Agnes Brown

Crit­ics panned it, the BBC tried to block it... but Mrs Brown’s Boys is loved by mil­lions and has made its creator Brendan O’Car­roll a nice for­tune. But how did he do it? Here he re­veals it’s a saga as daft as any of his scripts. And it all started due to

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - NEWS -

T he peo­ple have spo­ken. TV view­ers have just voted Mrs Brown’s Boys the sit­com of the cen­tury so far and its creator could not be more pleased, de­spite get­ting a kick­ing from the crit­ics. ‘I’ve done what I set out to do,’ says Brendan O’Car­roll de­fi­antly. ‘How can the bad re­views hurt me? I know what Mrs Brown’s Boys is – and it’s hi­lar­i­ous!’

The 61-year-old co­me­dian is un­recog­nis­able when he’s not dressed up in a wig as his creation Mrs Brown. She’s a warm but salty mammy in a flo­ral skirt and cardi­gan, scat­ter­ing con­fu­sion, in­nu­endo and home­spun wis­dom all around. In to­tal con­trast, he’s a tanned, bald­ing man in a hot pink polo shirt, smok­ing a che­root and re­flect­ing on his phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess. His big, airy home in Florida, where he lives half the year with his wife Jenny (who plays his on-screen daugh­ter Cathy), could not be fur­ther from the coun­cil house in a run-down part of Dublin where the show is set.

Mrs Brown’s Boys is like a pan­tomime ver­sion of a sit­com with O’Car­roll’s lead char­ac­ter as the Dame, pre­sid­ing over an ex­tended family of odd­balls, losers and mis­fits played by his real-life friends and rel­a­tives.

If you watch it like a panto, a big game we are all in­vited to play, it’s bril­liant. If not, it can be mys­ti­fy­ing. One critic called it ‘lazy, end-of-the-pier trash’. Metro called it ‘a “com­edy” hewn from the dark ma­te­ri­als that spewed forth Love Thy Neigh­bour and Bless This House.’

O’Car­roll says the tone of his show is ac­tu­ally the op­po­site of those racist, sex­ist and ho­mo­pho­bic sit­coms. ‘I love to stick in a per­sonal mes­sage at the end of the show. You know: “Love is love in any shape or form. I don’t care if it’s a man and a man or a man and a duck, if it’s love.” But prin­ci­pally, I’m there to make them laugh.’

But he doesn’t mind peo­ple com­par­ing Mrs Brown’s Boys to other come­dies of the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties. ‘I grew up with all that and I loved it. Then all of a sud­den co­me­di­ans be­came stars play­ing are­nas and com­edy got very smart and snarky. The au­di­ence for shows like Are You Be­ing Served? was left be­hind. So I set out to make a com­edy for the au­di­ence that com­edy for­got. Some­where along the line I must have been right, be­cause peo­ple are watch­ing and laugh­ing.’

They are. The Christ­mas spe­cial was watched by an av­er­age of 607,500 view­ers here – and in the UK nine mil­lion tuned in. Mrs Brown’s Boys was voted best sit­com of the cen­tury so far by Ra­dio Times read­ers; the big-screen Mrs Brown: D’Movie topped the box of­fice charts and the cast are about to go on yet an­other live tour – the kind of show they were do­ing for a decade be­fore the BBC picked up the show. O’Car­roll is thought to be worth around €12m.

The BBC is also giv­ing Mrs Brown her own prime-time chat show as a re­ward for be­ing so pop­u­lar, like Dame Ever­age and Mrs Mer­ton be­fore her. As O’Car­roll tells us his story frankly and fully, he re­veals, though, that some peo­ple high up at the BBC tried very hard to stop the sit­com ever be­ing made be­cause they thought it was vul­gar and old hat. ‘When the fig­ures come in and show we are still hang­ing on to 11mil­lion view­ers, we know they were wrong,’ he says.

He even com­pares his rise to tele­vi­sion star­dom to that of Don­ald Trump.

‘Brexit hap­pened be­cause the elite had stopped talk­ing to the peo­ple,’ says O’Car­roll. ‘Then Don­ald Trump said in his speech: “I tell you peo­ple, you will never be ig­nored again.” So maybe the elite in en­ter­tain­ment, in tele­vi­sion, did start to do look down on that au­di­ence. I just know that when the pro­ducer Stephen McCrum brought us to the BBC in 2011 there was a con­certed ef­fort to stop us.’ These days, laugh­ing at Mrs Brown’s Boys has be­come a by­word for be­ing in touch with the peo­ple – Bri­tish Labour MP Stella Creasy said her leader Jeremy Cor­byn was doomed to fail­ure be­cause he didn’t tune in. O’Car­roll is a man who knows about politi­cians: he was the youngest of 11 chil­dren born to mother Mau­reen who was a Labour TD in the Dáil from 1954 to 1957. ‘She was the only woman in there at that time,’ says O’Car­roll. His fa­ther, a car­pen­ter, died from as­besto­sis when Brendan was aged nine. Brendan started work as a waiter at 13 and strug­gled to find his way in life. ‘I tried to man­age a band. I had a pub. I had a night­club. I tried ev­ery­thing. Af­ter one failed ven­ture I owed more than I owned.’ A family con­fronta­tion made him try com­edy. ‘My el­der brother was giv­ing out about the fact I was still search­ing for what I was: “He won’t hold down a job. What does he do, Mam?” And mother said: “He makes me laugh.” And that was the end of the con­ver­sa­tion.’ O’Car­roll was 35 by now. ‘I called a mate who had a pub and asked him for a gig do­ing com­edy.’ O’Car­roll hosted a ver­sion of Blind Date and his quick wits brought the house down. ‘I thought: “This is what I’ve been miss­ing. Just be­ing me.’” He was chal­lenged in 1992 to write a reg­u­lar item for ra­dio and in­vented his most fa­mous char­ac­ter on the spot. ‘I said: “Well, there’s this old wi­dow woman liv­ing in Dublin and she treats her kids like they’re five years of age, even though they’re adults,”’ says O’Car­roll. Why call her Mrs Brown? ‘It was on the news, that was the 18th birthday of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby.’

