One of the show’s most reliable storytelling technique is to populate its episodes with guest characters who mirror the main cast. Some, like Father Dick Byrne, serve as foils. Others, like Father Damo Lennon, are more interesting for the reflections or critiques they provide. “New Jack City” takes the tactic to its darkest logical conclusion: a twisted counterpart to Father Jack, the show’s most monstrous star.
Diagnosed with the dreaded “hairy hands disease”, Jack is packed off to St Clabbert’s Old Priests’ Home. His replacement, Father Fintan Stack, proves nastier and more obnoxious than Jack ever was. Ted and Dougal set out to kidnap Jack, but no sooner have they brought him back than Stack finds that he has caught the disease himself. Stack is placed in the home, and Jack is allowed to stay at the parochial house (albeit in a containment tank).
Since Jack is the show’s go-to figure of violence and chaos, the concept of a “dark Jack” is a truly ominous one. It’s fitting that “New Jack City” is located so late in the second series – much of its power lies in its framing Jack as a relatively tolerable character, which is the sort of subversion whose effectiveness correlates to our familiarity with him. Still, there’s a slight sense of repetition here, in that we’ve already seen Father Jim Johnson, Jack’s Rugged Island counterpart. An obvious idea for the writers would have been to have Jim transferred to Craggy Island for the episode – while this might have worked, it’s better that they didn’t, as too much of Stack’s power lies in the unique casting, and his clear status as an outsider to any parish or social order.
In some ways, “New Jack City” feels like a reiteration of the concerns of “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest” – by removing Jack from our screens, the episodes make themselves about him in a profound way. We witness Ted and Dougal mourn and reconsider their feelings for Jack in both episodes, right down to a midpoint flashback montage where they fondly recall his bad behaviour. (Here they don’t quite lionise him the way they did before, instead finding a way to accept his abuse on the grounds that it was funny rather than purely spiteful – it’s almost a moral.) This episode lacks its predecessor’s elegiac tone and philosophical musings, though, with Dr Sinnot’s gentle suggestion that Jack might not be coming back from St Clabbert’s being its only real moment of pathos. Despite boasting one of the show’s best guest performances and a handful of excellent lines, it’s really one of the weaker episodes, and there’s relatively little to be said for it thematically. When the writers say that they began the script with a pun on the 1991 Wesley Snipes film rather than a story, it’s not entirely clear that they’re joking.
Linehan and Mathews originally wrote Stack as louder, more overtly nasty, and more over-the-top – essentially Jack turned up to 11. Most actors who auditioned for the part (including one Pat Laffan, our future Pat Mustard) gave straightforward renditions of the character on the page, but the result was unremarkable (for a rough approximation, see Rolf Saxon’s character in the first episode of Hippies, their follow-up sitcom). It was Brendan Grace’s counter-intuitive interpretation that won him the role: he imbues Stack with a cruel, steely indifference tinged with faint, amoral amusement, delivering his lines in a calm, quiet monotone that amplifies their menace. Stack is genuinely unnerving in a way no other Ted character can match, to the point that some viewers find the episode uncomfortable to watch. Indeed, the studio audience’s laughter is palpably uncertain in the scene where Stack accuses two of Ted’s priest friends of paedophilia – it’s just not the warm, gentle humour we’ve grown accustomed to. The writers attribute the audience’s lack of enthusiasm to the Dunblane Primary School massacre, which occurred just five days before the episode’s studio scenes were recorded. For the production itself, it’s difficult to imagine a less fortunate intersection of national mood and script tone. Since the wider audience has no reason to connect the two, the audio mix’s muted laughter remains the episode’s only testament to the darkness of that week. (Incidentally, one woman from Dunblane wrote to Linehan soon afterwards, thanking him for making her laugh when she felt she never could again. To Linehan’s regret, he lost the letter and never replied.)
We see Stack play two songs on his obnoxiously loud boombox. The first, DJ SS’s jungle remix of Cutty Ranks’s reggae track “Limb By Limb”, is immortalised by Ted’s series-best line, “Oh, worse than Hitler. You wouldn’t find Hitler playing jungle music at three o’clock in the morning.” Linehan has said that people occasionally mistake this line for a racist remark – in reality, Dermot Morgan misread the scripted “jungle” as “jungle music”, which some viewers apparently interpret as a slur. Still, the altered line has a lucky side-effect in that it makes Ted seem more quaint and parochial, much like his references to “Icy Tea” and “Scoopy Scoopy Dog Dog” in “A Song for Europe” – he’s just not the sort of man who should be able to make accurate references to specific subgenres of electronic music, and Morgan, consciously or not, corrected this.
The lyrics to “Limb By Limb” consist largely of vicious incitements to violence against gay men. The song makes no apologies, describing this fantasy in vivid detail, and includes references to shooting the victims’ eyes and cutting their tongues out with hacksaws (yes, really). Needless to say, it’s shockingly inappropriate for inclusion in Father Ted, regardless of the context. One can only assume that it slipped in by virtue of Ranks’s unintelligible Jamaican accent – the writers can’t possibly have been aware of what they were doing. When the song is mixed with dialogue and audience laughter, it’s practically impossible to make out the lyrics, so it’s doubtful that more than a handful of viewers have any idea what it’s about. On the other hand, it does serve to underline the sheer wrongness of Stack’s presence in the parochial house, and in a much subtler, more profound way than his cartoonishly belligerent behaviour.
