The JOE Interview: Rob Morgan talks about his dad Dermot and the Father Ted years
Rob Morgan tells us about his father's legacy, seeing Father Ted from the inside, how all comedy needs a darkness to it and why he hates Mrs. Brown's Boys.
14-years-old when the first episode of Father Ted aired on April 21st, 1995, Rob Morgan speaks about the pride his father Dermot took in playing the most famous fictional priest in TV history despite the fact that he didn't write the show himself.
Twenty years gone. Still miss you Dad x 😢 pic.twitter.com/bUgNqDlmqN
— Rob Morgan (@RobMorganDublin) February 28, 2018
Rob also shares for the first time some images from that era that have never been seen before.
Was there any sense, at the time, that Father Ted would be THE outstanding comedy in Irish television history?
Dermot was hugely excited about it, that was a given, it was a chance to do TV, it was a chance to break down the traditional borders he faced in RTÉ. It was a chance for him to do something else. I think he had an inkling it was going to be good, but I’m not sure whether he would have said, “God, in 20 years’ time people are going to be looking back at this and thinking it’s amazing."
From a personal point of view, my initial thoughts were more, “this is a bit strange. Is this really going to last? Will it go places? But at least it’s getting Dermot out there and he’s happy even if it’s not his own material, so I’ll stay positive.”
But I hadn’t any idea it was going to be as big as it’s gone on to be.
How old were you at the time?
I would have turned 15 in June of that year, so I was 14.
One of the great things about growing up with Dermot as your dad was you always had a sense of stuff that was above your age bracket. We had an appreciation at a young age of the comedy craft that was behind things like Blackadder, behind Secret Policeman’s Ball, behind Comic Relief. Behind the kind of comedy that, at 14 years of age, I really shouldn’t have been able to appreciate, but I did.
We weren’t reared on a strict diet of slapstick or family friendly. We were always given the exposure to the slightly grittier, slightly more edgy comedy.
That probably feeds into the best comedy, when there’s a darkness to it as well?
Completely. I’ll be honest with you – I hate Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I think it’s one of the worst things ever done on TV.
And I feel that way because I don’t see any edge to it, I don’t see any darkness to it. It’s just this ‘Music Hall,’ ‘willy jokes,’ complete lack of depth. It’s lower than the lowest common denominator. So for that reason I hate comedy like that.
I love Ted. I maybe didn’t get Ted initially, right off the bat, but I’ve grown to love it because it has that darkness and that edge. Just like in Black Books, Blackadder, in The IT Crowd as well. There’s always that bit of an edge there that without it they would not be anywhere near as successful as they are.
It’s like John and Mary – possibly the darkest couple in Irish comedy history…
This is it. I was watching a couple of episodes last night, some of the early ones that I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. I was watching the one where Father Stone comes to visit and in the background of one of the hospital scenes, you see a shot through the door – even after they’ve finished the scene, she’s battering him with the crutch.
It’s like, ok, this is domestic abuse. This is way out there. It’s completely wrong. But the delivery of it is so blasé and so out there that you can’t help but think it’s so surreal that it’s unbelievably funny.
Even the chemistry between the two actors who play John and Mary works very, very well. They’ve a great understanding and that helps the characters along.
At home, was there a big difference between the pre-Ted years and when the show was going on?
Dermot was a different type of person when he was acting; say, a Ted role, and when he was writing or performing his own material. There was a different switch, I guess, and you could see there was a passion for writing and performing his own material that was different to the passion he felt performing others’ material.
That’s not to say he was more passionate about one than the other, but it was different. You could see that one was a gig, a job, for however long and the other was him striving to find a sustainable vehicle for himself.
Rob as an adult with his dad, Dermot Morgan
We were always aware of that, growing up. There was no bitterness that the big break came from something that wasn’t his own, but you were always aware that Dermot’s motivation was to do Ted but to go back and write his own material and to develop his own things so that he would be remembered as the writer and performer, and not just the comic actor.
Was there a sense of getting back at RTÉ with the success of Father Ted?
With Ted, I don’t think so. I don’t think Dermot was that petty. He wasn’t thinking, “OK, this is the first gig I have and I’m going to give two fingers to RTÉ.”
I think, over time, if it had been his own material there would have been a bit of gloating involved, but I think with Ted he was aware that RTÉ had let him go as far as they were willing to let him go and this was a chance to go and do something else.
He was always very aware that the UK was going to be where he got his big break. He always yearned for the time we would have TV3 because that would have given him another Irish vehicle to look for, but that didn’t happen in time for him, but he was very much aware that the UK was going to be where he had to go to crack on.
There was no sense of wanting to get back at RTÉ but had he come back home with his own material there would have been a bit of, “you had your chance and you let me go.”
A little bit of schadenfreude, maybe?
Exactly, exactly, but Dermot was too busy trying to get stuff going to waste time on bitterness towards RTÉ.
Do you have a favourite episode of Father Ted?
