by Niall Anderson
In the writing career of Arthur Mathews, “Father Ted” is beginning to look like a detour. Mathews first surfaced in the mid-80s at “Hot Press” magazine in Dublin, where he began writing a seasonal pull-out called “The Border Fascist”. This was an elaborately loving, surreal and bitter account of life in provincial Ireland through the medium of mock newspaper stories and adverts: ‘Soap! – They use it in Dublin’; ‘Tranvestitism in Cavan has lost one of its most beloved characters with the sad death of Fintan McSweeney (73) …’
“The Border Fascist” was the first time Mathews worked with Graham Linehan, his writing partner on “Father Ted” and much else. It ran till 2004, by which time Mathews had published his first novel, “Well-Remembered Days”, an elaborately loving, surreal and bitter account of life in provincial Ireland through the medium of the memoirs of a retired public servant.
While, post-“Ted”, Linehan has stayed in London, where his comedy has acquired an advancingly placeless and metropolitan feel, Mathews now spends most of his time in Ireland and has squirreled back into the ideas that started him off in comedy. It may seem slighting therefore to point out that his 2009 RTÉ sitcom “Val Falvey, TD” (written with Paul Woodfull) is an elaborately loving, surreal and bitter account of life in provincial Ireland, but it also happens to be maybe Mathews’ best and most inventive treatment of the theme. All the more reason to lament that the show ran for just six episodes and died on its arse.
It is an index of just how abjectly “Val” died that nobody really talks about it anymore. It wasn’t even cancelled: it just stopped. There is no DVD box-set of the series, nor any plans for one. There are only two clips of it on YouTube and one of those is an eighteen-second ad. The only real record of “Val Falvey, TD”s existence is cache after cache of toxic talkboard pages, in which the show’s few watchers queue up to call it shite in subtly different ways.
And yet at one point, all looked set fair for success. In addition to Mathews, the show had tremendous comic pedigree. Co-writer Woodfull is perhaps better known in his guise of reactionary republican hardnut Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly. Ardal O’Hanlon starred as Val, an inept and lazily corrupt man catapulted into parliament on the strength of his family name. It featured a host of other “Ted” regulars. It was given the biggest feeble push that RTÉ’s feeble marketing department could give it. Here was the political satire that a dispirited nation had been waiting for! The early word was good, if cautious. Just don’t expect another “Father Ted”, it said, otherwise you’re grand.
So what went wrong? In some respects it was a classic mismatch of marketing and product. Billed as political satire, “Val” was actually a character-driven comedy with glancing satirical elements. It had an essential gentleness and approachability that was a world away from something like “The Thick of It”. At the same time, scheduled at a family-friendly 7.30 on Thursday evenings, its sidelong comic style was maybe too pronounced to go up against primetime juggernauts like “Coronation Street” or “Eastenders”. Above all, “Val Falvey, TD” was ambitious. I can’t think of another short-run sitcom where the central character is allowed to change, or rather where his comical idiocy is revealed very quickly to be the lazy contempt of the presumptively big man for the small. Consider Val’s drunken self-commiseration after a public row with a constituent in the first episode: ‘It’s always the small things that do for you, isn’t it? I mean, Nixon. Tape. Kennedy. Bullet.’ An entire world of self-importance and self-delusion is gigglingly opened up by those few words.
The show’s other chief pleasure is the acting, and the fact that Ardal O’Hanlon actually gets to do some. It means little to say this is the best telly he’s been in since “Ted”, but it says everything that it’s the first time he convinces you he could have a career in straight drama. Val’s tragedy is to have been bred for a future that doesn’t suit him, and to have never questioned his own ability to do it. This makes him complacent and unpleasant (particularly in his treatment of his family, his chief political asset), but O’Hanlon gives him flinching moments of horrible realisation. They are quickly and brutally squashed, but they last long enough to make you wonder if Val couldn’t become a good politician.
However good O’Hanlon is, the show is stolen out from under his nose by two of the supporting players: Owen Roe as party fixer Pat Daly and Phelim Drew as chief whip John Brolly. Roe’s character is an Irish Falstaff, a grandiloquent gourmand who microwaves his nouveau cuisine creations in Val’s caravan-cum-office. Drew’s chief whip is a whispering menace: he knows things without knowing them, he threatens things without being threatening, he would string you up in a second if you let him. He is, in manner, style and haircut, the spiritual son of Charles J. Haughey.
And here is where the popular failure of “Val Falvey, TD” perhaps comes into focus. The social references and the various real-life cameos may deter the non-Irish viewer, but the sly accuracy of its political portraiture reminds Irish people of stuff they’d rather forget. If Val was simply an idiot and his handlers simply monsters, “Val Falvey, TD” might have been easy to laugh along with. But instead the show draws a portrait in which everyone is complicit in their own disappointment. There is nothing chastising or aggressive about this portrait: it’s just the way things actually work in Ireland. And who wants to be reminded of that at dinnertime?
Never mind. Stripped of commercial expectations and the pressure of being a first-run comedy at primetime, “Val Falvey, TD” reveals itself as what it is: a tremendously expert, brilliantly played and frequently inspired sitcom that deserved longer than it got.