As the awkward yet strangely endearing Father Ted Crilly in the popular Channel 4 series Father Ted, Dermot Morgan’s perfect comic timing and nuanced performances made him a household name. Today, twenty years after the programme was first broadcast in April 1995, it has become essential viewing for comedy aficionados in Morgan’s native Ireland, Britain and many other parts of the world.
Born into a devout Catholic family in Dublin on 31st March 1952, Morgan went into teaching after graduating from University College, Dublin, in 1974. However, he soon abandoned his career in education to pursue his love of writing and performing his own comic routines, a passion that had first been ignited whilst he was at university.
In 1979, Morgan was offered a regular slot on The Live Mike, an Irish comedy and chat show presented by the radio and television veteran Mike Murphy. Morgan’s sketches proved to be a hit, and, in a move that presaged the character that would make him internationally famous, his most amusing creation for the show was Father Trendy, a young priest whose attempts to appear ‘trendy’ repeatedly fell flat. A book lampooning the Catholic Church, entitled Trendy Sermons, was published in 1982; Morgan’s burgeoning comedic career was negatively affected by the publication, and as a result, he found himself briefly boycotted by almost every television and radio station in Ireland.
Above: Dermot Morgan as Father Trendy from The Live Mike (1980)
Nevertheless, Morgan’s shining talent was strong enough to redeem him in the eyes of the media and his 1985 single, Thank You Very Very Much, Mr Eastwood, a humorous send-up of the way in which the Irish boxer Barry McGuigan commended his manager Barney Eastwood – was that year’s Irish Christmas number one. Morgan won further critical and public acclaim when he created and featured in his own satirical radio show, Scrap Saturday, which ran for two years from 1989, and won Morgan the accolade of Ireland’s National Entertainer of the Year in 1991.
When comedy writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan created a new sitcom about a mishap prone priest and his calamitous existence on a fictional island, remembering Morgan’s stint as Father Trendy, they felt he would be perfect for the lead role. Fellow comic Ardal O’Hanlon was cast as the young and dim Father Dougal McGuire, Frank Kelly was Father Jack, a drunken elderly priest with a propensity to tell anyone who approached him to ‘Feck Off!’ and Pauline McLynn, whom Morgan had worked with on Scrap Saturday, took the part of Mrs Doyle, their housekeeper who, somewhat aggressively at times, insisted on making them all endless cups of tea.
From the start, the show was a success for, as Morgan claimed ‘If you want the audience to stick with you, you have to have attractive characters. Dougal and Ted are an idiot who knows nothing and an idiot who thinks he knows something but actually knows nothing. Ted is an Everyman guy, bumbling through life with a half-wit – half may even be overstating the fraction.’ Father Ted scooped the prize for Best New Comedy at the 1995 British Comedy Awards and in 1996, Morgan won Best Comedy Actor.
Above: Clip from The Passion of Saint Tibulus (1995)
The second series of Father Ted was broadcast in 1996 with another planned, after which Morgan planned to renounce the role as he feared being pigeonholed; he also had numerous other projects in the pipeline, including a drama he was writing for the BBC. On 28th February 1998, only days after finishing filming the third and ultimate series of Father Ted, Morgan threw a dinner party to celebrate at the home in Twickenham that he shared with his partner Fiona Clarke and their young son. In attendance was Morgan’s sister and brother-in-law, as well as several friends. During the meal, Morgan began to feel unwell and went to lie down. He later returned and apologised to his guests for having left them; almost as soon as he had sat down again, Morgan collapsed. An ambulance was called, but he had suffered a fatal heart attack and died before it arrived.
Morgan’s Father Ted co-stars were eager to pay tribute to him, but at the same time acknowledged that when it came to his career, he had seemed to be striving for something he could hold sacred. Frank Kelly recalled, ‘He was never quite satisfied with what he was doing. The next thing was going to be infinitely better. I used to say to him ‘settle down Dermot, we have a lovely show here. Let’s just do it.’ He felt that was unambitious.’ Ardal O’Hanlon also felt that ‘Dermot didn’t always recognise how great it all was because like a lot of performers he was very insecure. But he didn’t need to be looking over his shoulder and seeing what else was going on. He was doing something brilliant and spontaneous.’ Similarly, Pauline McLynn believed that Morgan was ‘a very frustrated entertainer. He wanted everything, he wanted it all and I’m sorry he didn’t have it all because he would have enjoyed it, for a time anyway, until he had his next idea.’
Shortly after Morgan donned his dog collar for the last time, his sister, remembered after his death how, as they drove back from the studio, they saw a billboard poster advertising Father Ted, prompting Morgan to turn to her and say, ‘Do you know what? I think I’ve finally cracked it.’