“I think we got away with it” – A Christmassy Ted

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Where do we even begin? “A Christmassy Ted” is a monumental episode. Structurally, it’s the show’s biggest experiment to date. Narratively, it’s something of a mess. Though frustrating on certain levels, it holds a unique charm – this is an episode which is far more than the sum of its parts.

The writers decided not to follow the second series in 1996 with a third in 1997, instead opting to write a Christmas special and take 1997 off. They thought that writing the special would be easier. They were wrong. As Graham Linehan mentions with some frequency, he and Arthur Mathews had enormously difficulty adapting to the pace and structure demanded by the longer story, and actually found the process comparable to the experience of writing an entire series. Channel 4 initially wanted a 45-minute special, but the writers lobbied for 55, and to their regret, they got it – the result doubles the usual 24-minute episode with nearly a third to spare. Linehan’s open criticisms of the episode (in the commentaries and elsewhere) are the source of the received wisdom that it’s essentially two normal episodes sellotaped together; however, that’s not really an accurate description of its structure. No, that would be too simple.

As Christmas approaches in the parochial house, Ted and Dougal go shopping and become lost in Ireland’s largest lingerie section. Embarrassment mounts as they encounter several other clusters of priests in the labyrinthine aisles. Ted helps them escape, avoiding a national scandal, and the Church rewards him with the prestigious Golden Cleric award. After making an egotistical fool of himself at the award ceremony, Ted has to contend with Father Todd Unctious, who claims to have attended St Columb’s with him, but whom Ted does not recognise. Unctious is revealed as an impostor when Ted catches him attempting to steal the award. While all this is going on, Mrs Doyle struggles with the unwanted gift of the Teamaster, a machine that makes her redundant.

While Linehan describes the episode’s structure as bifurcated, with the first half centring on the lingerie plot and the second on Unctious, that conception really doesn’t do the story’s shambling, meandering insanity justice. A-plots and B-plots (and C-plots!) ebb and flow and overlap here in a way that’s nearly impossible to parse or untangle. The cold open is a pair of bizarre dream sequences, the next scene four minutes of Christmassy chatting in the living room. This is followed by the lingerie sequence, running far too long at seven minutes. It’s a scene later that Ted gets the phone call about the award – supposedly a main story line. Next is a thoroughly strange 12-minute stretch focusing largely on Ted’s soul-searching, and ending with Unctious’s arrival (finally!) on Christmas morning, after which the episode drops all pretense of being about Christmas. Unctious lurks in the house while the award ceremony takes place (four minutes). The next five minutes are spent with the priests from the lingerie section, still awkwardly present. Six minutes are dedicated to Unctious’s nocturnal shenanigans, and three to the Scooby Doo-esque conclusion. The dénouement is amazingly long, with five minutes of standing around and irrelevant conversation between the climax and the ending.

Clearly, this isn’t structured like an episode. Or two episodes. Or a film. Or anything, really. It’s a shambolic Frankenstein’s monster; a lumbering dinosaur. To dismiss “A Christmassy Ted” as an accidental Dadaist masterwork would be too easy – it demands a closer examination.

In one early scene, Ted finds a baby on the doorstep, only for the woman who left it there to realise that she’s come to the wrong door and take it back. Ted and Dougal imagine the hilarious misadventures they’d have gotten up to had the baby really been left with them, then reconsider and decide that it probably wouldn’t have been very funny after all. Despite this teasing, Linehan would later admit that a babysitting episode wasn’t a bad idea at all, and would likely have gone down very well with audiences. When all’s said and done, this is a warm show with loveable characters – babies are a good aesthetic match. As a central image, Linehan suggests a nativity pastiche with Ted, Dougal, and Jack as the Three Wise Men and Mrs Doyle as the Virgin Mary. Setting aside the baby idea, he imagines that an alternative episode could have focused on Dougal discovering that Santa Claus is not real, perhaps with Ted or Jack coming down the chimney in a Santa costume at the end and reaffirming his beliefs. (While I admire “A Christmassy Ted” for its shambling ambition and would never trade it away, it’s hard not to regret that it’s the only Christmas special they got a chance to make – even if the writers never felt up to a full fourth series, the occasional Christmas special would have been an ideal way to revisit Craggy Island as the years marched on.)

