Graham Linehan on a possible musical revival for Father Ted

Irish comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers stormed the West End stage back in 2011. As a new all-female led production comes to Belfast’s Lyric, David Roy spoke to the Dublin-born Father Ted and IT Crowd creator about the show and the prospect of bringing his comedy priest favourites to the stage

 Graham Linehan
 Graham Linehan

ALTHOUGH he's best known for his television hits like Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan has also enjoyed considerable acclaim for writing 2011's hit stage adaptation of The Ladykillers.

The show took the 'robbers masquerading as musicians while holed-up in the home of an elderly widow' premise of the classic 1955 Ealing Studios comedy to new comedic heights, earning rave reviews with a cast led by Peter Capaldi in the lead role of criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, portrayed by Alec Guinness in the film.

Having subsequently toured in Britain and the Republic with different actors, The Ladykillers is about to be revived yet again in a new Lyric theatre production directed by Jimmy Fay.

Intriguingly, this will feature an all-female principal cast, including Stella McCusker, Nuala McKeever and former EastEnders star Cheryl Fergison.

When I spoke to the Norwich-based Linehan (49) by phone last week, he told me he was looking forward to finding out where the Lyric's version of the play will take things.

"I haven't had any involvement," admits the former Hot Press writer, who got his start in British TV comedy by penning sketches for shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The All New Alexei Sayle Show, Harry Enfield & Chums and The Fast Show with his then writing partner Arthur Matthews, co-creator of the Bafta-winning Father Ted.

"I'm just very curious about it, you know? They've very kindly offered me plane tickets to come over and see it. I'm working on pre-production for Motherland [a new BBC sitcom about the cut-throat world of middle-class mums co-written with Irish comedy writer and actor Sharon Horgan] at the moment, so it's a little difficult for me to get over – but I'm hoping to make it."

Indeed, Linehan tells me that he deliberately left room for interpretation when writing the play, and is quite happy for other productions to put their own spin on his work.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," he enthuses.

A new all female cast production of Graham Linehan's The Ladykillers is coming to the Lyric in Belfast
A new all female cast production of Graham Linehan's The Ladykillers is coming to the Lyric in Belfast

"I'm hugely flattered by the fact that there's been so many adaptations of it. It's just wonderful, you know

"There are things left open in the way that it's written for each different cast to have a different kind of fun with it. Like, there's various different ways of doing the robbery and the murders and getting rid of the bodies.

"There's a couple of things that I think could be fixed about the play – and if there's ever a major revamp of it then I'd love to come in and fix some certain things.

"But, for the most part, I'd much rather leave it up to the ingenuity of whoever is working on it and then see the result."

Although Dubliner Linehan initially received some flak for even daring to attempt a stage adaptation of the beloved Ealing Studios film, he tells me he only took the job after being given free reign to 'Glinnerise' The Ladykillers' concept.

Paul Ready and Diane Morgan star in Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan's comedy drama Motherland
Paul Ready and Diane Morgan star in Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan's comedy drama Motherland

"The producers and the estate of original writer William Rose told me that I could reinvent it," he says.

"They allowed me to take what was a very subtle, arch comedy and turn it into a knockabout farce that's more in keeping with my kind of sense of humour. The Ladykillers was perfect [for that] because it already has an absolutely brilliant structure and completely clear and understandable characters."

In other words, this is not your father's Ladykillers.

"If people love The Ladykillers the film and just want to see it play out in front of them – that's not what this is," confirms Linehan.

If the writer does make it to Belfast to check out the Lyric production, it will be in marked contrast to his approach to revisiting his much celebrated TV work, which might come as a shock to those who know every word of every Father Ted script.

"I never watch things after I've made them – I haven't seen Father Ted in about 20 years, or Black Books," explains Linehan, whose TV writing CV also includes comedy favourites Big Train, The Day Today, Coogan's Run and Brass Eye.

"Even though I love studio sitcoms because I think shooting stuff in front of an audience gives you bigger laughs – I don't know why, but it's like a magic dust and it's the reason why I love shows like Seinfeld and Fawlty Towers – they are also very 'stiff' in the way they look.

"That studio-bound thing makes it very difficult for me to watch them back."

However, before you get all "Ah, come on now Graham" with him, it seems enough time has passed for the writer to now contemplate revisiting the Craggy Island crew.

"Funnily enough, I can go back [to my own work] after a long time because I kind of forget all the stuff that went into each episode," Linehan explains. "So if Father Ted was to come on to TV now, I'd probably get a kick out of it."

Tantalisingly, while chatting about his adaptation of The Ladykillers, Linehan tells me that he and Matthews have actually considered reviving their iconic sitcom on the stage as Father Ted: The Musical.

"I've often thought about doing one, because it's got a lot of elements that could lend themselves to a musical," he reveals. "Also, Arthur and I have seen so much appalling scandal in the Church since we wrote Father Ted that you could kind of offset the easy nostalgia thing by being much harder and harsher than the TV show was.

"So I think there are interesting reasons for doing it. Of course it would be very lucrative, but I still think that you can't just do something because it's lucrative – there has to be some kind of artistic reason or you'd just go crazy. You'd hate yourself, it would be very hard to write and it would be a shadow of its former self.

Father Ted (clockwise from top left) Ardal O'Hanlon, Dermot Morgan, Pauline McLynn and Frank Kelly
Father Ted (clockwise from top left) Ardal O'Hanlon, Dermot Morgan, Pauline McLynn and Frank Kelly

"But if you could find a new angle, say a slightly harsher Father Ted with beautiful songs – and [Divine Comedy man and composer of the original Father Ted theme] Neil Hannon is someone I would to get involved in that kind of thing – then it would be worth doing."

If it does happen, hopefully this 'harsher' musical reboot will not ditch the traditional Irish curse Father Ted successfully introduced to the global lexicon – feck – in favour of its more astringent Anglo-Saxon equivalent.

"I'm very proud of that," laughs Linehan.

"I'm really happy about how far Ted travelled and that we spread what is really quite a sweet swear around the world. It's great!"

:: The Ladykillers is at the Lyric theatre, Belfast, from June 10 until July 8. See Lyrictheatre.co.uk for tickets and showtimes.