Kieran Prendiville, creator of Ballykissangel, returns to rescue series 6 of the popular TV drama set in Ireland. This series was a very definite ‘reboot’ of the drama, and featured many changes. Sadly, it was to prove to be the last series of the show. Even Prendiville’s intervention was not enough to save it. This seems unjust, as the rebooted series 6 was very good indeed. Unfortunately, time and fate were against Ballykissangel…
Detailed background to Series 6: Why did Ballykissangel need to be rescued?
In its 1996-98 heyday, Ballykissangel attracted 10-15 million viewers and was the jewel in the BBC’s Sunday evening entertainment crown. These popular episodes comprised the first three series of the show, and were largely – though not exclusively – centred on the growing love affair between parish priest Father Peter Clifford and bar owner Assumpta Fitzgerald.
It was Prendiville’s scripts that formed the climax of series 3 that saw the death of Assumpta and the departure of Father Peter. These episodes were screened in May 1998.
Ballykissangel then underwent inevitable changes for series 4 and 5, and Prendiville took no active interest in the continuing show, perhaps feeling it had run its course. New characters were introduced (Sean Dillon being the most important) and some old favourites were gradually lost. Actor Peter Caffrey (Padraig O’Kelly) left somewhat abruptly mid-series 4 (1998). This may have been due to health reasons, but I am only speculating. He died ten years later and, it has to be said, he didn’t look at all well during series 4. (Ironically, it seems he was an alcoholic in real-life, as was Padraig.)
After Peter and Assumpta, Padraig’s departure was the next substantial original character to go, but there were still plenty of characters to know and love, not least Naimh, Ambrose and Brian Quigley, played by Tony Doyle.
Brian Quigley was an excellent character. A schemer, always looking for the next get rich scheme, but also a person with emotional depth – especially when it came to his daughter Niamh Egan and his grandson Kieran. Many episodes centred around Brian’s amusing schemes: Knockbeg golf course, a paintballing centre, and a business park for Korean investors – to name but a few! Many said that Tony Doyle owned each and every scene that he appeared in, and it’s hard not to agree. The seasoned professional of British and Irish TV added a real depth to Ballykissangel. Although a dodgy dealer, you cared about Brian Quigley.
However, despite series 4 (and to a lesser extent series 5) developing well, bad luck behind the scenes began to dog the show. Peter Caffrey’s departure was a blow, but not a fatal one. Sadly though, things were to get much worse.
During the filming the series 5, the elderly Birdy Sweeney (Eamonn Byrne) passed away and had to be hastily written out of the show. Now, with Padraig and Eamonn gone, along with the much-loved Assumpta and Peter, the show was beginning to take on a different feel. The large number of new characters for series 4 only heightened the sense of loss and change, even though many of them were worthwhile additions to the show.
Actor Peter Hanley (Ambrose Egan) had an excellent opportunity to develop his character in series 4. Hanley, the bumbling Garda, looked on helplessly as his wife of three years, Niamh (nee Quigley), began to flirt with newcomer Sean Dillon.
Despite this rise in his profile on the show, Hanley had had enough and wanted to leave the show at the end of series 4. He was written out in episode 1 of series 5, tragically dying a hero on the day his wife left him for Sean.
By now, by any measure, the show was beginning to feel unfamiliar as series 5 progressed. Peter, Assumpta, Padraig, Eammon – and now Ambrose – were all gone for good. But still, the scheming Brian Quigley held the show together.
The end of series 5 saw a natural break approaching. Sean and Niamh were married and due to leave for the UK and a new life. The last episodes of the series hint at some intriguing ideas: priest Father Aidan seems to be developing feelings for policewoman Frankie, Brian Quigley’s arch rival Paul/Sean Dooley (from Series 1 and 2) reappears with his wife and family to run Quigley’s pub, and Danny Bryne (Eammon’s nephew) successfully takes over his uncle’s farm. However, none of these potential plot ideas ever came to pass. (Note to fans: it is intriguing to think what storylines were being developed for the next series. Should it be called Series 5a?)
On 28th January 2000, while negotiations were in progress for Series 6, Tony Doyle suddenly, and very sadly, died of a heart attack in London.
It is hard to imagine a bigger blow than this to a TV show: a much-respected actor and much-loved character is suddenly gone. Clearly there were no serious ideas to replace Tony Doyle with another actor, such was his command of the part, so a radical re-think was needed.
In addition to this, although I don’t have the figures to hand, I am fairly certain that the ratings for Series 4 and 5 would have shown a steady downward track. Therefore the production team would have had a double problem of falling ratings and a major hole in the cast, something that would only make things even worse.
It was in these circumstances that Kieran Prendiville was approached with a view to steering Ballykissangel back to success. Information about this move is sketchy and most of it comes from interviews with Prendiville in the media.
The first big change was to lose the amiable yet naïve ex-monk Father Aidan O’Connell and replace him with Father Vince Sheehan, an Australian. Prendiville insisted on the viewpoint of an ‘outsider’ to engage the audience with life in rural Ireland.
Paul Dooley becomes a replacement for Brian Quigley by attempting various money-making schemes that most of the shows centre around. Sadly, this doesn’t quite work as Paul Dooley is not someone the audience have invested time and emotion in over 5 previous series. Also, with the greatest of respect to actor Owen Rowe, Paul’s character doesn’t appeal to the audience. He is either being played by a lesser actor than Tony Doyle or, more likely, the character has never been developed properly. Paul Dooley is not a person you sympathise with or warm to.
