'Frank Kelly has died but neither he nor Father Jack will ever leave us' - Pat Stacey
For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s watching and loving Frank Kelly, and a little later Dermot Morgan, on television, it was immensely satisfying when Father Ted turned the two of them into household names, first in Britain and subsequently around the world.
It was also wonderful, of course, to see Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews’ matchless comedy do the same for its two other stars, Ardal O’Hanlon and Pauline McLynn.
But in the case of Kelly and Morgan, who both died on the same calendar date, Sunday, February 28, 18 years apart — a touch of cosmic mischief that surely wouldn’t be lost on either man — their “overnight” success tasted all the more sweet because you knew they’d both worked so hard for it.
If I had to find a musical equivalent, it would be the pleasure you feel when a band you’ve loved for years, but which sells modestly, suddenly makes it big, giving the whole world a taste of what they’ve been missing all along.
Few people in this country of my age or older will need reminding that by the time Kelly came to play Father Jack Hackett, the demented, drunken, disgusting old cleric who bellows “Drink! Feck! Girls!” from his diseased armchair, he’d been a beloved television, radio and stage star for more than 20 years.
Actor, writer, singer and satirist, his range of madcap characters (gobshite rural politicians and fulminating farmers a particular speciality) on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly and the Glen Abbey Radio Show tickled the nation’s funnybones.
The younger audience adored him too, for his multiple characters in Wanderly Wagon, a series for which he doubled up as a scriptwriter.
The title track of one of his comedy albums, Christmas Countdown, performed by regular character Gobnait O’Lunasa, reached number 26 in the UK singles charts in 1984 and led to an appearance on Top of the Pops. The Queen loved it, and wrote Kelly a letter to tell him so.
Post-Father Ted, the super-versatile Kelly got to flex his serious acting muscles more with roles in Emmerdale (he quit after five months because he missed his family), the Pierce Brosnan tearjerker Evelyn and, best of all, the BBC’s superb political drama The Deal, where he was outstanding as British Labour Party leader John Smith.
Needless to say, many of the overseas newspaper articles on Frank Kelly published since his death aged 77 on Sunday remark on how he was best known, and will always be best remembered, for Father Ted.
After Dermot Morgan died at the shockingly young age of 45 in 1998, the obituary writers said much the same thing about him. They were largely — and understandably — unaware of his pre-Ted career in Ireland, or of his endlessly frustrating creative battles with RTE, which gutlessly scrapped his radio show Scrap Saturday in the face of political pressure.
Ironically, RTE had done the same thing to Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, and for the same reasons, a little over a decade earlier. It’s worth noting that on both occasions the reptilian Charlie Haughey’s scaly hands were coiled around the levers of power.
Were we able to get through to Frank Kelly or Dermot Morgan in the afterlife (assuming there is one) and ask them if being associated forever after with Father Ted bothers them, I doubt the answer would be in the affirmative.
Who could complain about being remembered for as slice of comedy perfection? Father Ted was, and is, comedy perfection: a glorious collision of the perfect scripts, written by the perfect writers, featuring the perfect characters, played by the perfect actors.
That doesn’t happen often. It rarely happens at all, in fact. Sitcoms, even the great ones, show their age eventually. Bits of Fawlty Towers and Rising Damp that once made you laugh a lot now make you wince a little.
Till Death Us Do Part, perfectly in tune with the era in which it was made, is now unwatchable, which is why it’s never repeated.
Father Ted, on the other hand, is always being repeated, because it’s timeless. The jokes are as fresh and funny as the day they were written, because it exists in its own unique, surreal little universe, where the real world doesn’t get a look-in.
It never gets old. And neither, for us, do Frank Kelly or Dermot Morgan.