The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
Right! It’s St. Patrick’s Day! Everybody’s Irish! Kiss the Blarney Stone (whatever and wherever that is)! Grab your pints of Guinness, let’s go out and party and dye the Chicago River green… oh.
“The health and safety of Chicago’s residents will always be our highest priority and like many other cities across the nation and globe, we are postponing this year’s parades as a precautionary measure to prevent any additional spread of COVID-19,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.
Christ above, what are we to do with these cases of Killian’s Red and all this corned beef and cabbage now? Well since coronavirus has derailed the party train and entire countries are being put into lockdown, let’s try keep the party going indoors (with space and capacity limitations) and queue up some of Ireland’s best ever Eurovision entries, such as their 1996 entry “My Lovely Horse!”
Oh, wait. That’s not an actual Eurovision entry. Ireland actually won Eurovision 1996 with Eimear Quinn’s “The Voice.” But “My Lovely Horse” is a fictional entry for Ireland for a fictional version of Eurovision called “Eurosong,” the plot of the fifth episode of the second season of Father Ted, perhaps Ireland’s most well-known sitcom export. Certainly so well-known that if you ask a random American to list a few Eurovision songs they might have heard of, “My Lovely Horse” would probably be listed alongside ABBA’s “Waterloo” or Domenico Modugno’s “Nel blu dipinto di blu.”
Eimear’s victory in 1996 came during a rich vein of form for Ireland – to date, Ireland is Eurovision’s most winningest nation with seven victories, but during the mid-’90s, Ireland were particularly unstoppable. 1996 was the fourth victory in five years, having been the only country to have nabbed three victories in a row in 1992, 1993, and 1994. And as hosts in 1995, you can argue Ireland scored a huge national victory by unleashing the “Riverdance” phenomenon on the world as its interval act. Eimear took home the victory with perhaps the most “Irish sounding” song yet in 1996. That’s not a slight on this song – I have no argument with those who proclaim its greatness. That’s a comment on how confident and assured the Irish were at Eurovision in those days.
But with continued victory comes jadedness. And in Irish popular culture, that jadedness expressed itself in one of the most famous spoofs of the contest ever.
During the 1980s, two budding Irish writers named Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan met while working for Irish music and politics magazine Hot Press. Matthews was in a comedy troupe called The Joshua Trio (a U2 parody group), and he introduced a new character to the troupe’s improv comedy that proved to be popular with the crowds.
“Around that time, I was in the Joshua Trio with Paul Woodful,” Matthews told Hot Press. “When we’d go onstage, I would sometimes do this act of a priest called Father Ted Crilly. Then I met Graham in hotpress, and we moved to London and got into comedy writing. At one point we wrote this mock documentary about the parish of Craggy Island, with Ted Crilly as the main character, and submitted it to Hat Trick Productions. They liked the idea but suggested that we rework into a sitcom. That was how it started.”
The sitcom that emerged was Father Ted, and it centers on the shenanigans of three Catholic priests exiled to a parish house in a backwater Irish island called Craggy Island. The humor is surreal, with several exaggerated situations such as an exploding milk truck spoofing Speed and an escape from a lingerie department filmed like a jail escape. The titular Father Ted, played by Irish comedian Dermot Morgan, is exiled for “(church) money resting in my account” with unexplained links to Las Vegas, is supported by the exceptionally dim Father Dougal Maguire (played by Irish comedian, writer, and actor Ardal O’Hanlon), and Father Jack, whose drunk antics are topped only by his perversion, played by Frank Kelly. Rounding out the main cast on this surrealistic sitcom is Pauline McLynn as Mrs. Doyle, the repressed and tea-obsessed housekeeper. Several memorable recurring characters play off of exaggerated stereotypes and caricatures.
As a quick aside, none other than the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) commentator for Eurovision, Graham Norton, got his start on Father Ted as the chatty and irritating Father Noel Furlong. Extra points for including two Eurovision references in two sentences in the camping episode.
Father Ted debuted on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 on April 21, 1995. There were rumors that Irish broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE) rejected the show, but Matthews clarified that Channel 4 were pitched first and accepted. In any event, Father Ted debuted on RTE2 shortly thereafter.
The show’s initial first season was a cult hit in the United Kingdom (and shortly thereafter in the United States when broadcast on PBS affiliates), but a smash hit in Ireland, and both the show’s creators and Morgan himself earned awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). And a large part of these victories came with the choice of director Matthews and Linehan picked for all episodes of Father Ted, and one that is of particular importance to this particular article.
Declan Lowney was a young and hip director in the employ of RTE in the late 1980s. Lowney earned a reputation for excellence in directing music concerts in particular, and after Johnny Logan crushed Eurovision 1987 with “Hold Me Now,” RTE hired Lowney to direct Eurovision 1988 for the host broadcaster. Lowney was known as an upstart and RTE wanted Eurovision 1988, to be held in Dublin, Ireland on April 30, 1988, to be substantially more modern than prior Eurovisions.
There were several pioneering changes to the show introduced in 1988. Eurovision 1988 featured the first computer generated scoreboard, and also featured reaction shots of the competitors from the green room. This would be a particularly painful memory for the United Kingdom’s Scott Fitzgerald, whose score lead evaporated with the last two score announcements and pipped to victory by a young Canadian ringer for Switzerland named Celine Dion. The interval act was an elaborate music video directed by Lowney for the Irish group The Hothouse Flowers that was shot in eleven countries and was, at the time, the most expensive Irish music video ever.
