Mrs Mrs Brown Brown D’In­ter­view

Brendan O’car­roll gives up his aul sins for Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - Di­rected by Ben Kel­lett. Star­ring Brendan O’Car­roll, Eil­ish O’Car­roll, Nick Nev­ern, Paddy Houli­han, Fiona O’Car­roll, Jennifer Gib­ney 15A cert, 94 min

How can you tell for cer­tain that you’ve ar­rived? Well, if you get to be in­ter­viewed within an ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to your most fa­mous cre­ation, then it’s fair to say you’re on the road to na­tional-trea­sure sta­tus.

Brendan O’Car­roll is not in cos­tume as Mrs Brown – her padded gar­ment hangs be­hind him like a flayed old lady. He is, how­ever, in cos­tume as Brendan O’Car­roll. Tan­ger­ine­coloured spec­ta­cles rest (as ex­pected) upon a bald­ing dome. There’s more or­ange be­low and a bit of pink in there as well. Imag­ine how the posh lady dresses in Gog­gle­box and your half­way there.

Any­way, the Lit­tle Mu­seum of Dublin has mounted its trib­ute to the un­avoid­able ma­tri­arch in time for the re­lease of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. You knew it was com­ing. De­vised a lit­tle over 20 years ago, Agnes Brown has al­ready ap­peared in ra­dio shows, books, plays and – a ver­sion that comic-book fans might de­scribe as “non-canon­i­cal” – a 1999 film di­rected by and star­ring An­gel­ica Hus­ton. But it was the stag­ger­ing suc­cess of the cur­rent TV se­ries, Mrs Brown’s Boys, that made the film in­evitable. They love her in Ire­land. They love her in Canada. They re­ally love her in the UK.

“We just look at each other and say: ‘Look at us. It is ab­so­lutely crazy. It is mind-bog­glingly crazy,” O’Car­roll laughs.

Should we be sur­prised that English au­di­ences fell for a rough-hewn Moore Street trader with an un­com­pro­mis­ing line in Celtic pro­fan­ity? The show makes no con­ces­sions to softer sen­si­bil­i­ties, but its suc­cess is un­de­ni­able. For two years run­ning, the Christ­mas spe­cials beat out EastEn­ders and Doc­tor Who to be­come the most-watched shows on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion over the fes­tive pe­riod.

“I was shocked,” O’Car­roll says. “But we have to have more faith in the au­di­ence. Look, Sean O’Casey’s plays have toured all over the world. Ulysses is re­quired read­ing at uni­ver­si­ties all over the world. Some­where along the line, that in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex set in. We felt that to suc­ceed over the sea we had to pre­tend to be English. There was some­thing else. Some­where in the 1980s, com­edy be­gan to leave the people be­hind.”

Yes, it seems we are still fight­ing the great­edy wars of the Thatcher years. Not­ing the stub­bornly tra­di­tional na­ture of Mrs Brown’s Boys, no ob­server could be in any doubt as to which side O’Car­roll was on.

“There were the Les Daw­sons, Dick Emerys,” he pon­ders. “There was More­combe and Wise. Then com­edy be­came more snarky. It was more about the uni­ver­si­ties. For a long time, noth­ing filled that void.”

There re­ally is no point ask­ing O’Car­roll about his re­la­tion­ship with the crit­ics. The ram­shackle show is never go­ing to win them (us?) over and, how­ever of­ten he de­clares his lack of in­ter­est in their (our?) opin­ion, nei­ther side is go­ing to aban­don its for­ward trenches.

At any rate, he should, by now, be aware that he has won most of the bat­tles that mat­ter. Hav­ing come through a great many per­sonal tri­als, O’Car­roll is now among the most suc­cess­ful en­ter­tain­ers in these is­lands. And one of his cre­ations gar­ners near uni­ver­sal praise: this thing called “Brendan O’Car­roll”. The man is a nat­u­ral racon­teur with an en­vi­able abil­ity to stir up em­pa­thy with in­ter­view­ers and au­di­ences. Just look how he ate The Gra­ham Nor­ton Show alive last week.

Yet it took O’Car­roll a long time to achieve his suc­cess. Born in 1958, he left school at 12, but didn’t gain suc­cess as a per­former un­til the early 1990s. That’s a lengthy twi­light pe­riod.

“I have this the­ory. It works for me, any­way,” he says. “I am dyslexic. I didn’t know it. But my mother spotted it and said we are go­ing to find an­other way for you to learn. I’d tell her what I was do­ing at school and she’d find an­other way for me to learn. With­out know­ing it we were do­ing what Amer­i­cans do now: think­ing out­side the box.”

The story is work­ing its way to­wards a psy­cho­log­i­cal turn­ing point. There was barely a job he didn’t try. He was a waiter. He was a cleaner. He was a milk­man. As O’Car­roll re­mem­bers it, he was con­stantly try­ing to solve prob­lems. If the wash­ing ma­chine only worked for 18 hours, he wanted to know why it wouldn’t run all day. And so on.

