Revenge of Mammy: how TV’s Mrs Brown defied the sneers to win the last laugh

The hugely popular BBC show got the top TV comedy award – and a barrage of abuse on Twitter and beyond. Our writer explains why its creator needn’t give a feck

Brendan O’Carroll had barely reached the stage to collect a National Television award for Mrs Brown’s Boys when critics were declaring the end of civilisation. “The final nail in the coffin of democracy.” “Everything that is wrong with our country.” “A metaphor of Britain’s decision-making right now.” “That’s the Great British public for you. Brexit. Boris. Mrs Brown’s Boys.”

Tweeters seethed with scorn and disbelief. How could such a dire sitcom, an affront to good taste, human intellect and cultural evolution, prevail over Fleabag, Derry Girls and After Life? How could this antediluvian freak be voted best comedy and steal glory from shows that were funny, clever and groundbreaking?

On and on it went, condemnation and laments that the end of days arrived last week in the form of a small Irishman in a blue tuxedo clutching a trophy at London’s 02 Arena. A desecration somehow connected to the UK’s departure from the European Union.

“Mrs Browns Boys wins at the #NationalTelevisionAwards, the Tories have released a Got Brexit Done tea towel and so this must be the point at which human civilisation will end,” said one.

Some of the ire was exaggerated for comic effect. But there was no doubting the genuine loathing for the BBC sitcom that O’Carroll, 65, writes and performs in drag as Agnes Brown, the big-hearted, foul-mouthed matriarch of an Irish family that bumbles around making bawdy jokes about rectal thermometers.

A decade-long ratings phenomenon, it is often the most-viewed programme on Christmas Day. This was the fifth time it won best comedy at the NTA, which is decided by votes from the public.

Such loathing and devotion – binary responses that seem to reflect geographic, demographic and class fissures – have turned its creator into an unlikely lightning rod for Britain’s polarisation.

O’Carroll seems to take it in his stride. In a gracious acceptance speech, the Dubliner thanked collaborators, including his wife Jennifer Gibney, and lauded Ricky Gervais’s dark comedy, After Life, as one of the greatest things on television.

Then he went back to work in Glasgow, where Mrs Brown’s Boys is filmed, to prepare, as some see it, a fresh onslaught on metropolitan sense and sensibility.

“What the critics have against it I don’t really understand,” said Ben Kellett, who directs and produces the sitcom. “It has broad appeal that inspires belly laughs. What it isn’t is a metropolitan, sophisticated, single camera comedy.”

The 2015 film version topped box offices around Britain – but not in London, a year before the Brexit referendum revealed a similar division. “Whether we’re a reflection of a particular type of society that thinks we should leave the EU, who knows,” said Kellett. What matters, he said, is that people enjoy it. “It brings laughter when we need laughter a lot.”

The cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys celebrate at the National Television Awards last week.
The cast of Mrs Brown’s Boys celebrate at the National Television Awards last week. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Artists in O’Carroll’s home city, even those who don’t necessarily watch or like Mrs Brown’s Boys, tend to agree. “A lot of people are probably quite depressed at the moment so if someone is giving people an opportunity to laugh, fair play to him,” said Stephen James Smith, Dublin’s unofficial poet laureate.

“Clearly it’s connected with a massive audience. We need to be careful to not be too snobby. It’s not high art but what harm? A lot of political things are happening around the world that people can’t quite fathom so maybe it’s good to have another perspective. Maybe people just need some comic relief.”

Some in Ireland were embarrassed by O’Carroll’s representation of Irishness but they could still take pride in his success, said Cian O’Brien, artistic director of the Project Arts Centre. “There are loads of people who think, good on him.”

It is a view informed by awareness of O’Carroll’s roots and his circuitous path to Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Born in Finglas, a working-class district, O’Carroll was the youngest of 11 children. He left school at the age of 12 and worked as a waiter, milkman, disco manager, decorator and pirate radio disc-jokey.

His carpenter father, Gerard, died when he was six, leaving his formidable mother, Maureen, to raise the brood alone. “We put my mother on a pedestal,” O’Carroll once noted. “Mainly to keep her away from my father.” She went on to become a pioneering Labour party TD (MP) – and inadvertent muse to her youngest child, who later channelled her into Agnes Brown.

