Robert Jackman

An exclusive look at Graham Linehan’s Father Ted musical

The comedy writer turned culture warrior tells us about his struggles to stage the hit sitcom he co-created

‘I get so confused as to why people aren’t with me’: Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted. Credit: Rob Monk / Edge Magazine / Future / Getty Images

The tree-lined streets of Rotherhithe are an odd place to unveil a West End musical. But this is a suitably odd situation. Graham Linehan – lauded comedy writer turned culture warrior – is about to unveil what he calls ‘a musical that may never be seen’.

For much of the past 30 years, the idea of turning Father Ted, cult sitcom of the 1990s, into a West End musical would have seemed a hot prospect – certainly to the legions of nerdy, largely male fans who still stream episodes decades later. Once upon a time, it looked destined for Shaftesbury Avenue, backed by one of the biggest names in theatre. Now it might be going nowhere.

The company which produced Father Ted offered Linehan £200,000 to take his name off the project

When we meet at his east London apartment, Linehan concedes that, by doing an impromptu read-through, I may end up as one of the last members of the small club of people who have ‘seen’ the show. Father Ted: The Final Episode may be almost oven-ready – songs included – but a Mexican stand-off between Linehan and his former producers means it’s stuck in purgatory.

Never one to hold his tongue, Linehan is eager to air his side of the story. Last month, he launched a social media campaign calling on his former backers to #FreeFatherTed and allow the show to be performed. But before we get to that, I have a bigger question: is it any good?

As he projects the script on to his giant television, Linehan fizzes with energy – impressive for a man just back from a speaking tour of Australia. I’ve barely sat down when he is off at the pace of a racing commentator, assigning every character in the opening scene (an assortment of feuding cardinals in the Vatican) various Dublin lilts.

Pretty soon, the gags are flowing. We’re back on Craggy Island – the fictional Atlantic outpost where Father Ted is set, where life is three parts slapstick and one part Samuel Beckett – and the priests, Ted, Dougal and Jack, are as lovably hopeless as ever. It seems obvious to say, given who wrote it, but the first realisation is just how recognisably Father Ted the whole thing is. There are, of course, callbacks galore, but Linehan is clear it was written for more than just fan service. ‘We wanted to give Ted a decent story and a good ending, given how sadly the original show ended,’ he says – referencing the death of its lead actor, Dermot Morgan, who suffered a fatal heart attack aged 45, one day after wrapping up filming.

Then there are the songs. Back in the more optimistic days of 2018, Linehan recruited his old friend and occasional collaborator Neil Hannon (face of the pop band the Divine Comedy) to write most of them. They are, in a word, excellent, reminiscent of the similarly exuberant work of Tim Minchin or Danny Elfman.

So why, then, is this musical stuck in limbo? Like many things in the culture war, it is a long and contested story. But both Linehan and his detractors would agree it largely boils down to one thing: his decision, in 2018, to take a public (and strident) position on questions around limiting access to single-sex spaces for transgender women.

Within months, Linehan’s public image had changed. No longer the affable comic who used social media to say fashionable things about the NHS, he was now – in the eyes of his detractors – a bigoted transphobe seeking to sow division. Naturally, this became a point of concern for the musical’s two major backers – West End supremo Sonia Friedman and the comedy mogul Jimmy Mulville.

In the eyes of his detractors, he was a bigoted transphobe. ‘I was told I was on the wrong side of history’

Early in 2020, Linehan recalls being summoned to Friedman’s office for a discussion about toning down his social media positions. ‘I had already been getting a lot of pressure at this point about what I was saying,’ he tells me. ‘Then she said something that really triggered me and we ended up having a full on row. She said I was on the wrong side of history – and that really irked me.’

Unable to reach a compromise, Mulville, whose company produced the original Father Ted television series, made Linehan a bold offer: £200,000 to take his name off the project.

Was Linehan ever tempted to take the deal? ‘I was thinking about it for a while and we even started working on a statement with Jimmy about me stepping back.’ Then he found out that the £200,000 would be an advance on his royalties. ‘That is when I said no way,’ he says. ‘I told them that if they’re firing me from my own show, they should be paying from their own royalties, not from mine.’

At this point, debating the rights and wrongs of Linehan’s stances feels as intractable as arguing about Israel-Palestine with Ken Loach or vegetarianism with Morrissey. When we touch on the topic, he points out – rightly – that some of his positions have been vindicated: such as opposing the use of puberty blockers for gender-questioning children. Yet his blunderbuss attacks on many of his showbusiness colleagues (including calling them ‘groomers’) continue to raise eyebrows.‘If I have ever let my emotions get the better of me, it’s because I get so confused as to why people aren’t with me on this stuff,’ he says. ‘My ability to carry on a civil discourse is really tested when I am constantly under attack.’ Still, he rejects the assessment of his former colleagues that there is wrong on both sides of this particular spat.

Should he have just taken the money and called it a truce? Telephone calls to theatre insiders throw up a pretty incredulous response. While some musicals may make millions, they say, guessing which ones will be profitable is a tough call. ‘If you are ever offered money up front, you take it,’ summarises one producer.

But there are questions, too, about why the project would have been so difficult. As Linehan points out, similar controversies around J.K. Rowling (who is also routinely branded a Terf, or ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’) haven’t dented the success of the Harry Potter stage play.

Could the show have been disrupted by demonstrators? Probably not: the West End has ramped up its security after protestors from Just Stop Oil managed to halt a performance of Les Misérables last year. The activists have since been convicted of aggravated trespass, having cost the show’s producers £60,000, and are due for sentencing.

Linehan has a more cynical assessment of it all. He thinks that Hat Trick Productions, Mulville’s multi-million-pound comedy company, pulled the show due to industry politics. ‘He doesn’t want to have the Derry Girls walking out in protest,’ he says. The show was a huge hit for Hat Trick, and one of its lead actresses, Nicola Coughlan, is a big advocate for gender politics. ‘I don’t think Jimmy actually believes any of this stuff about gender,’ he says. Instead, he suggests, Hat Trick is looking after its bottom line.

Speaking over the telephone, Mulville gives his assessment of the situation. ‘If you’d have told me six years ago, this would happen then I wouldn’t have believed you,’ he says with a sigh. The decision to pull the plug wasn’t anything to do with Linehan’s views, he insists, but due to the relationship with his former partners souring. Friedman confirmed that her company was no longer looking to produce the show, but declined to offer any comment.

Might the musical eventually see the light of day? In the immediate term, there are some small practical obstacles: Hannon, the show’s songwriter, sold some of the music for Father Ted to the makers of last year’s Wonka movie. For Linehan, though, the only way forward is for his former partners to sell (or give up) their stake in the vehicle. Until then, he says, there will be no return to Craggy Island. ‘The only way it could happen is if I die. And I’m definitely going to put something in my will that this show can’t be made in that case.’

If nothing else, it all seems a little rough on Ted Crilly: the hapless priest for whom controversy was – until recently – an alien concept. Knowing that the musical was written to give Linehan’s most-loved creation a satisfying ending – thanks to a surprise twist that he insists I keep secret – is rather galling. Does he ever feel guilty for Ted?

‘Absolutely I do,’ he says. He pauses for a few beats, sounding notably softer now we’ve moved on from the culture wars. ‘This show was meant to be about showing people the real character, which is a frustrated man who gave his life over to something that he shouldn’t have done.’

In Ted’s case, he says, that was the Catholic Church. Any similarity with Linehan’s story is, as they say in the television business, purely coincidental.

Father Ted: The Final Episode remains in limbo.