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

Contributor

Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

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