It is also notable that Series 6 namechecks people and events from Series 1-3 but rarely alludes the non-Prendiville Series 4-5. The most brutal exception to this is how Aidan O’Connell is dispatched from Episode 1 of Series 6 in about 5 seconds! Brendan Kearney says: “He didn’t think he was making a difference. He did, but it was hard to tell.” At least Father Aidan got a mention! We never hear about Danny, Emma, Orla or Uncle Minto ever again (no bad thing in the case of the latter!). Sean Dillon is also absent except for one brief mention in Episode 1.
So, it was against the background of tragedy and falling ratings that the Kieran Prendiville stepped in to rescue Ballykissangel. Bold decisions were made, and the break with the previous two series meant that this was a gamble. Sadly, it didn’t work, and led to the cancellation of the show.
The series (Based on my Amazon.com review of the Series 6 DVD)
Father Vincent, the new lead, is an interesting character, not least because he is an Australian recovering-alcoholic priest and (I’m told) is good-looking as well (he was superbly played by Robert Taylor, one of the highlights of the new series). Most of the familiar characters from the earlier series reappear too, such as Brendan, Siobhan, Liam and Donal, and the playful and often moving plots are generally very good. There are also several references to the ‘classic’ series 1-3, which were absent from series 4-5, showing the Prendiville touch. It’s a welcome move as many fans felt that series 4-5 were disjointed from the original three series.
(Note: series 4-5 are dismissed pretty rapidly in the first episode of this series, almost like a bad dream! Several major characters from those series are gone, many without even the slightest mention.)
It is also sadly inevitable that having yet another lead priest character is disorientating. Father Vincent is a likeable character, and very interesting, but being from Australia just seems contrived.
But this is by no means a bad series, and if you have enjoyed the other five series then I do recommend this one. It was the last series of the show before it was axed, so any BallyK is always better than none. It is just a shame that the gaps are too big to plug and the programme is starting to get repetitive, even with Kieran Prendiville’s input.
- God.com – Niamh returns to BallyK to investigate the mysterious disappearance/suicide of her father, Brian Quigley. Dermot Dooley runs a lucrative online confessional and Father Vincent Sheehan arrives from Australia, the latest curate in Ballykissangel.
- Drink – Father Sheehan gets into trouble with a drink driving charge. But is he actually innocent?
- The Cat and Daddy G – A feel-good episode with the unusual premise of a goat making a horse run faster at the races! Better than it sounds, actually.
- Spirit Proof – A very different episode that takes the supernatural as its theme. The plot involves ancient fishing rights and all-too-human shenanigans from the Dooley children. Not a classic episode, although certainly different, but did a show like this need to explore the supernatural? I think not.
- Paul Dooley Sleeps with the Fishes – A Mob-flavoured episode with Liam and Donal trying to get Paul to pay them back what he owes.
- In a Jam – There’s a jam-making competition at the BallyK Parish Fete. Not a great episode, particularly as the parish fete has been a plot device previously, but quite funny all the same.
- Getting Better All the Time – A great Prendiville episode featuring faith healers, an implied comparison of Protestantism verses Catholicism, and faith verses science. There is unresolved sexual tension between Avril and Peter, and Peter faces a major dilemma about whether or not to marry an old friend and his new girlfriend. A great script and a fully-orbed storyline make this one of the highlights of Series 6.
- Smoke Signals – The final episode! Not written as the end of an era, but with hindsight there are some moments here that could point to the end of the show. Father Mac is getting older and facing a possible (enforced) retirement, courtesy of the Bishop. Liam and Donal drive off in their iconic blue truck which has served them so well since the show started, and we also have the development of Vincent and Avril’s slightly flirty friendship. The Peter/Assumpta wheel has come full circle (although you could also argue that the show is running out of ideas). A great end to the series, Kieran Prendiville delivers some classic one-liners and in the BallyK tradition, a serious subject is also raised, in this case the use of marijuana for palliative care. Fittingly, we end with the Ballykissangel family sharing fun and good times in Fitzgerald’s, the pub at the heart of the show.
Final note: The US DVD edition of Series 1 of Ballykissangel features some interesting extras, particularly the hour-long documentary that was filmed at the time of the show’s cancellation. It’s really interesting to see Joe Savino (Liam) walking around Avoca and speaking about the show in the past tense. Frankie Cafferty (Donal) is very honest about the show and suggests that it was past its best. A fascinating watch!
My closing comments are that Frankie Cafferty was probably right. Even though Ballykissangel Series 6 was really reinvigorated by the massive contribution of the show’s creator, it was on borrowed time. Yes, we were still in love with the scenery (who could not be in love with those County Wicklow vistas?), we still loved the Fitzgerald’s regulars and we were falling in love with the new characters and new situations, but it was hard to bring ourselves to face the truth: Ballykissangel had seen too many changes and was starting to get somewhat repetitious. There’s only so many women each curate can fall in love with, only so many regulars you can lose and, last but not least, there was only one Tony Doyle/Brian Quigley. His passing was the last straw; the show couldn’t recover.
Personally, I would have liked a final series (7) which was apparently in pre-production when the axe fell. This was SUCH a great TV show and it deserved a proper send-off in the same manner as Monarch of the Glen, where everyone, including the viewers, knew it was the last series and some old favourites came back to bring the show to a satisfactory conclusion (2005). However, four years earlier in 2001, the BBC did not seem to be willing to make a series ‘for the fans’ and we were left with a rather disjointed finish.