The staging was also unusual for the time as well. Eurovision 1988 was held at the Simmonscourt Pavilion at the Royal Dublin Society, with the hall generally being used for agricultural shows. It hall itself was on the smaller side Eurovision-wise but the stage, designed by Paula Farrell and Michael Grogan, was the largest and most elaborate ever constructed to that point, creating an odd presentation when the hall filled with people. Lowney had to get creative, and refused to use wide shots when shooting the audience to give the hall a larger feel to match the grandness of the stage.
Another thing Lowney became infamous for at the time: slagging off RTE and other broadcaster higher-ups. Prior to Eurovision 1988, Lowney famously called Eurovision “just an excuse for a load of TV executives to go on the piss on expenses.”
Despite that, Eurovision 1988 was a huge success, Lowney earned a Jacob’s Award (Ireland’s premier TV and radio awards) for his job directing the show, and as Lowney repeatedly tells journalists in his interviews, he helped unleash Celine Dion on the world. And during her performance, you can see the use of black and the angles used to create the illusion of a vast hall when it’s really a cramped space.
A few years later, Matthews and Linehan came calling and wanted an Irish director for Father Ted, particularly a director with a matching sense of humor and lack of fear in poking fun at authority. And they found that in Lowney.
“I knew Graham and Arthur because I’d gone for a meeting about their previous sitcom, Paris,” Lowney told Hot Press. “They didn’t give me the job, they went with somebody else. But I don’t think they were that happy with the result, and I know when it came to Father Ted, they really felt they needed someone with an Irish sensibility. And I think the guys knew that they would have more access to the director with someone like me, because I was very open to their output. It was all their material, so you’d be mad not to have them around.”
But the episode that Lowney is always asked about is the one that ties him to both Eurovision and Father Ted – The Season 2 Episode 5 “A Song for Europe.” In this episode, Father Ted and Father Dougal are inspired to enter Eurosong. After several hours struggling to write two notes, Dougal puts on his favorite record, the fifth place at the fictional Norwegian national selection in 1962. Ted and Dougal decide to steal that track and tack their lyrics for “My Lovely Horse” onto it.
The real 5th place at Melodi Grand Prix 1962 was “Mormors spilledåse” (“Grandmother’s music box”), which was performed separately by Anita Thallaug and Laila Dalseth. Norway came in 10th at Eurovision 1962 with Inger Jacobsen and “Kom sol, kom regn” (“Come sun, come rain”). Thallaug would come in last at Eurovision 1963 with the dreaded “nul” pointd with “Solherv.”
During Ireland’s national selection, Father Ted goes out for a cigarette during fierce rival Father Dick Byrne’s performance, and while in the elevator hears the music from Dougal’s record being piped in. In a panic that the national selectors will recognize the backing track, Ted and Dougal go back to their awful two note song and… proceed to win the national selection.
Turns out the national selectors, sick of Ireland’s success at Eurosong and not wanting to bear the cost of hosting yet another contest, decided to pick the worst entry that year to guarantee Ireland would not win and would not have to be the mandatory host. As the episode’s end credits roll, we see the cast looking despondent as country after country declares “nul points” for Ireland (a fictional departure from the real contest’s score reveals).
“I’d directed the Eurovision in 1988, so it was a subject I had an extra interest in,” Lowney told Hot Press. “I love that episode, and making the video for it was great, with the two of them playing together in the hay. My favourite bit in that is when the guys are trying to write the song, and we dissolve to later that night, and Dermot’s going, ‘Play the fucking note!’ Obviously it’s all bleeped out in the broadcast version, but on the night we shot it in the studio, we couldn’t do that, so the audience were completely shocked. There’s a great howl of laughter at that moment.”
As its own piece of pop culture, “My Lovely Horse” continues to have a life of its own. In 2015, Irish Eurovision fans petitioned the Irish parliament to send “My Lovely Horse” to represent Ireland at Eurovision 2015. Padraig MacLochlainn, the chair of the relevant committee, declined the request on the basis that they were not expert in matters of music and could not force a selection such as this on RTE. There is also the small matter that it would violate a major Eurovision rule in that “My Lovely Horse” had technically received a commercial release years prior.
The writer of “My Lovely Horse,” Neil Hannon, said that he himself had been approached about writing an actual Eurovision entry, but he declined.
“Well, I have been asked many times to write for Ireland, and I’ve always said no,” Hannon told The Irish Mirror. Well, maybe not many times — but I’ve definitely been asked. The moment I start thinking about it, that’s when I realise I couldn’t do it. Because, even though I know a lot about Eurovision and I’ve enjoyed elements of it over the years, I kind of don’t like the way it’s gone. I don’t really want to be a part of it now. It’s rather lost its fun cheesiness — it’s all too seriousness now.”
Father Ted lasted until 1998 through three seasons and a Christmas Special. Its ending came in an abrupt and tragic manner when Dermot Morgan suffered a heart attack the day after filming the final episode of Father Ted. Morgan was only 45 years of age.
Ireland will be represented at Eurovision 2020 by Lesley Roy and “Story of my Life.” She brings with her three co-writers who have a resume of colorful tracks from their time in Nashville, and we will take a look at Roy and company in the coming weeks.
But as we search for some light and laughter in these trying times, you can’t go wrong checking out “My Lovely Horse” and the episode of the classic Irish sitcom that is widely considered one of the best Eurovision spoofs to date.
Do #YOU think this Father Ted episode holds up as a spoof of Eurovision in 2020? Do #YOU agree or disagree with Lowney’s critiques of the contest? Let us know in the comments below, on social media, or in our forum.