Roll over Fleabag, Mrs Brown got the priest first | Stewart Lee

Why do we view the experimentation of Mrs Brown’s Boys as naive and the same techniques used by Phoebe Waller-Bridge as genius?

Ant and Dec had barely hosed the protective goose fat off David Walliams’s semi-aquatic body at the National Television Awards on Tuesday, before the furious Twittersphere exploded as Mrs Brown’s Boys beat both The Flea Bag and Ricky Gervais’s Afterlife for Best Comedy.

Furious alt right incels, whose loyalty Gervais cultivates indiscriminately online, were outraged. The stifling cult of political correctness had ensured that an old Irish woman had beaten their truth-telling hero, dubbed The Wokefinder General by the cultural critic Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail.

But the National Television Awards are voted for by the public, who, unlike the Hollywood elitists of the Golden Globes panel, have not been provided with review copies of every single show under consideration to help them make an informed choice. The public’s votes will necessarily be skewed towards the entry that has the highest viewing figures, or, for older viewers, towards the last show they remember watching before they dozed off, probably a repeat of Tim Wonnacott’s Bargain Hunt.

This is why my own critically acclaimed work always wins accolades voted for by carefully chosen panels of informed experts in their fields – Baftas, Olivier Awards, and British Comedy Awards for example – but is largely ignored in polls voted for by the public, who are not my target audience, though I tolerate their open-mouthed bafflement at my high-concept live shows.

British democracy appears to be working in the opposite way to the National Television Awards. Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Girly-Swot Big-Girl’s-Blouse Chicken-frit Hulk-Smash Noseringed-Crusties Death-Humbug Technology-Lessons Surrender-Bullshit French-Turds Dog-Whistle Get-Stuffed FactcheckUK@CCHQ 88%-lies Get-Brexit-Done Bung-A-Bob-For-Big-Ben’s-Bongs Johnson’s strategists seemed to believe that, as long as he wasn’t seen anywhere and didn’t really say anything, he could win the election.

Until recently, I had only ever seen one episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the 2011 Christmas Special Mammy’s Hairy Ass, which I watched on YouTube in the middle of the night drunk in a Kent hotel room alone. And it wasn’t even Christmas. In the title sequence Mrs Brown appears as a horned, half-woman, half-reindeer creature. I initially assumed Mrs Brown’s Boys featured some kind of demonic Krampus, stealing boys and killing them.

As it happens, I now believe, sincerely, that at the National Television Awards, the best woman won. And that woman is Agnes Brown, creator and star of Mrs Brown’s Boys. For me, The Wokefinder General’s Afterlife is a turgid effort. The valiant supporting cast struggle bravely to accommodate a poor central performance from The Wokefinder General himself, who just stares and wanders about, like Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac in the 1990s.

I don’t understand the thing with the woman in the video that The Wokefinder General keeps looking at. Is she supposed to be Jesus? Is the woman in the cemetery a ghost? Is he dead and he doesn’t know, like in that film? Is the heroin man The Wokefinder General’s penis, talking to him, leading him astray? Why is everyone just sighing all the time?

Watch a trailer for After Life.

I don’t think The Flea Bag should have won either, as it is essentially just a Fortnum & Mason version of the Happy Shopper Mrs Brown’s Boys, which pre-dates The Flea Bag by five years. The working class Agnes Brown pioneered many of the televisual comedy techniques the privileged Phoebe Waller-Bee was mistakenly credited with having invented, even down to both their shows featuring a good-looking priest that everyone fancies.

In the July 2016 debut of The Flea Bag, Flea Bag suddenly turns to the camera while having anal sex and addresses the viewer, directly, straight down the lens. Having never seen anything like this before, I was worried that Flea Bag could see me through the television and so I quickly put my pyjama trousers back on and went to bed. Critics, however, were quick to praise this startling stylistic breakthrough.