O’Carroll learned late in life about his family’s republican history. An uncle ordered a sniper to shoot a British soldier during the 1916 Easter Rising. Four years later, during Ireland’s war of independence, a British undercover agent assassinated O’Carroll’s grandfather.

O’Carroll started his comedy career as a standup with ribald routines in clubs, graduating to spots on The Late Late Show and videos with titles such as “How’s your Raspberry Ripple”, “How’s your Jolly Roger”, “How’s your Snowballs” and “How’s your Wibbly Wobbly Wonder”.

He wrote the screenplay of a boxing film, Sparrow’s Trap, starring Stephen Rea, only to go bankrupt when financing evaporated, killing the project.

In 1992, he unveiled Mrs Browne’s Boys – the “e” was later dropped – as a radio play on RTE. A one-man production machine, O’Carroll expanded the characters into books, The Mammy, The Chisellers, The Granny and The Young Wan.

In 1999, Anjelica Huston turned The Mammy into a romcom, Agnes Browne, that she directed and starred in, to mixed reviews. “Homey skits loosely woven into a portrait of a working-class saint,” sniffed the New York Times.

O’Carroll adapted the Brown family’s misadventures for the Irish stage, casting himself as Agnes and friends and relatives as other characters. The comedy was broad and sentimental, similar to Tyler Perry’s African-American drag creation, “Madea” Simmons. The show migrated to Glasgow’s Pavilion theatre and became a long-running hit. “Brendan has a very good idea of what will and won’t land with his audience,” said Kellett, the director. “He has an incredible comedy radar, very intuitive. He’s intelligent emotionally and intellectually.”

Agnes just clicked with audiences, he said. “Everyone’s got a mother or mother-in-law. Agnes is incredibly human. She’s a piece of work, and we enjoy watching her machiavellian schemes.” The characters’ perceived simplicity belie O’Carroll’s skill as a writer, said Kellett.

They are, O’Carroll once said, “the audience that comedy forgot” in its swerve towards innovation, experimentation and meta. Some people just want gags that make them laugh.

In 2009 a BBC producer, Stephen McCrum, observed a Pavilion audience in stitches and commissioned a television series. Filmed in front of a studio audience, it was first shown in the UK on 21 February 2011, the date that some think an interloper crept into television’s marble temple and laid a turd on the altar.

“Lazy, end-of-pier trash rooted in the 1970s,” said the Daily Record. “An old-fashioned blend of silly voices and slapstick, played out in front of a live studio audience who collapse into giggles at the mere mention of the word ‘willy’,” said the Telegraph. Predictable and vulgar, the Guardian said in 2011, a sentiment repeated in a review of the 2019 Christmas special. “Dire, like unrehearsed panto, just nothing redeeming at all about it, unless you are into having jokes spooned into your mouth like the last puree you eat before you die.”

The show’s success led to other opportunites for O’Carroll, such as Caroline Aherne’s 2013 The Security Men. The revelation in 2017 that several Mrs Brown members used offshore companies and trusts to avoid paying tax on earnings prompted its own slew of negative headlines.

Those devoted to Mrs Brown’s Boys pay little heed to criticism. They just keep watching and enjoying – a fact tweeting supporters of hipper shows may need to accept. “Reminder that there are around 50 million people in the UK that don’t use Twitter,” said one response to the NTA backlash. “Stop getting all of your consensus from here, and you’ll find this less confusing.”

Ricky Gervais, in the unfamiliar role of peacemaker, echoed the sentiment. “Democracy always wins,” he told his fans. “Be nice in defeat.” He wasn’t referring to Brexit.

BRENDAN O’CARROLL


1955 Born in the Finglas suburb of Dublin.

1992 Comedy slot on The Late Late Show. Launches Mrs Brown’s Boys as a radio play.

1999 O’Carroll adapts the character for stage and begins a smash-hit run in Glasgow.

2011 TV show debuts on RTE and BBC, earning big ratings – and critical pasting.

2012 Wins best sitcom at the Baftas.

2014 Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, one of many film and theatrical spin-offs, is a cinema hit.

2020 Show wins fifth National Television Award for comedy, leaving fans of Fleabag, After Life and Derry Girls appalled.

Contributor

Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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