Graham Linehan: “I think Father Ted changed Irish society”

Father Ted creator Graham Linehan on the effect the sitcom had in Ireland, losing his faith – and how he learnt not to attend fan conventions

At 16 I was lonely and insecure, bullied and unhappy. I was obsessed with science fiction, comics, music and comedy. I had an existential crisis every day. I was very tall but I worried about losing my temper so I tried to keep out of trouble by reducing my height, which gave me a permanent slouch. School was all-male and violent, like living in a really bad area for 12 years. It’s interesting to me that one of the first things we do as parents is prepare our children for life in a prison yard. The relief I felt leaving school was unbelievable.

I was around 16 when I completely lost my faith. Basically, I read The Cider House Rules by John Irving. Before that I was extremely religious, anti-abortion. And then I read that book and the central argument was so brilliantly articulated. I realised my understanding of the medical procedure was childish, at a ‘killing babbies’ level. I thought, wait, it’s much more complicated than that. And then I grew up a bit. When you have something so fundamental as your views on abortion changed, everything else changes as well. It was like a row of dominoes. Maybe that’s why the Catholic Church is so terrified by the idea of abortion being legalised in Ireland.

When you have something so fundamental as your views on abortion changed, everything else changes as well

I don’t think I’d be the person I am if I hadn’t had those early years of believing all that religious stuff completely. And of course, as soon as you stop believing it, these very, very serious ceremonies and rituals suddenly seem hilarious. The idea of giving up every single Sunday, getting dressed in our best clothes, going to be bored solid for an hour and a half… God! That seems so ludicrous to me now. Recognising the ludicrousness of that then helps you see the ludicrousness of any kind of ceremony that pops up elsewhere. So you see it all over the place, these traditions which make people feel important.

My father was hurt and disappointed by my rejection of the church. He’s maintained his faith right up to the present day and goes to church often. We were at loggerheads for a while, then we came through that and got to a place where we both accepted the person the other one was, and we reached an understanding. My dad’s always been an incredibly warm, decent human being. If religion’s part of his life, well that’s fine.

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The Pythons were incredibly influential on me. When I heard the theme tune I would get this depth charge, I was almost sick with excitement. They were extremely mysterious. Some of the sketches, you couldn’t work out what point they were getting at. I loved that. I’ve always loved people who make me work for it, who expect me to catch up with them, rather than dumb down for me. Then it was Fawlty Towers. An almost perfect work of art. Everything I do, I’m just trying to write The Hotel Inspector or Basil the Rat. Pressing that joy buzzer so hard you think your head’s going to fall off.

I think the thing that would make the teenage me happiest would be hearing there are lots of girls in his future. I don’t think he’d believe that. At 16, he’s still two years away from kissing a girl. That feeling, of being ugly and just not an interesting person… I’d love to go back and tell him, just hang in there. It’ll be fine. Music journalism will help, comedy writing will too. You’ll meet interesting people and some of them will let you have sex with them.

Father Ted cast

I’m very proud of Father Ted but I’ve learned that there’s a point when you have to give things away to their audience. You can’t own them forever. Arthur [Mathews, Linehan’s sometime co-writer]  and I once went to the Father Ted weekend in County Clare. Everyone dresses as priests and bishops and nuns. It’s fantastic. But after a while of looking around, I began to feel a sense of discomfort. I saw people dressed as priests laughing their heads off with someone dressed as a cardinal. Then they’d notice me and Arthur and their smiles would die and they’d begin to look very self-conscious. We weren’t dressed as priests, we just had normal clothes on. And we realised, we’re screwing this up. Our presence is getting in the way of them pretending they’re in Father Ted [above]. And we felt we should never come to these things, we break the spell. And that’s been my thinking on everything. Once you’ve finished it, you have to step away from it and hand it over to the audience.

It would be good to tell the young me he’s going to write something that will mean a lot to Irish people. I’m very proud that Irish people… kind of know Ted by heart. And I think it possibly went some way to changing the society. In a healthy way. I think we lanced a boil. You could not ask for anything greater for a writer. It’s the ultimate. The only slight problem is, I’d have to admit to him, you’ll only do this at the very start of your career.

I’m very proud that Irish people kind of know Ted by heart

In terms of relationships, I’d tell my younger self, if you ever think of doing something that’s not morally okay, just a bit mean, just bear in mind that you’ll think about it for the rest of your life. It may feel like a quick get out of jail card. But it will bother you for the rest of your life. If it doesn’t, you might be a sociopath. I was always very anxious about relationships, very aware that they’d probably end. So I’d end them, quickly. And I guess I had that thing of wanting to make up for lost time, ‘cause I hadn’t had enough… affection when I was a teenager. So I was looking around for years and that made me unhappy and it didn’t make me a very good boyfriend. It’s still a major cause of unhappiness. Every now and then my wife will hear me go, ‘uggh…’ and she’ll ask what’s wrong and I’ll say, I’m just remembering something that happened 25 years ago.

If I could go back to any time in my life, it would be those years of writing with Arthur. I don’t think you get any happier than when you’re laughing. Consistently. So much that you sometimes can’t breathe. That was what writing with Arthur was like. You’d go into work, you’d start laughing about an idea, he’d start laughing, he’d tell you his idea, you’d laugh more. I can clearly remember the endorphins just pumping through me the night we came up with the monkey priest, the priest who climbs up on to the book shelves and throws things at people. We just could not stop laughing. It was just joy, you know? Total joy. We had a magical thing but we can’t get it back now. We’re too different as people to tap back into it the way we used to. Writing alone is oh, nowhere near as good.

Count Arthur Strong series three, written by Graham Linehan and Steve Delaney, is on Fridays, BBC1, 8.30pm