In­cred­i­bly, the most pop­u­lar com­edy char­ac­ter on the TV to­day was born by ac­ci­dent. And she would have been very dif­fer­ent if the ac­tress booked to play her had not called in sick, forc­ing O’Car­roll to record her voice him­self. He meant to have it over­dubbed but the ed­i­tor thought his ver­sion was hi­lar­i­ous.

‘I said I’d do a com­edy soap opera for five min­utes a day ev­ery week­day for six months. Two-and-a-half-years later it was still run­ning.’

O’Car­roll tried to make a movie about box­ing next but ended up nearly bank­rupt, so he put Mrs Brown on the stage in Dublin. ‘We broke the box of­fice record and I was back in busi­ness.’ Mrs Brown had saved the day.

Is she based on his mother? ‘Mrs Brown is my mother without her ed­u­ca­tion. There’s a lot of me in there too. I’m a bit of an old dear.’

When Mrs Browne (as her sur­name was then spelled) proved so pop­u­lar, O’Car­roll wrote a se­ries of nov­els about her. One was made into a film star­ring An­jel­ica Hus­ton in 1999. The film was a mod­er­ate suc­cess but fame was also tear­ing his mar­riage apart and he was di­vorced from his first wife Doreen the same year. ‘Fame wasn’t the life for her,’ he says. ‘She was per­fectly happy in the life we had be­fore. She wanted to be out of it, and I re­spect that.’

By the time the BBC came calling, the live ver­sion of Mrs Brown’s Boys was play­ing to 4

huge packed houses in Ire­land, Scot­land and the north of Eng­land. His de­voted live fol­low­ing tuned in to see if Mrs Brown would be as funny on TV.

De­spite the doubters, it was a huge suc­cess – there have now been three se­ries and seven spe­cials, with more to come. O’Car­roll wed again, six years af­ter his di­vorce, to actor Jen­nifer Gib­ney. She ap­peared on Strictly Come Danc­ing in 2014, and he used that year’s Christ­mas spe­cial of Mrs Brown’s Boys to rib her for be­ing voted off.

Teas­ing apart, the se­cret of the sit­com is it’s a close family af­fair. The same cast is about to record the new chat show, which will run along­side the sit­com. O’Car­roll says: ‘It’s called All Round To Mrs Brown’s. Mrs Brown has opened the house up, her daugh­ter Cathy has a video blog. Cathy in­ter­views a celebrity in the sit­ting room while Mrs Brown in­ter­views their mother in the kitchen.’

For a lot of fam­i­lies, liv­ing and work­ing so closely to­gether all the time would be a dis­as­ter. ‘Now lis­ten, we’re not the f***ing Wal­tons, OK?’ he says. ‘We’re not. But we have a big row, we never take it on to the stage. There really is a deep love there.’ The warmth be­tween them comes over in the show, which is one rea­son view­ers love it – what­ever the crit­ics say.

‘There’s a core au­di­ence there for us and that au­di­ence fol­lows the show,’ says O’Car­roll grate­fully. ‘Like it or not, they’re laugh­ing. That’s who Mrs Brown is for.’

Tick­ets for Good Mourn­ing Mrs Brown live tour are on sale now

1. Agnes Brown Brendan O’Car­roll 2. Grandad her fa­ther – O’Car­roll’s for­mer win­dow cleaner Der­mot 3. Mark, her el­dest son – O’Car­roll’s for­mer roadie Pat 4. Cathy her daugh­ter – O’Car­roll’s wife Jenny 5. Betty her son Mark’s wife – O’Car­roll’s daugh­terin-law Amanda* 6. Der­mot her son – O’Car­roll’s son’s friend Paddy 7. Maria her son Der­mot’s wife – O’Car­roll’s daugh­ter Fiona** 8. Rory her son – O’Car­roll’s man­ager Rory*** 9. Buster her son Der­mot’s best friend – O’Car­roll’s son Danny 10. Win­nie her neigh­bour – O’Car­roll’s sis­ter Eil­ish *Amanda Woods is mar­ried to Danny O’Car­roll, the star’s son, who plays Buster. Their son Jamie plays Bono. **Fiona O’Car­roll is mar­ried to Martin De­lany, who plays son Trevor and who is also a pro­ducer of the show. ***Dino, Rory’s part­ner, is played by actor Gary Hol­ly­wood, the only ma­jor mem­ber of the cast who was not one of the star’s friends or family be­fore the show was made.

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