Mrs Brown’s Boys v Mulholland Drive: a culture showdown

TV viewers have named Mrs Brown’s Boys as the sitcom of the century, while film experts say Mulholland Drive is the era’s greatest movie. Two critics swap roles to see what they’re missing ...

A film critic on Mrs Brown’s Boys

Ryan Gilbey

I haven’t had much cause to acquaint myself with Mrs Brown’s Boys, which Radio Times readers have voted their favourite 21st-century sitcom from a shortlist that also included The Office and Peep Show. I saw Agnes Browne, the 1999 film adapted from Brendan O’Carroll’s book The Mammy, in which Anjelica Huston played the eponymous Irish matriarch; it was Angela’s Ashes drenched in blarney. When O’Carroll reclaimed the material as comedy, and crossed the gender divide to play Agnes himself as a knockabout, potty-mouthed pantomime dame, he reached audiences of up to 12 million on BBC1. Press approval is neither sought nor required. Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, which wasn’t screened in advance for critics, was the third-highest-grossing British or Irish film in the UK market in 2014.

Although I’d vaguely admired the show’s raggedy charm, I had never made it through an entire episode until this week, when I watched 2013’s opener for series three, Mammy’s Spell, in which Mrs Brown suffers the after-effects of hypnosis, and Mammy Sutra, a recent live special. What is immediately interesting is how the show combines a defiantly mainstream, vaudevillian sensibility with a modern twist: it’s a sitcom that knows it’s a sitcom.

The studio audience is plainly visible. Mrs Brown herself addresses the camera directly and in regular exasperated asides. The cast are positively encouraged to corpse, with O’Carroll himself a repeat offender. If he’s unhappy with a fellow actor’s line reading, he’ll order them to take another crack at it right there and then. “That was very stagey,” he says waspishly, somehow in and out of character at the same time, when a co-star gives an unconvincing shriek. “Want to try that again?” Another exchange is replayed four times because of the mirth caused by one performer’s prominent comedy teeth, while Mammy Sutra begins with a shot of the producer and director in the control booth.

Brendan O’Carroll as Agnes Brown in Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Brendan O’Carroll as Agnes Brown in Mrs Brown’s Boys. Photograph: BBC/Alan Peebles

Cool-cats who argue that the concept of the meta-sitcom was pioneered by It’s Garry Shandling’s Show will have to concede that Mrs Brown’s Boys is now keeping that flame burning. Similarly, those who admire Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle for dismantling the concept of standup should admit that O’Carroll is attempting something similar with the sitcom.

Whether it’s funny is another matter. O’Carroll has said that he is catering for the Are You Being Served? audience, which explains the use of “pussy” as a double entendre. I laughed only once, when Mrs Brown’s friend Winnie declared herself delighted at taking two months to finish a jigsaw: “On the box it said ‘2-4 years.’” Then again, it might have been a groan.

The live episode ends with O’Carroll placing his show in a tradition of classic BBC sitcoms. “If you ever feel lonely or a bit down,” he says, “flick on the telly and watch some comedy. Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses – we’ll be there. You can depend on that!” It would seem unforgivably arrogant of him to put himself in that league, if only the Radio Times poll didn’t rather prove him right.

A comedy critic on Mulholland Drive

Bruce Dessau

I don’t know if David Lynch voted in the Radio Times poll but if he did I doubt if he would have voted for Mrs Brown’s Boys. Then again, if O’Carroll, the sitcom’s auteur, had had a vote in the BBC Culture poll of film critics to find the greatest film of the same period, I doubt if he would have plumped for Mulholland Drive. Not if Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie was eligible anyway.

Just when you thought Brexit was the most depressing democratic result of the year, the triumph of Mrs Brown’s Boys runs a close second. But the BBC sitcom is hugely popular, so it is no surprise that it topped a people’s choice vote. The victory for Mulholland Drive among critics is more bemusing for this non-film critic.

Polls such as these always deliver results that get people arguing. And that is about the only thing these latest chart-toppers have in common. The least I could do is re-assess David Lynch’s 2001 movie from the perspective of an avid sitcom consumer.

Mulholland Drive is a good film but it’s no No 1. It is a visceral look at fame given a typically Lynchian non-linear twist. Naomi Watts plays innocent Hollywood wannabe Betty Elms, Laura Harring plays the mysterious older woman, Rita, who befriends her. Their lives intertwine with other noirish storylines and characters and the result just about makes sense.

Naomi Watts and Laura Herring as Character(s): Betty Elms and Rita Film in Mulholland Drive.
Naomi Watts and Laura Herring as Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

“Just about” is the key here. I have seen this movie described as a “psychological thriller”, which is PR-speak for a film where nothing really happens and, if it does, it only confuses things. At one point, both Watts and Harring assume the identities of two different women. Why? Who knows. Apparently, scenes were originally shot for a television pilot but it was not broadcast, partly because of its non-narrative construction. For once some TV executives got it right.

I can think of three Lynch films that are far superior, but were made before the millennium cut-off point – Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet – and only one that is unquestionably inferior – Dune. Even if this is the best film of the past 16 years, it isn’t Lynch’s best film.

The main problem, though, is the nature of the poll. First, the timing seems arbitrary. Unless we really are heading for end of days – as Twitter users suggested when they saw the Mrs Brown’s Boys news – why vote now?

As for the critics choosing this film, I suspect Mulholland Drive triumphed because the BBC Culture vote only polled film critics and film critics have loved films about Hollywood since Sunset Boulevard and beyond.

I like my films like I like my sitcoms – I prefer them to make sense. With its non-sequiturs and dreamlike scenes, Mulholland Drive is frustratingly open to interpretation. That is one thing you cannot say about Mrs Brown’s Boys.

• Bruce Dessau is editor of comedy site


Ryan Gilbey and Bruce Dessau

The GuardianTramp

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