Instead of any of these ideas, the writers opted for a not-particularly-Christmassy episode about Ted’s hubris after winning an award. It’s a topic that was on their minds at the time, for obvious reasons. They had just started winning major awards for the show. If Ted was winning BAFTAs, they thought, then why shouldn’t Ted win his own BAFTA? His acceptance speech could include all the terrible, unprofessional things their never could. And “A Christmassy Ted” – or at least the Golden Cleric part of it – was born.

Logically, this leads to the idea of giving Ted an emotional arc. The writers could channel their own egos and shortcomings – every flash of pride for their acclaim, every moment of arrogance or greed – into the character, where they could be interrogated and mocked for comedic effect. (Linehan later expressed some regret for this approach, worrying that audiences might find it unrelatable and indulgent, and comparing it to a newly successful band’s album about how hard life can be on the road.) Ted’s flaws make him the ideal vessel for this story, though it pushes the character to slightly darker places than what we’ve seen before. This Ted is capricious, jealous, conceited, and melodramatic – noticeably more so than usual. This is a Ted who’ll rage at Mrs Doyle for calling him the “second-best priest” in the country, declare that he’s leaving the clergy, then run straight out of the building. By pushing Ted to the edge, the episode can, in theory, chart his journey back to the benignly ambivalent figure we know and love.

The cold open has Ted dreaming that he is part of Ballykissangel, his elopement with Assumpta Fitzgerald cut short when Dougal wakes him to offer him a midnight peanut. It’s a fun moment, but it’s probably aged worse than any other Ted joke, since Ballykissangel, quite popular in 1996 Ireland, is now a dim and distant memory. As a reminder of Ted‘s unique status, it’s almost sobering.

The Ballykissangel team were gracious and pleasant to work with, and allowed Assumpta Fitzgerald and Father Peter Clifford to appear in the episode free of charge. Afterwards, they asked Linehan if they could borrow the Ted characters for a charity special. Linehan hesitated and asked to see a script, later becoming enormously embarrassed when he realised what a diva he’d been about it. They never got back to him. Three months later, “Ballykissdibley”, an 11-minute crossover between Ballykissangel and The Vicar of Dibley, was aired during Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. The sketch’s premise is that the towns of Ballykissangel and Dibley are participating in a religious cultural exchange program, with Father Clifford temporarily moving to Dibley and meeting Reverend Geraldine Granger. It’s not clear whether Ted was meant to be part of this or the Ballykissangel crew were planning a separate crossover. Bizarrely, Ted’s dream actually fits neatly with the crossover’s continuity, in that it actually depicts Father Clifford packing his bags and leaving Ballykissangel. Confusing things further, an unrelated deal led to Morgan and O’Hanlon hosting the Red Nose Day telethon that year, in character as Ted and Dougal. I’m not even going to attempt to untangle this gnarled web of fractured clerical sitcom realities.

Here it’s worth drawing attention to the sort of relationship the show has with its contemporaries. At the time of writing Ted, Linehan was heavily inclined towards pop-culture references. But where his idol Quentin Tarantino would casually blur the lines between his own fictions and their antecedents, Linehan preferred to position Ted and Dougal in a nominally “top-level” reality, where the characters have read the same books and seen the same films as the audience. It’s why Ted meets Richard Wilson rather than Victor Meldrew.

Once Ted falls back asleep, his dream of being in a nice, normal show – the kind of show to which Ted is a reaction – is replaced with a nightmare of fleeing from three gigantic peanuts. This rawly stupid surrealism is timelessly brilliant – it’s the kind of joke that will never age. The peanut costumes are fantastic, evoking some of the more dubious practical effects of classic Doctor Who. The writers have suggested that silly costumes and dream sequences are signs of a sitcom past its prime (and OK, Dougal as a matador isn’t the show’s finest hour), but considering gold like this it’s difficult to agree with them entirely.