“When I started train­ing as a waiter at the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tel in Cathal Brugha Street, we would go to the can­teen and one of the guys would say: ‘Oh there was a big chunk of cheese out of the moon last night.’ I’d say: ‘The moon is not made from cheese. It is made from coarse rock.’ In 10 min­utes, I’d be on my own. I’d go back and look at the mir­ror and say, ‘I’m a nice guy. But I’ve no friends. Maybe I should shut my mouth’.”

It hardly seems pos­si­ble now, but O’Car­roll but­toned his lip and set about blend­ing in with

“I of­ten won­der if Mrs Brown is the mother I wish my own mam had been: if she wasn’t in­volved in pol­i­tics, if she wasn’t in­volved in the unions”

his work­mates. It’s not a strat­egy he rec­om­mends.

“You can end up do­ing that for the rest of your life,” he says. “You don’t say what you know be­cause it’s eas­ier to get on with people. Then, at 35 years of age, I found my­self ow­ing more money than I owned. Friends had al­ways said I should go on the stage. I did a gig at the Rath­mines Inn and sud­denly found I could say what I liked. There was great free­dom there. Within five years, I had done 1,000 gigs. Sud­denly, I was say­ing what I thought.”

He has al­ways drawn on his own back­ground for his com­edy. Here we reach an­other in­ter­est­ing co­nun­drum about O’Car­roll. Raised in Fin­glas, the youngest of 11 chil­dren, he is the very avatar of a work­ing-class co­me­dian. Yet his mother, Mau­reen O’Car­roll, was a TD and served as Labour’s Chief Whip from 1954 to 1957. These pieces don’t fit to­gether all that neatly. Few would guess that the main in­spi­ra­tion for Mrs Brown was a prom­i­nent politi­cian and hu­man-rights ac­tivist.

“That’s a fair point,” he says. “Be­cause she had been a nun, she had known the value of ed­u­ca­tion. When she was a novice, she got a de­gree from Galway. Yet none of the 11 kids went to school past 14. Of course, there were mon­e­tary is­sues there too. We all did ap­pren­tice­ships. She be­lieved in per­son­al­ity. She be­lieved in a per­son­al­ity of gen­eros­ity. And we all worked.”

O’Car­roll used to deny that Mrs Brown was in any way based on Mau­reen, but the truth even­tu­ally bul­lied its way to the front of his brain. He now ar­gues that the grotesque char­ac­ter on stage and screen – “the adorable bitch” he laughs – is a ver­sion of what his mother might have been like if she hadn’t had an ed­u­ca­tion.

“The more I thought about her as a per­son rather than just a su­per­fi­cial com­edy char­ac­ter, the more I re­alised that she’s my mother,” he pon­ders. “With­out get­ting too deep, I of­ten won­der – re­mem­ber­ing my mother was al­ways out work­ing – if Mrs Brown is the mother I wish my own mam had been: if she wasn’t in­volved in pol­i­tics, if she wasn’t in­volved in the unions. I re­mem­ber hav­ing Christ­mas on my own one year and she rang me from South Africa, where she was work­ing with the anti-apartheid move­ment. Is that where Agnes comes from? Did I want a stay-at-home mam?”

There have been a great many strug­gles on the road to­wards O’Car­roll’s cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion-wor­thy sta­tus. In 1989, he lost a for­tune when a busi­ness part­ner (who sub­se­quently killed him­self) cleared out their bank ac­count and fled the pub they were run­ning jointly. One child died within a few days of be­ing born with spina bi­fida. In 1999, he sep­a­rated from Doreen, mother of his three chil­dren, and, six years later, mar­ried Jennifer Gib­ney, who plays his daugh­ter on Mrs Brown’s Boys. There’s a great deal of liv­ing in there.

On re­flec­tion, it’s not fair to think of “Brendan O’Car­roll” as any sort of cre­ation. In­deed, as he tells it, the un­in­hib­ited chat­ter­box was al­ways burst­ing to get out of the cara­pace he con­structed for him­self as a young man. Now, he finds him­self in­ter­act­ing with the univer­sity-ed­u­cated comics who, as he ar­gued ear­lier, left “the people be­hind”.

I was in­trigued to see him on a re­cent episode of QI. When O’Car­roll makes a sharp ob­ser­va­tion, Stephen Fry, seem­ing slightly sur­prised, says: “You could be right, Brendan”.

O’Car­roll nar­rows eyes and replies: “No, Stephen, I fuck­ing am right.” Were we wrong to sense that he felt pa­tron


“That’s not right. No. I am sorry if it came across that way. They couldn’t have been more wel­com­ing. Firstly, we are both mem­bers of Mensa. He rev­els in the fact that my IQ is 156 and his is 157. Af­ter­wards, the pro­ducer said ‘we’d like you back and, if Stephen’s ever in a po­si­tion where he can’t do it, would you like to host it’.”

Well, that sounds like a juicy exclusive. Un­til then, we have Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. If you liked the se­ries you’ll like the film. If you didn’t, then . . .

Well, we’ve al­ready had that con­ver­sa­tion. What is not in doubt is the sheer warmth and gen­eros­ity of the project. There is a lot of the real Dublin here and, in the clos­ing mo­ments, Jennifer gets to deliver a stir­ring eu­logy to Moore Street. “It’s a mi­cro­cosm of Dublin and of Ire­land as a whole,” he says.