Less discussed is Stack’s second song, DJ Taktix’s “The Way”, heard when Mrs Doyle offers him tea. It’s another jungle track, not immediately distinguishable from “Limb By Limb”, but its lyrics are considerably less appalling. The only line audible in the episode is an indulgent “Are you ready for some bloodclot jungle techno?”, distorted, timestretched, and repeated; the rest of the song, which we don’t hear, largely consists of random Gwen McCrae and Regina Belle samples. Chaotic and nonsensical, it’s easy to see why Stack likes it, and we can give it bonus points for not advocating any horrific hate crimes.
Adding to the sense of malaise, Stack even recapitulates some of the previous hardships Ted has faced. At one point, Dougal staggers drunkenly into the room, and Stack indifferently informs Ted that he has given him whiskey. “Old Grey Whistle Theft” was entirely about Father Damo’s corrupting influence on Dougal, yet Stack surpasses Damo in a moment, without even trying. Continuing, he mentions that he has just crashed Ted’s car into a wall, casually recreating Jack’s drunken accident in “Think Fast, Father Ted”. Stack’s a walking disaster, causing nightmarish Father Ted set pieces to pop up wherever he goes.
The scene where Ted invites two priest friends to the parochial house offers us a rare glimpse into his social life, and what genuinely good priests in the Ted universe get up to in their spare time. As it turns out, they mostly gossip about other priests, swapping increasingly bizarre stories of their colleagues. We even get consecutive examples of the show’s two big running jokes about individual priests, with both a new fact about the monstrous Father Bigley and another phone call to the unlucky Father Larry Duff. It’s the apotheosis of the writers’ early comedic idea that every priest in the world should know every other priest, and Stack’s intrusion on it only amplifies his aura of malignance.
Next, the group gather round to watch the video of the latest all-priests Sports Day. They have all the gleeful enthusiasm of primary school students, clapping and cheering when they see their friends – it’s thoroughly social and communal, the very opposite of Stack’s self-absorbed dancing. Stylistically, the video is the most striking part of the episode – the first scene in Ted to be recorded with handheld cameras, it introduces a documentary or found-footage aesthetic that future episodes will occasionally reprise. (Do we even need to mention that Arthur Mathews narrates it at this point? It’s not even his first cameo in this episode…) In a particularly mad moment, legendary Hollywood stuntman Bronco McLoughlin, who often stands in for Ted or Jack in action scenes, finally appears unobscured as a priestly version of himself, attempting to lasso another priest while astride a horse (which looks rather identical to the one in the “My Lovely Horse” dream sequence – perhaps it was Ted and Dougal’s inspiration?) Today it all looks very 1994 Castletown Donkey Derby, but that video didn’t proliferate until 2011, so the similarities are likely coincidental. When Stack shows up, it’s not long before Ted’s guests make their excuses and leave, much like the visitors who met Father Stone in the first series. In some ways, Stack and Stone are not so different – both dwell in worlds of their own, repelling outsiders with their overwhelming presences.
St Clabbert’s itself, when we finally see it, is a stroke of genius: a nursing home populated entirely by hairy old priests matching Jack’s temperament, decrepitude, filthiness, and vocabulary. In terms of how we must view the character, it’s a game changer. The moment Ted and Dougal hit the light switch, we realise that Jack is no aberration, no freak of nature, but one of many – the result of a universal process. The Catholic Church attracts men inclined towards depravity, alcoholism, and lechery, or it attracts good men and corrupts them – either way, the implication is damning. Look on Father Walton, and be dismayed.
Is this the fate that awaits all priests? When Ted and Dougal hear a nun approaching, they camouflage themselves by sitting down and shouting “arse!” and “feck!” while slapping their knees. This behaviour comes instinctively to them; indeed, the technique works almost too well, with Dougal growing so enthusiastic that Ted must intervene to stop him after the nun leaves. Will Ted and Dougal end up in St Clabbert’s themselves one day, hairy and monstrous and mindless? It’s a disquieting thought. One of the old priests, with full grey hair and bushy black eyebrows, does look like a caricature of Ted. The building itself even resembles the parochial house, bloated and decayed; a trenzalorean monument to a dark potential future.
The episode’s biggest structural misstep lies in its conclusion. Returning home, Ted points Jack towards his whiskey, knowing he’ll discover that Stack has already drunk it. With barely concealed glee, Ted steps back to watch the ensuing confrontation… which doesn’t happen. The episode’s recontextualisation of Jack as a sympathetic figure, its build-up towards his inevitable clash with his dark counterpart, simply goes nowhere. Instead of being overthrown by Jack in a comedic fight scene, Stack discovers that he’s contracted the hairy hands disease from Jack’s chair, and the episode skips ahead to the restoration of the status quo. Even if the production team had realised that a close-up of Stack’s hand was necessary just to make it clear to the audience what’s going on, it still wouldn’t have worked: there’s no climax to speak of, and the dénouement is a bit of nonsense about Jack being quarantined in a naff sci-fi containment tank (which, of course, will be gone and forgotten by the next episode). The convenient intervention of a local disease to defeat the intruder at the climactic moment may have been revolutionary when HG Wells did it in 1897, but it’s really not what the episode calls for.
Still, a close look at this jumble yields clues to the show’s overall direction. The final scene begins with Ted and Dougal appreciating the way the tank muffles Jack’s yells – a reiteration of the opening scene in “Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest”, this episode’s clear antecedent, which began with Ted and Dougal in the same seats, admiring their new earplugs’ effectiveness at blocking Jack’s noise. It’s the same joke, but in the space of one year – one series – it’s gone from a silly cold open to a major plot beat; the simple, low-key humour morphing into cartoonish absurdity.
Father Ted is evolving. The well of quaint priest jokes is running dry, and soon it will be time for something else – time for series three.
Native to Costello’s Tavern, Gerard O’Mahony likes nothing more than discussing made-up stuff in the context of other made-up stuff.