BBC Video // 1996 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 14th, 2004
Life is a challenge for any priest in a small mountain town, and Father Peter Clifford has just arrived from London with high expectations and no driver's license.
Airing on British television for six seasons, from 1996 to its abrupt cancellation in 2001, Ballykissangel is remembered by its legions of fans worldwide as one of the best British drama-comedies ever. Less familiar to viewers in the States, this quirky pastoral soap opera gets a proper introduction on DVD thanks to BBC Video. Ballykissangel: Complete Series One collects on two DVDs the six episodes that comprise the show's first season.
Into the tiny rural Irish village of Baile Coisc Aingeal, or Ballykissangel, as it's commonly known, comes Father Peter Clifford (Stephen Tompkinson), a young Catholic priest from Manchester who's been transferred by the Church to be the new parish curate. As an English clergyman in Ireland, Father Clifford faces a tough road to acceptance by the town's residents -- but that's only the first of the challenges waiting for him in this eccentric community. The cast of characters includes Assumpta Fitzgerald, the feisty owner of Ballykissangel's single pub; slippery local entrepreneur Brian Quigley; his daughter, Niamh, who's determined to marry village guard Ambrose; Quigley's hapless henchmen, Donal and Liam; and Siobhan, a veterinarian and inveterate gambler.
In the first episode, "Trying to Connect You," Father Clifford's tenure in BallyK gets off to a bumpy start -- literally, when his bus is nearly struck by a runaway crate that turns out to contain a welcome gift from Brian Quigley: a high-tech confessional booth. Peter's introduction to the village continues as he meets Assumpta, a clergy-hating agnostic, and her friend Niamh, who asks Peter's advice on how she can live with her boyfriend, to see how they'd fare as a married couple, without committing a mortal sin.
Peter has barely begun to settle into his new life in the second episode, "The Things We Do for Love," when he becomes embroiled in a conflict between Brian Quigley and a hired hand; meanwhile, a woman from Peter's past comes back into his life, resurrecting painful memories for the young priest. Niamh's wedding plans go wildy awry in "Live in My Heart and Pay No Rent," when a falling stone statue inspires her fiancée, Ambrose, to make an abrupt career change. In "Fallen Angel," the village goes into a tizzy over a new pirate radio station, while Peter faces the prospect of a driving test. Brian Quigley's political aspirations in "The Power and the Gory" bring an old flame of Assumpta's to BallyK; and in the final episode of the season, "Missing You Already," Peter's tenure in Ballykissangel may be at a premature end when he's recalled to England.
Ballykissangel is often compared to the American series Northern Exposure, with its similar fish-out-of-water premise and small-town setting. In some ways, it's an apt comparison; both shows are marked by a gently quirky sense of humor and a cast of unconventional characters, and there are a few obvious parallels between the two (Brian Quigley is the BallyK equivalent of Northern Exposure's Maurice, and there's a hint of Maggie and Joel in the charged relationship between Assumpta and Peter). But while Ballykissangel may be drawn from the same well, it's a very different series -- less overtly eccentric than Northern Exposure and more grounded in everyday reality.
One of the attractions of a series set in a small town is the opportunity for jaded urban viewers to escape to a simpler time and place. Ballykissangel builds upon that nostalgic yearning, presenting a loving vision of an Ireland that no longer exists. Although references to modern civilization pop up here and there, most of the stories of Ballykissangel could be set a century or two earlier. If that makes the series sound as squeaky-clean as a bar of Irish Spring, make no mistake: Ballykissangel may be nostalgic, but it's not reactionary in its values. The show doesn't shy away from controversial issues (a couple episodes deal straightforwardly with domestic violence and euthanasia), and Father Clifford is an enlightened, free-thinking priest who remains true to his faith while acknowledging changing times.
A low-key series like Ballykissangel rises or falls on the strength of its characterizations and writing, and both are uniformly excellent. Characters seldom remain within the confines of their archetypal roles, but come across as real people, complete with contradictions and incongruities. In a lesser production, a character like Brian Quigley would be nothing more than a sputtering villain, but here he's a complex figure motivated as much by love of family and community as by personal gain. None of the characters is easy to pin down or predict, which makes each episode compelling viewing right up to the end credits.
BBC Video's two-disc presentation of Ballykissangel contains six episodes in full frame format; video quality can be best described as "eh" -- the series, like many BBC productions, appears to have been shot on 16mm film stock, and the images have a soft, washed-out look that makes the show look 10 or 20 years older than it really is. Still, print quality aside, the production values are excellent; the show feels completely authentic, placing the viewer smack dab into a real Irish village. Unlike some BBC productions that look like they never left a studio soundstage, even if they were shot on location (coughNeverwherecough), even scenes of this series that were shot in a studio look like location footage. The show's creators should be credited with accomplishing a great deal with limited resources. Audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, is unremarkable but adequate -- again, about on a par with lower-budget BBC series. This is Ballykissangel, not MI-5, so the audio/video presentation is as good as it needs to be.
This set includes three featurettes. The hourlong "On the Ballykissangel Trail" presents behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with some of the cast, including Stephen Tompkinson (Father Clifford), Dervla Kirwan (Assumpta), and Tina Kellegher (Niamh), much of which appears to have been taped during the third and later seasons. It's the heftiest extra on the disc, and well worth viewing, although a bit more background for new viewers would have been welcome. The actors seem to have genuine chemistry (Tompkinson and Kirwan became a romantic couple in real life) and enthusiasm for the series. One caveat: the feature lets loose with spoilers aplenty for later seasons, including several major developments. (Sadly, this is one of those discs whose creators assume viewers are already familiar with the series. This presents a dilemma for new viewers, since in order to get more info about the show, you have to be willing to be spoiled.) A 20-minute making-of featurette provides a closer look at the production of the show, and a brief "Summer Holiday in Avoca" gives us a tour of the actual town where Ballykissangel is filmed. Rounding out the extras is a set of text-only biographies of selected cast members.
My only real quibble with this first season of Ballykissangel: it's far too brief! The saying that no good movie is too long and no bad movie too short applies here. The brevity of British television seasons means that we only get a half-dozen episodes, and while they certainly pack a lot of character development into each installment, I would have loved to have seen BallyK unfold with the leisurely pace afforded to American series, giving more time to secondary characters. Still, considering that a show like this wouldn't have lasted a single season on an American network, I can't complain.
Ballykissangel is one of those rare series that entertain without resorting to sensationalistic gimmicks or overwrought sentimentality. It rises above the hazy mist of its nostalgic premise with sharp writing, complex and unpredictable characterizations, and a dry, witty sense of humor. And like its American counterpart, Northern Exposure, it presents a fully-realized portrait of a community appealing enough to make you want to move there. If you've never visited BallyK, now's your chance.
Ballykissangel: Complete Series One is hereby absolved of all its sins, in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "On the Ballykissangel Trail" Making-of Feature
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* "Summer Holiday in Avoca" Behind the Scenes Tour
* Cast Biographies
* Official BBC Site