There are some so­cial pol­i­tics in the pic­ture as well. Jennifer’s speech makes a point of cel­e­brat­ing the im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties that have added new colours to the area over the past few decades.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard this thing, ‘Oh they’re tak­ing our jobs’,” he says with an­gry en­ergy. “I’ve felt it. I was hor­ri­fied by that. Firstly, the jobs were there. Sec­ondly, thank good­ness the rest of the world didn’t take that at­ti­tude to us in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Most of my fam­ily left. Then we say ‘tak­ing our jobs’? The fuck­ing nerve of us!” You could be right, Brendan. No, you fuck­ing are right!


The cam­era flies ma­jes­ti­cally to­wards Dublin, the cred­its an­nounce a “fil­lum by Ben Kel­lett” and we get an­other chance to pon­der one of the age’s more puz­zling cul­tural phe­nom­ena.

Mrs Brown’s Boys, the ve­hi­cle that pro­pelled Brendan O’Car­roll to the top of the heap, is cer­tainly no less old-fash­ioned than its many crit­ics sug­gest. The big-screen ver­sion re­ally does fea­ture a com­edy Ori­en­tal, friv­o­lous use of Tourette’s syn­drome, and char­ac­ters who ac­tu­ally say “psst!” when they want to at­tract at­ten­tion. One wouldn’t be sur­prised to hear a few sup­pos­edly top­i­cal cracks about Gen­eral de Gaulle or the se­ces­sion of Rhode­sia. Heck, jokes about the Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae wouldn’t seem out of time in this en­vi­ron­ment.

For all that, in both its TV in­car­na­tion and, now, on film, Mrs Brown’s Boys makes un­ex­pected ges­tures to­wards post­moder­nity. (There you go, Brendan. You can have that one for free, the next time you’re tak­ing a dig at pre­ten­tious, elit­ist crit­ics.) The “fourth wall” is con­stantly bro­ken as the foul-mouthed ma­tri­arch of­fers sly asides to an in­dul­gent au­di­ence. The shots of lights, cam­eras and cir­cling crew – heck, we’ve risked “post­mod­ern”, so let’s drag in “Brechtian alien­ation” – sug­gest a broad cross-dress­ing sit­com as pro­duced by the Ber­liner En­sem­ble around 1950.

D’Movie takes this gag and con­torts it into some ar­rest­ing new an­gles. Painted back­drops are torn down as, now gifted a proper budget, Mrs Brown takes us to the phys­i­cal lo­ca­tions that in­spired the char­ac­ter. When mag­i­cal things hap­pen that only hap­pen in cin­ema, Agnes makes sure to point up the fact. This may very well be the most promis­cu­ously self-con­scious meta-movie we have seen since the last Char­lie Kauf­man project.

None of which is to sug­gest that Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie is any good. It can­not be de­nied that, de­fy­ing a weari­some tra­di­tion that ex­tends from On the Buses right up to The In­be­tween­ers, the film-mak­ers have en­sured that, for her big-screen out­ing, Mrs Brown does not travel to the Costa del Packet and does not end up stay­ing in a half-fin­ished ho­tel.

Aside from that, the film suf­fers from all the ail­ments that plagued film adap­ta­tions of sit­u­a­tion come­dies through­out the 1970s. It is over­stretched, un­der­writ­ten, slug­gishly paced and un­set­tled by the dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing move from stu­dio to lo­ca­tion.

We hardly need to say that the plot in­volves an evil de­vel­oper who, as­sisted by mildly of­fen­sive Rus­sian hoods, seeks to seize Mrs Brown’s stall on Moore Street and de­velop some­thing large and hideous in its place. Mean­while, Agnes needs to track down the re­ceipt for an an­cient tax trans­ac­tion to prove that she does not owe the au­thor­i­ties some mil­lions of euro. This process in­volves the de­ploy­ment of un­a­mus­ing blind nin­jas and moth­e­aten jokes in­volv­ing a bar­ris­ter with the afore­men­tioned Tourette’s. (Robert Bathurst does man­age a con­vinc­ingly tweedy King’s Inns drawl.).

For the first hour, raw en­ergy and brazen good­will holds the rick­ety con­struc­tion aloft. But even the se­ries’ most ar­dent fans may find the clos­ing chase se­quences ab­surdly overex­tended and ex­haust­ingly point­less.

It’s all a ter­ri­ble shame. The light en­ter­tain­ment tra­di­tions of the pre-al­ter­na­tive age are worth pre­serv­ing. O’Car­roll has heav­enly tim­ing and knows his way around grotesque drag.

More­over, so­cially and po­lit­i­cally, D’Movie does have its heart very much in the right place: eu­lo­gies to in­clu­sion, tra­di­tion and open­mind­ed­ness pep­per the di­a­logue. But, Je­sus, Mary and Joseph, the gags are clunky, the di­a­logue is leaden and the story is thread­bare.

It will be one of d’big­gest fil­lums of d’sum­mer.

Well, Joe: Joe Duffy and Brendan O’Car­roll in Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie

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