Why a man pre­tend­ing to be a woman will al­ways be a hit on British tele­vi­sion

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - YOUR TV WEEK -

What is it about the Brits and men in dresses? They make some of the finest TV shows in the world – in­clud­ing hip come­dies; first-class dra­mas; pen­e­trat­ing, global in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism; and ground­break­ing na­ture pro­grammes – but put a mid­dle-aged man wear­ing make-up, a wig and a pair of high heels on the telly, and try grab­bing the re­mote con­trol from them.

The lat­est comic to mine this par­tic­u­lar seam of tele­vi­sual gold across the Ir­ish Sea is our own Bren­dan O’Car­roll, who is to present a new prime­time quiz show on Satur­day nights for the BBC, as Mrs Brown, of course. No­body in Bri­tain ac­tu­ally knows what the Dubliner looks like in real life. But they know and love the Ir­ish mammy Mrs Brown. The sec­ond se­ries of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the RTÉ/ BBC pro­duc­tion, at­tracted an av­er­age of al­most 7 mil­lion view­ers, not bad given the com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket­place these days.

Mrs Brown fol­lows in a ven­er­a­ble tradition of cross-dress­ing aul’ fel­las mak­ing a for­tune on British TV. Dame Edna Ever­age and Lily Sav­age (Barry Humphries and Paul O’Grady) both en­joyed high rat­ings dur­ing their long ca­reers, but, ar­guably, the most fa­mous drag artiste in Bri­tain was Danny La Rue.

Born Daniel Patrick Car­roll in Cork City in 1927, Danny, the youngest son of a car­pen­ter, moved to Lon­don with his fam­ily when he was six. When the fam­ily home was de­stroyed in the Blitz, the Car­rolls moved to Devon, where the young Danny de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in am­a­teur dra­mat­ics. Af­ter a three-year spell in the Royal Navy, where he per­formed as a woman in concert party re­vues, Danny be­gan try­ing his luck on the British cabaret cir­cuit. He never looked back, be­com­ing one of the best-known en­ter­tain­ers in the land.

The suc­cess of La Rue, who died in 2009, and his suc­ces­sors, in­clud­ing Mrs Brown, no doubt lies in the British Mu­sic Hall tradition, which spanned a pe­riod roughly be­gin­ning in the mid-19th cen­tury un­til the 1960s. These palaces of en­ter­tain­ment would host a va­ri­ety of acts ( hence the name), in­clud­ing singers, ma­gi­cians, mime artists, im­pres­sion­ists and fe­male im­per­son­ators. In fact, the his­tory of men pre­tend­ing to be women on stage goes back a long way. In the El­iz­a­bethan era men would play the fe­male roles in Shake­speare’s plays. It was re­garded as most im­mod­est for a woman to ca­vort around the stage back then.

So the next time you’re tempted to have a snig­ger at Mrs Brown, re­mem­ber, he…er, she has ex­alted the­atri­cal fore­bears. Sort of.


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