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
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.