The six others priests Ted and Dougal meet in the lingerie section are a colourful lot, though the ramshackle way in which the episode unfolds leaves them hanging around the edge of the story long after they have lost any relevance, turning them into a strange kind of surrogate audience. The traumatised Father Deegan is played by Kevin McKidd, fresh off a secondary role in Trainspotting – he went on to achieve an unusual level of career success for a minor Ted actor, playing Lucius Vorenus in Rome and Soap MacTavish in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games. Father Terry Kavanagh, the show’s omnipresent extra, finally gets a few lines (and reveals himself as a bra-obsessed pervert, slightly undermining the writers’ intention to make fun of the way priests were being ostracised around this time rather than joining in with the ostracisation). Best of all is Sean Barrett as Father Fitzgerald, the priest with the most boring voice in the world (the show’s third and final riff on the surprisingly rich “boring priest” concept, following Father Stone and Father Purcell). The writers had the idea that Fitzgerald was something of a weirdo, but this really only manifested in the supermarket microphone scene, where they rolled Barrett in and out of the frame on a hidden trolley; the strange motion is only noticeable if you pay close attention to the character, so the joke’s really just a bonus for obsessives. Barrett himself brings quite a history to the show, being an experienced voice actor with roles including UrZah in The Dark Crystal and Tik-Tok in Return to Oz. In what might be the greatest piece of Ted trivia in existence, he’s also the man on the cover of the Smiths single “How Soon Is Now” – specifically, it’s a still of his character in the 1958 film Dunkirk.

Linehan remains unsatisfied with the lingerie sequence, particularly its overlong segue into an irrelevant Platoon parody, and suggests that it could have been saved with an effects shot of bras stretching off into infinity. While it’s clearly a great shame that this magnificent image didn’t make it to our screen, the sequence really isn’t that out of place considering the rest of the episode. The writers were perturbed when one viewer said that they should have showed Dougal’s entire funeral rather than just a cutaway to the hearse exploding, but perhaps the critic had a point – the episode is already bursting at the seams with nonsense, so a little more could hardly hurt. Seriously, Larry Duff gets two scenes.

The Rome scene is particularly fun – Bishop Brennan would never have anything to do with giving Ted a Golden Cleric, so instead, the award comes from Tom McCaskell, a higher-ranking bishop (and rare Scottish character) who phones from a party in the Vatican. McCaskell’s role as a more neutral Brennan analogue is explicated when he mentions having to flee to South America because “she’s writing a book about it” – a clear reference to Bishop Eamon Casey, on whom Brennan is also based. (Just how many versions of Casey and Michael Cleary co-exist in this world…?) We’ve glimpsed the Vatican before in “Tentacles of Doom”, but while the priests deciding the Holy Stone’s fate in that episode were lethargic and uninterested, these bishops are gloriously decadent and alive. A lone cardinal reclines on a couch with a can of beer while the bishops dodder about, smoking, drinking, and dancing, one perversely fondling a balloon. Bizarrely, a close inspection reveals that Alberto, the bishop seen playing the drums in the background, is actually played by Kevin Sharkey, whom you might remember as Father Shaft, the black priest from Donegal. Evidently he’s had a promotion since the last episode. Really, it’s remarkable how many of this show’s seldom-speaking extras seem to lead fantastically exciting off-screen lives – now where’s our Alberto Shaft spin-off?

Ted’s introspective walk on the beach culminates in a surreal moment where, running from an old fisherman he’s accidentally hit with a rock, Ted is assailed by visions embodying his neuroses. These phantasms appear as the taunting, laughing faces of Mrs Doyle, the fisherman, Jack, and the cast of Ballykissangel (with an implicit elision of Father Peter Clifford and Father Peter Perfect, the perfect priest). The scene was most likely inspired by “Lisa’s First Word”, a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, where the young Bart had a similar breakdown. An possible precedent is Peter Davison’s regeneration into Colin Baker in the 1984 Doctor Who serial The Caves of Androzani; while played straight, the sequence is bizarre in ways that invite parody. The entire trend is more than a little reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, an engraving of the artist slouched over his desk, pursued and tormented by shadowy avian creatures. In a masterful subversion and one of the episode’s best moments, the Ted version concludes with Dougal’s face floating into view, looking perplexed at his accidental psychic intrusion, and zooming off into the distance without a word.