But, 33 seconds into the February 2011 debut of Mrs Brown’s Boys, Agnes Brown also steps out of the scene to greet the viewer and speak to us personally, and this follows a tracking shot, worthy of Godard himself, over the heads of the clearly visible studio audience that deliberately reveals the whole artifice of situation comedy. The moment at the end of Mammy’s Hairy Ass, when Brown’s daughter, Cathy, toasts the viewer at home and wishes “A happy new year to you and your family” is a heart-warmingly direct address to the human soul. And its simple message of joy is comforting and touching in a way that Bag being sodomised by “Arsehole Guy” in episode one of The Flea Bag will never be, whatever Lucy Mangan says to her fellow liberal elitists in the Guardian.

Our class prejudice means we view Brown’s experimentation with form as naive, a sausage string of sad mistakes made by an idiot, whereas the same stylistic gestures in the hands of the expensively educated Waller-Bee are seen as the calculated choices of a professionally-styled genius. I am sure Waller-Bee would be the first to admit that, without the template established by Brown in Mrs Brown’s Boys, The Flea Bag would never have existed.

Waller-Bee and The Wokefinder General will live to fight another day. And their shows’ defeat at the hands of the arguably more thoroughly realised Mrs Brown’s Boys is not the catastrophe The Wokefinder General’s weaponised Twitter following believe. The important thing, in these dark times, is that a woman, and an old Irish working-class woman at that, was chosen as the people’s favourite, her victory a smack in the mouth for the rising forces of intolerance.

Waller-Bee and The Wokefinder General may be the Queen and King of Hollywood. But here at home, Mrs Brown is the people’s princess, the Queen of Hearts, Brigit the regal daughter of Dagda, of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Stewart Lee’s Snowflake: Tornado is touring nationally now


Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vicky Jones: 'Fleabag felt like a tipping point for feminism'
The stage director of Fleabag on her new TV series for HBO, texting her exes, and how she writes during lockdown

Michael Hogan

12, Apr, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Jamie Demetriou: ‘After Fleabag, people demand to see my teeth’
The writer and star of Stath Lets Flats on working with Phoebe Waller‑Bridge, his soft spot for Popstars’s Darius, and why he’s broody

Michael Hogan

10, Aug, 2019 @4:23 PM

Article image
The week in TV: The Victim; The Widow; Fleabag; Derry Girls; Don’t Forget the Driver – review
Kelly Macdonald played a grieving mother bent on revenge in the BBC’s riveting week-long legal drama, cliche runs riot in the Congo, and Toby Jones’s fine dark comedy is a slow burner

Euan Ferguson

14, Apr, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Sian Clifford: 'I nearly vomited into my webcam when I won the Bafta'
The actor on her new ‘plilm’, being busy in a pandemic, and the strangeness of Brad Pitt ‘fan-girling’ over her Fleabag co-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Tim Lewis

10, Jan, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
Fleabag review – back on stage in filthy splendour
Soho theatre, London
Phoebe Waller-Bridge follows up her TV hit with a magnificent monologue

Stephanie Merritt

11, Dec, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Fleabag; Appropriate; As You Like It – review
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag returns in singularly brilliant fashion. Plus, more electrifying drama from Branden Jacob-Jenkins

Susannah Clapp

01, Sep, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Kneel! How the whole world bowed down to Fleabag ... and her Hot Priest
There was no escaping Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy this year. It transformed our porn habits, sent gin-in-a-tin sales soaring ... and then the Catholic church weighed in

Laura Snapes

23, Dec, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Golden Globes 2020: British winners soar as Ricky Gervais crashes – as it happened
Fleabag and 1917 were big winners in a night that saw Ricky Gervais try to offend the Hollywood elite

Benjamin Lee, Leah Harper and Ellie Violet Bramley

06, Jan, 2020 @5:40 AM

Article image
Fiona Shaw: ‘I’m delighted to be in with the young crowd!’
The acclaimed stage actor on the joy of her spymaster role in Killing Eve and playing a therapist in the new series of Fleabag

Michael Hogan

03, Mar, 2019 @8:59 AM

Article image
The week in TV: Rio Olympics; Flying to the Ends of the Earth; First Dates; Fleabag
Rio brought all kinds of drama, Arthur Williams made us forget his wheelchair, and Cupid triumphed in First Dates

Barbara Ellen

14, Aug, 2016 @6:00 AM