TIM FANNING MY VIEW
Why a man pretending to be a woman will always be a hit on British television
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.