Later, when Ted turns to the priest chatline for guidance, their musings on how to break news of a death are rudely interrupted by two teenager pranksters. One is noted Irish comedian Ed Byrne, and the other is actually our very own Gerry Fields of St Kevin’s Youth Group, perhaps taking out his frustration with Father Noel Furlong the only way he knows how. It’s enough to make one wonder if Tony Lynch and Janine Reilly engage in similar escapades.

Unctious, the episode’s main guest character, is played by Gerard McSorley, who was cast based on his menacing performance in In the Name of the Father. It’s an odd role – a conniving interloper in the parochial house, not drawn into the story but deliberately insinuating himself into Ted’s life for insane reasons. Adding to the interloper effect is the fact that he doesn’t actually show up until the halfway mark, and takes another ten minutes to become a persistent presence. With a more focused script, there might have been considerable pressure on McSorley to carry the episode, but it’s just so lost in itself by the time his plot kicks into gear that it’s difficult to imagine he worried much. The character’s brash over-familiarity makes him a satisfyingly different villain, and some of his lines are very strong – tellingly, I had “Here we are… all the lads” shouted at me by a gentleman I’d never met before on my way home from the pub on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

At one point, almost unbelievably, Pierce Brosnan was considered for the role. The writers heard a rumour from the crew that Brosnan was “in the area”, and for one mad moment, they dared to dream that he might want to guest-star in their little sitcom. (He didn’t.) This would have been between GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, so Brosnan’s star was at an all-time high – he would have brought some unprecedented glamour to a show whose entire cast were unknown outside Britian and Ireland. It’s easy to imagine a more suave, charming Unctious working well without many adjustments. The bedroom scene would have felt rather different with a conventionally handsome man in the role, and seeing James Bond descend on Mission: Impossible wires to steal the Golden Cleric would have been far more surreal, but altogether, he wouldn’t have been a bad choice had circumstances permitted.

Unctious’s best-remembered scene is probably his first. Rather than introducing himself to Mrs Doyle, he inexplicably asks her to guess his name. She takes the challenge very personally, and dutifully begins to throw out names: Father Andy Riley, Father George Byrne, Father Declan Lynch, Father Ken Sweeney, Father Neil Hannon, Father Keith Cullen; all names of the writers’ friends, immortalised as the quasi-priests of Mrs Doyle’s imaginings. (The writers came to regret this decision somewhat once they realised that they’d left out many of their friends, some of whom took offence.) We flash forward to nearly an hour later, and she’s still going, but her guesses have devolved to the level of incoherence: Father Hiroshima Twinkie, Father Luke Duke, Father Pee-wee Stairmaster, Father Spodo Komodo. (McLynn did a great job memorising all these, though there are a couple of moments where the actress pauses, clearly struggling to remember the next line. Looking back, the writers think they should have trimmed these shots down, but really they only add to the fun.) When she hits on “Father Todd Unctious”, the interloper, seemingly having had enough, lies that she has guessed correctly. We never learn his real identity.

Paradoxically, journalist Ken Sweeney actually appears as a priest extra, both in this episode and “Flight Into Terror”. Is this a subtle hint that Mrs Doyle is not just making up names, but actually reciting the names of priests she’s heard of? After all, we know that there are at least four Father Windy Shepherd Hendersons, and that name’s not a million miles away from Father Stig Bubblecard or Father Rabula Conundrum. If so, it’s a major addition to the canon of Ted priests.

Neil Hannon, of course, is the show’s indispensable composer, and he comes out of this episode looking better than just about anyone. It boasts one of his finest Ted scores, presumably thanks to the fact that he could concentrate on a single 55-minute special rather than dividing his energy across a series of six to ten episodes. Over the course of “A Christmassy Ted”, Hannon touches on epic romance (the Ballykissangel dream, Mrs Doyle’s tea montage), gentle whimsy (the baby on the doorstep), Vietnam film soundtrack (the lingerie section), techno (the Vatican party), a reflective piece escalating into Hitchcockian terror (Ted’s walk on the beach), a spy film (Unctious’s heist), a cheesy horror film (Dougal’s horror movie), and smoky film-noir ambiance (Unctious’s backstory). We even get a Christmassy version of the main theme complete with bells, triangle, and a choir, plus two unique scene transitions. Best of all is the jingle for the Priest Chatback advertisement, a supremely awkward shot-for-shot remake of a gay chatline ad the writers saw on late-night ITV – it’s one of only three times Hannon’s voice is heard in Ted, and a joke that Linehan and Hannon would later reiterate to great effect in The IT Crowd‘s “Calamity Jen”. Never mind a soundtrack release for the show – “A Christmassy Ted” could do with its own.