I have a couple of them. I really enjoyed The Plague, and I watched it again last night. It’s the one where Father Jack goes off on the nudey sleepwalking and Bishop Brennan comes to check the measures they’ve put in place to deal with it. There’s something about it I really like.
You’ve got a very classical actor in Jim Norton as Bishop Brennan in the middle of it, and then the madness of the Ted world around it, and I think that works really well.
I think the delivery of Pat Shortt when Ted and Dougal go to visit Tom with the rabbits (“I’ll put them in the vice, Father!”), the eyes, the body language (are all superb) and even at that I think that episode is greater than the sum of its parts. It steps over what it appears to be on the surface to be much, much more.
I enjoyed the last episode, the going to America one, but that’s more on a personal level I enjoy it. Dermot knew he was finished with Ted, he knew he was moving on, so I could see in the way that Ted progresses through the episode towards preparing to move on and get out of there, I could relate to Dermot’s mindset at the time.
It’s an obvious shame that in the same way that Ted doesn’t go on to greater success, Dermot didn’t get to go on and have the greater success.
Surprisingly, not an outtake from Flight Into Terror
Do you think, had he lived, they would have brought Ted back?
I hope not.
Dermot was very clear he wasn’t going to do a fourth series and I don’t imagine that a fourth series would have been in the best interests of the show at that stage.
And it might have been that they’d have looked to bring it back a year or two later, but I certainly wouldn’t be in favour of that. I always think going back never works. It’s like football managers who leave clubs and go back for a second spell, or couples who break and then go back, it never works.
You left for a reason. Follow your mind, follow your heart, there was a reason Ted stopped when it did and maybe that was the right point to call it a day. Better that than to go back and flog yourself to death trying to reproduce what you had the first time around.
I think of another example in The Royle Family. Gold for three years and then churning out one terrible Christmas special after another…
Yeah, exactly. And even, I hate to say it, I loved Monty Python growing up – Dermot got us into that – but I looked at some of the footage from the reunion last year and I just thought, “lads, this is as blatantly milking it as you can possibly get.”
They were very open about it, to a great extent it was to fund John Cleese’s millionth divorce. But I really had a sense of wishing they hadn’t done it, wishing they had left it, so we could’ve just had the memory of it being pure like it was. Better that than going back to the well once too often.
I want to ask about the atmosphere on the Ted set – as an outsider it seemed like there would have been a lot of nervous energy, but does that tally with your experience of being on set?
It’s weird. I was lucky, I saw it from both sides. I saw it from sitting in the audience when one episode was being filmed and I saw it from the green room when another episode was being filmed. Unfortunately I was never lucky enough to be on location down in Clare.
There was a certain frisson in the air, for want of a better phrase.
The one I was in the audience for was the Father Stone episode [the second episode from season one].
Nothing had been aired at that stage and there was a certain tension. Nobody really knew what to expect and what was going to happen, and we were looking down on a stage broken up into constituent sets and you have no sense of how that’s going to translate to TV.
Rob with Dermot and Don, Rob's older brother
You’re a little bit wary and a little bit apprehensive.
As the episodes started everyone began to ease into it, to find their feet.
Dermot on set was a ball of energy. It wasn’t unusual for him between takes to bounce around in front of the audience and to almost take the microphone from the warm-up act. He’d be putting on his own little private show, nearly, which meant that instead of having awkward lulls between takes you would have an audience that was constantly laughing, constantly having fun.
As the shooting went on I could see the audience lighten up, I could feel myself lighten up, we knew, “there’s something here and it seems to be working.” Whether that was because of how it was set up, or because Dermot and Ardal and Pauline and Frank were having the LOLs between takes, as it were, I couldn’t quantify.
Rob visits Craggy Island Parochial House
But it was really interesting to see how an audience could go from being really unsure and nervous to being very happy, very amused, having a lot of fun in the course of what was maybe two hours’ worth of shooting.
During season two, when The Plague was being filmed, everyone was a bit more relaxed. Everyone knew it worked. You could see the crew backstage were that bit more chilled out, and they realised that “this is as good as we think it is, and it’s going to last a bit longer.”
Any nerves on stage were really well harnassed, really well channelled, and it worked really well.
Was there anything about the show that you wished could have been different?
One of the things I find marginally disappointing about Ted, looking back on it, is that when you hear the audience laughing it comes across as canned laughter. It starts high and it ends high and it never has a chance to build or fade out.
It’s real laughter. Those are real people, I was there, and it doesn’t do the audience as much of a service having it there as it should do, if that makes sense?
Yes, maybe nowadays they’d make better use of the audience…
Well that’s technology for you, and if that’s the only complaint you have then you’re doing well. I’ve only noticed in the last couple of years that it’s like that, but it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t harm the show at all.
Dermot puts in some practice for My Lovely Horse
Dermot with the late Ray Treacy (left)
*A version of this interview first appeared on JOE in 2015*