you have to accept a certain amount of sorrow, and realise that
in a certain way it’s how we’ve survived.

M: You’ve suggested before that gay men take drugs because they’re oppressed. Is that really true? Don’t they just take them because they like them?

R: Let’s not underestimate the power of chemistry. It’s a very potent combination: gays and drugs! I strongly believe in that romantic idea that in primordial time gay people were shamans. I think we’re spiritually destined to have to dig a little deeper. And that is a role, a tougher role. Some people just don’t’ want to go there. Which is understandable.

M: You dedicated your performance of ‘Gay Messiah’ tonight to the Pope. I take it you didn’t go to see him lying in State?

R: Oh, no. I’m here, protesting in Reading.

M: Is there any religious background to your family? Your music is very Catholic.

R: My mother is kind of a latent Catholic, she doesn’t really go to church, but she has Catholic ways. So, yeah, I was brought up in a very Catholic environment. But I’m actually not baptised. In an odd way she tried to send me to church, but I could never take the sacraments or do confession. That was an interesting road to take.

M: If you’d been born in an earlier age would you have been a priest?

R: I think I would have been a priest. For sure. I’ve often thought that. And I mean a priest who has sex.

M: There are quite a few of those.

R: [laughs] Yeah, but with men. With other priests.

M: Not with the altar boys.

R: Well, maybe with the altar teenagers!

M: If you were made Pope what would your first Papal decree be?

R: I’d ban the folk mass and bring back everything in Latin so we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about.