Of all the friends mentioned, only Andy Riley has contributed significantly to the discourse on the episode. Best known as the author of The Book of Bunny Suicides, Riley has also written a blog post in which he suggests the scene may have been inspired by a passage in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, where the protagonist, in conversation with his own soul, inquires as to its previous owner. Clearly the circumstances are somewhat different, but as Riley notes, the “long list of funny Irish names which may or may not apply to an individual” is a rather distinctive format for a joke. After establishing this literary connection, Riley takes another step and links the joke to medieval Irish mythology: in the ancient story The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, the hero Conair asks a prophetess for her name, and she responds with thirty different answers. Again, not quite the same joke, but it evokes a similar feeling, and the lineage, conscious or not, is a credible one. Looking beyond Irish sources, the Ted version, where the heroine is outright invited by a trickster villain to guess his name, also has some resonances with the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

But the scene’s strangest legacy by far is the fate of Father Luke Duke. In an oddly specific and thoroughly inexplicable reference, a 27th-century priest character with exactly the same name appears in “Predating the Predators”, a short story written by Philip Purser-Hallard for the 2008 collection The Vampire Curse. The book is part of a series following the adventures of archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, a character who originated as a companion in several Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s. Say what you will for Father Chewie Louie or Father Tight Headlips, but they never ascended to become part of the Doctor Who canon.

The preparation for the Golden Cleric ceremony was directed by an uncredited Graham Linehan, and marks his first foray into that role. The first two series (and almost all of the Christmas special) were directed by Declan Lowney. When Lowney opted out for the third series, directing duties were divided between Linehan (for the location scenes, shot outdoors in the west of Ireland) and Andy De Emmony (for the studio scenes, shot in London a few weeks later). Linehan went on to embrace the role, directing many episodes of his subsequent shows (including all of The IT Crowd), but remains critical of his inexperienced work on Ted. For instance, the ceremony preparations should have been filmed in a more documentary style – while the dialogue is delivered in an amusingly naturalistic way (barring the misdirected choir instructor), the camerawork makes little effort to match it, so Craggy Island’s little premonition of The Office doesn’t quite materialise.

Radio producer Pat O’Mahony, a friend of the writers’, was cast as the priest in charge of security at the ceremony. The character’s brief scene involved him speaking two lines into a walkie-talkie. Having no acting experience, O’Mahony became very self-conscious when the time came to film his scene. He didn’t manage to deliver his lines believably, even when curses were added to make the character broader. O’Mahony received a letter from Hat Trick informing him that his scene had been cut for time reasons, but Linehan and Mathews later informed him that the real problem had been his “shite” acting. Channel 4 still had to credit O’Mahony for his unused performance, and continue to send him tiny royalty cheques every year for repeats. This remains one of the show’s only documented deleted scenes.

The local sergeant – called Deegan in one episode, Hodgins in another – is portrayed by John Olohan. The character’s name may vary, but Olohan’s performance remains consistent – as the face of the law on Craggy Island, he maintains a matter-of-fact insistence, offset slightly by an undercurrent of manic glee for his job. It’s strange, then, that the sergeant who arrests Unctious is a completely new character, played by newcomer John Quinn. Presumably Olohan was simply busy at the time of recording. It would have been nice to see him appear one last time – he’s not in the third series – but Quinn acquits himself well in his brief appearance, bringing an entertaining brashness to the part; a slightly different side of the law.

