Brendan O’Carroll: "Somewhere in the 1980s, comedy began to leave the people behind"
A natural raconteur with an enviable ability to stir up empathy, Brendan O’Carroll has little time for critics of his retro brand of comedy and little doubt about the reasons for his phenomenal success. "Comedy became more snarky . . . For a long time, nothing filled that void"
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 great alt.comedy 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.