As previously noted, Ballykissangel was the first British TV show that I watched and loved, which is slightly ironic, given that it was set in and filmed in Ireland by the BBC Northern Ireland. But as I like to think, British TV is not about borders. British TV is just about watching the best television possible anywhere.
So: Ballykissangel (Wikipedia link; beware, there’s spoilers there). Ballykissangel was a hugely popular “dramedy” for its time, regularly scoring 10 million viewers at the height of its first-run popularity (which ain’t too shabby, considering that the combined population of the UK now is 64 million). The first three seasons of the program focused primarily on the growing relationship between Father Peter Clifford, an English Catholic priest sent to serve the congregation in Ballykissangel, Ireland, and Assumpta Fitzgerald, the feisty, organized-religion-and-especially-priest-hating owner and proprietor of the local pub. There’s no denying the chemistry between the two (the actors playing these leads, Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan, became involved during filming and were engaged for a time), just as there’s no denying the characters’ mutual confusion and frustration about their attraction: as a priest, Fr. Clifford is supposed to be celibate, and there’s really no place for a romantic relationship to grow while he remains a priest. A further rub is that Fr. Clifford is a good priest: his parishioners like him and he’s the thoughtful, serious kind of priest you wouldn’t mind confessing all your sins to, especially as he’s a total sweetie who also has a good sense of humor. You wouldn’t mind grabbing a pint with him after mass, all told.
In addition to this relationship, which is soap-opera-y and sexual tension-y enough to fulfill all your viewing needs, Ballyk also hosts a cast of robust characters and side storylines. There’s Assumpta’s friend Niamh, eventually married to the village police officer (or garda) Ambrose (the thorny scenes between Niamh and her old-school mother-in-law provide a lot of comedy bang for the buck); Niamh’s father, the village wheeler and dealer Bryan Quigley; a triumvirate of best friends who work as a school teacher, veterinarian, and garage owner, who spend much of their time in Assumpta’s achingly cozy pub (I just dream of having a drink there); the old-school parish priest who is not interested in Fr. Clifford’s kinder and gentler ways; and the two village workmen/stooges who are always doing some sort of dodgy job for Quigley. Later seasons, after the Assumpta/Peter storyline has run its course, feature new cast members and new storylines, all incorporated well into the broader village life of Ballykissangel (the link there goes to a British tours website, but offers a surprisingly good summary of the plot, without any spoilers), which is what the show is really all about.
Sure, all the press nowadays is about Downton Abbey and what a guilty pleasure of a soap opera that was. But trust me: this show set the bar high for every Brit drama that followed it.
Years aired: 1996-2001
Episodes and seasons: 58 50-minute episodes over the course of 6 seasons.
Christmas episodes? Yes, “As Happy As a Turkey on Boxing Day,” Season 3, episode 1
Primary Stars: Stephen Tompkinson as Father Peter Clifford; Dervla Kirwan as Assumpta Fitzgerald; Don Wycherley as Father Aidan O’Connell; Tina Kellegher as Niamh Egan; Peter Hanly as Ambrose Egan; Tony Doyle as Brian Quigley; Niall Toibin as Father Macanally
Creator and primary writers: Kieran Prendiville
Setting: Ireland (Rural)
First aired on: BBC One
Fun trivia: Stephen Tompkinson and Dervla Kirwan actually became an item while filming the show and were engaged for two years.
Who’s that who pops up in Season 4? Why, that’s a very young, and already very good-looking, Colin Farrell, that’s who!
All out of Ballykissangel episodes? Then watch these next, luv:
Monarch of the Glen. Another great dramedy soap opera, featuring tons of romance and a strong ensemble cast, set in rural Scotland.
Doc Martin. Martin Clunes as Doc Martin really doesn’t want to be the doctor for a small community in Cornwall, but as a surgeon with a phobia about blood it’s a bit tricky to practice anywhere else.
All Creatures Great and Small. Another rural setting; Yorkshire, this time. Based on the best-selling series of vet memoirs by James Herriot, and set in the 1940s-1960s, this show is gentler than many drama soap operas that would follow, but offers equal parts tear-jerking and laughing moments.
Moone Boy. Catholicism and its many joys and challenges are a large part of the Ballyk storylines; Catholics who don’t mind their religion being made fun of just a bit (or who actually enjoy that sort of thing) might also enjoy the comedy series Moone Boy, set in early 1990s Ireland. Loosely based on actor Chris O’Dowd’s childhood (complete with imaginary friend), I basically just recommend this show as a watch-alike for everything, because it is SO GREAT.
The movie Brassed Off, in which Stephen Tompkinson plays a small but important role as a miner in a British town where the mining industry is about to get the shaft from Margaret Thatcher. Tompkinson has also starred in the popular cop drama DCI Banks; his counterpart, Dervla Kirwan, has been in a ton of Brit series and mini-series.