The closest thing the episode has to a coherent comedic, emotional, or narrative through-line is, strangely enough, Mrs Doyle’s subplot. Ted makes the well-meaning but terrible decision to give her a Teamaster machine for Christmas, meaning that she’ll no longer have to make the tea herself. While this makes for an amusing storyline, it’s also a genuine danger to Mrs Doyle’s function and way of life, in the same was that “Flight Into Terror” was for Ted and Dougal. Ever the repressed housewife, she responds with grace, but there are moments of genuine emotion when Mrs Doyle’s smiling facade cracks and we see the horror and misery of her predicament. Christmas night is eventful in the living room: Jack sneaks a drink, Dougal watches a scary film, and Unctious goes for the award. But it’s Mrs Doyle’s gleeful sabotage of the Teamaster with a screwdriver that gets the biggest laugh, and carries the only trace of real pathos. The subplot climaxes with Mrs Doyle’s impassioned confession of her actions, which she justifies with a heartfelt, colourful proclamation of love for the tea-making art which gives her life meaning. Much like the “Flight Into Terror” scene where Ted acknowledges the dynamic he shares with Dougal, it’s an oddly genuine moment, and touches on the very core of what makes the show work. (This is something of a concern for the episode, as the drunken, gunslinger-like American priest in Unctious’s flashback also gives us mythic descriptions of the characters: “Met him on Dollymount Strand… He got a mane of white hair, kinda like you get on a mule… lives with a pig-ignorant old-timer named Jack Hackett, and a poor, strange idiot-boy… named McGuire.” The characters are rendered as icons; archetypes.) In the conclusion, which is almost jarringly neat and satisfying compared to the bulk of the episode, we discover that Mrs Doyle has appropriated Unctious’s Mission: Impossible wires to allow her to glide across the room, solving her recurring problem of falling off the window sill (the writers, having recently discovered that McLynn was very good at falling over, decided to build her a miniature arc around it).

Unfortunately, Father Jack is not given a proper subplot – an oversight which really can’t be excused considering the episode’s run time. Still, he does get a couple of properly classic moments. In the first, Jack teaches toddlers to curse with letter blocks after Dougal leaves him in the creche. In the second, Jack displays his ostensible obsession with La Marseillaise, forcing everyone in the living room to stand and sing when it’s played. It’s a brilliantly incongruous scene, and even the writers have difficulty processing its implications in the commentary – Linehan suggests that Jack might have fought in the French Foreign Legion, while Mathews thinks that he simply likes the song.

As the episode comes to its close, there’s a rather half-hearted attempt to draw parallels between Ted and Unctious, retrofitting the villain to become a dark reflection in the manner of Father Dick Byrne or Father Fintan Stack. Unctious says that he was once an ordinary, bog-standard priest, just like Ted, and that his life took a dark turn when he won a priestly award. While it’s a tacked-on moral, there are elements of truth to it – Unctious does behave somewhat like Ted, lying and scheming to get his own way, with Ted himself in the position of authority for once. Soon after, Ted reflects that he could have been a bad priest, one who didn’t have his parishioners’ best interests at heart. The phone rings, but Ted pretends not to be home, the implication being that he really isn’t that different from Unctious after all. When Ted apologises for his recent egomania, it doesn’t ring true – we know that this behaviour was just a manifestation of his flawed personality, and could resurface at any time. In a token effort to exorcise the episode’s demons, Ted condescends to “give” Dougal the Golden Cleric, but doubling back to insist that it be left in his own case on the mantelpiece, the inscription unchanged. It’s clear that the hubris Unctious represents, the seed of obsession and failure contained in every success, is not something that Ted has the wisdom to evade. His star is rising, but this cannot last. Success and comfort are not in the cards. This show is not about success – it’s about debasement and humility, and this is particularly true for the looming third and final series.

But for this little while yet, Ted’s happy. Let’s leave him to it.

*******

Native to Costello’s Tavern, Gerard O’Mahony likes nothing more than discussing made-up stuff in the context of other made-up stuff.

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About English Den

Experienced, qualified and professional English teacher working in Warsaw, Poland. Interested in pop culture, and using pop culture to teach languages. Available for private or in-business classes. International classes also available on Skype. Contact Cian.shep@gmail.com for further information.
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