Graham Linehan wants to set the record straight about a myth that has spread like wild fire regarding a script he once wrote.
In the fictional version of this story, 20 years ago, Linehan and his co- writer Arthur Matthews were rejected by the Irish broadcaster RTÉ when they pitched an idea for a sitcom about three priests living on an island off the west coast of Ireland.
He laughs when I ask him if it’s true that RTÉ turned down the initial script of Father Ted.
“No, that’s a rumour that’s been going for 20 years and we can’t seem to quash it,” he says. “Why we would we give the scripts to RTÉ? That would be like giving them to Waterford Glass, we just knew they wouldn’t be capable of making a show like Ted.”
The real story goes something like this. In the early 1990s, Linehan and his good friend Arthur Matthews, two mediocre music hacks from Dublin with no real ambition other than to try and write some comedy, relocated to London – more specifically to a small flat in Kilburn. The proprietor was Welsh comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, who charged them little money to stay there.
Not having to worry about earning the money to pay high rent prices meant the writing duo could spend endless hours at home writing thousands of comedy sketches and keeping themselves amused. And Jones, well he became a useful contact in getting the scripts to the right people.
The initial idea was that they would make a mock-style documentary called Irish Lives. The first episode was about a priest called Ted, who visits his friends in the seminary in Maynooth College.
They sent the idea into Channel 4, who said they liked they what they read, but insisted on a whole sitcom based on the priest sketch.
Linehan and Matthews immediately got to work on writing the entire first series of what eventually became Father Ted. And for the next four years the two writers became inseparable.
“You know it’s a lovely thing when you’re in the zone writing, and you just can’t stop thinking of (bursts out loud laughing)…funny ideas, and that’s what it was like working with Arthur,” Linehan says. “As a result I think there was a special magic to our relationship. It was like the two of us had this playground, where we were drunk on each other’s company, and as a result we were just coming up with jokes, morning, noon and night.”
“Also, because we were flatmates, we were going in and making the programme, then going home and watching TV together, then waking up the next morning, and writing. We were just constantly in each other’s pockets,” he adds. “I think if it wasn’t that intense, Father Ted wouldn’t have been the programme it was. The working relationship might have gone on a little longer if we had eased off a bit on each other though.”
Linehan looks back on his first TV series with fondness, but is adamant in looking forward with every project he writes, preferring not to watch old stuff he has made.
“I’m not saying that Father Ted is the best thing I will ever do, but it’s a specific kind of magic, and I don’t think I could ever get that back again,” he says. “At the same time, if I didn’t think I could better it, or write something more meaningful, then I would have to kill myself!”
Initially, Linehan says himself and Matthews feared that Irish people might not take to a satirical commentary that simultaneously poked fun at the Catholic Church and the oddities of Irish parochialism.
“It was very gratifying when Ireland took Father Ted to its bosom, so to speak.
It definitely caught fire in Ireland in a way that was a bit surprising, because one of our early worries was that we thought that it might appear as if English people were laughing at Irish people, and that’s why we made sure we had an Irish director and nearly all Irish actors. We wanted to stress that it was Irish talent using English money.”
Since his early success in TV writing, Linehan’s comedies have all been British-based. Other series have included: Big Train, Black Books, The IT Crowd, and most recently, his West End adaptation of the classic black English comedy: Ladykillers.
Linehan caused a bit of a media storm last year when he attacked Radio 4 over what he called the contrived nature on how a debate is constructed on The Today Programme.
His comments were fairly tame, what’s more significant, however, was that an Irishman was giving the British a lecture about having a healthy media discourse- something which seemed to escape everyone involved in the debate.
Maybe, Linehan argues, the two nations are not as different as we sometimes like to make out.
“In terms of differences, I’ve never felt the English and the Irish are all that different,” he says. “When I first came to England I didn’t go and find the nearest traditional Irish music night. That kind of stuff didn’t interest me when I was in Ireland and it doesn’t interest me in England. However, I do think Irish people are at an advantage- in terms of being creative- because they are influenced by three cultures – Irish, British and American.”
Linehan is currently working on another sitcom called Count Arthur Strong with English comedian Steve Delaney. It hasn’t been a very productive day for his writing so far, he says, but procrastination is the key to his own creative process.
“My writing day is very scattered. Even now I’m talking to you, and earlier I went to a meeting, so that’s just another day of writing that has disappeared,” he says. “I tend to accumulate a few days not writing, get nervous about that, and then the nervousness just drives me to write, so I’ll just get guiltier, and then suddenly it will all just happen in one week.
“I heard a good quote today by the American screen writer Charlie Kaufman, and I think it really sums up what I do for a living. He said, I sit at my desk, and I don’t know what to do.”