PROFILE Brendan O’Carroll
An old-school sitcom has hit a nerve with Australian audiences and, writes Andrew Fenton, its star loves the freedom he gets from wearing a wig, dress and high heels.
MRS BROWN’S BOYS Thursday, 9.15pm, Seven
HAS there ever been a more unlikely television smash hit than Mrs Brown’s Boys?
A broad, old-fashioned sitcom, it could have been dropped through a wormhole in space from the 1970s, back when a 57-year-old man in drag, swearing at his family and winking at the camera was considerably more fashionable.
Audiences clearly adore the show, with the first episode of the new season drawing more than a million viewers in Australia and almost 12 million in Britain.
Over there the BAFTA-winning program out-rates Downton Abbey and has just been voted best sitcom in their National Television Awards.
But critics from across the spectrum are baffled by its success with the UK’s Daily Mail and The Independent calling it the ‘‘worst comedy ever made’’.
Closer to home our own TV columnist Dianne Butler uses the phrase ‘‘spectacularly not funny’’.
The man at the centre of it all, Brendan O’Carroll, who dreamed up the character on the spot in a Dublin radio studio 20 years ago, admits he’s as gobsmacked as the critics by its success.
The only explanation he can offer is that it fills a gap left by TV comedy’s preoccupation with being too clever by half. ‘‘We’ve discovered a lost audience,’’ he says in his broad Irish accent.
‘‘I think comedy forgot the audience we have for a while.
‘‘It was left behind (after) Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers.
‘‘It’s not new, it’s nothing special, it’s just funny – y’know?’’
Agnes Brown has always been a popular, rather than critical, success.
That’s why O’Carroll cancelled media tickets and press nights a decade ago.
‘‘Everyone else paid for their ticket and didn’t get to express an opinion,’’ chuckles the man who had the last laugh on the critics, recently selling a quarter of a million theatre tickets in a single week.
‘‘At the end of the day I don’t write for TV critics or theatre critics or radio critics – I write for the audience.’’
When the BBC approached O’Carroll, seeking to capitalise on the popularity of his stage shows, he told the producers he wouldn’t update the character or stop breaking the fourth wall (giving a wink to the audience or leaving in the mistakes). ‘‘It was one of the things that kept us off for the two-and-a-half years it took the BBC to
convince me to do the show,’’ he says. ‘‘I said this is the format I’d like to do, this is the way I’d like the show to go, and if we break the fourth wall we leave it in and blah, blah, blah.
‘‘They kind of stood back and went, ‘Brendan . . . We’d suggest the sitcom format was invented for a reason.’ I said: ‘I understand that but if we do it and it doesn’t work then tell us to f--- off’.’’
O’Carroll has now guided the character through 400 radio episodes, five novels, a movie starring Anjelica Huston in the role (another starring O’Carroll begins production this September), three television series, an animated pilot and numerous hit stage plays.
With so much original material to draw on, the man who continues to write every single word Mrs Brown utters, laughs there’s little chance of him running out of storylines.
‘‘It sounds like it’s a difficult task, but if you take the history of the show for television there’s plenty there to play with so there’s no question of wondering have I got a plot line,’’ he says. ‘‘As well as that she’s just that kind of character. ‘‘You put the most ordinary of situations in the way and they’ll develop into something comedic.’’
O’Carroll relishes the freedom to do and say as he pleases when he’s made up in the skirt and wig.
‘‘Agnes gets away with things I would never get away with,’’ he laughs.
‘‘I do stand-up (comedy) as well, and there’s no way I’d get away (with what she does).’’ Australian audiences will have the opportunity to meet Mrs Brown in person on her March and April 2014 tour – along with O’Carroll’s sister, son and daughter, son’s best friend, daughter-in-law, and three of his best old mates, all of whom star alongside him in the stage and television productions.
‘‘I can’t get over the success in Australia,’’ he says. ‘‘To see people on Facebook and Twitter talking about this series and how it’s affecting them and how they’re enjoying it and to do that to people without being able to touch them is incredible. I can’t wait to get over there.’’