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.
“I have this theory. It works for me, anyway,” he says. “I am dyslexic. I didn’t know it. But my mother spotted it and said we are going to find another way for you to learn. I’d tell her what I was doing at school and she’d find another way for me to learn. Without knowing it we were doing what Americans do now: thinking outside the box.”
The story is working its way towards a psychological turning point. There was barely a job he didn’t try. He was a waiter. He was a cleaner. He was a milkman. As O’Carroll remembers it, he was constantly trying to solve problems. If the washing machine only worked for 18 hours, he wanted to know why it wouldn’t run all day. And so on.
“When I started training as a waiter at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cathal Brugha Street, we would go to the canteen and one of the guys would say: ‘Oh there was a big chunk of cheese out of the moon last night.’ I’d say: ‘The moon is not made from cheese. It is made from coarse rock.’ In 10 minutes, I’d be on my own. I’d go back and look at the mirror and say, ‘I’m a nice guy. But I’ve no friends. Maybe I should shut my mouth’.”
It hardly seems possible now, but O’Carroll buttoned his lip and set about blending in with his workmates. It’s not a strategy he recommends.
“You can end up doing that for the rest of your life,” he says. “You don’t say what you know because it’s easier to get on with people. Then, at 35 years of age, I found myself owing more money than I owned. Friends had always said I should go on the stage. I did a gig at the Rathmines Inn and suddenly found I could say what I liked. There was great freedom there. Within five years, I had done 1,000 gigs. Suddenly, I was saying what I thought.”
He has always drawn on his own background for his comedy. Here we reach another interesting conundrum about O’Carroll. Raised in Finglas, the youngest of 11 children, he is the very avatar of a working-class comedian. Yet his mother, Maureen O’Carroll, was a TD and served as Labour’s Chief Whip from 1954 to 1957. These pieces don’t fit together all that neatly. Few would guess that the main inspiration for Mrs Brown was a prominent politician and human-rights activist.
“That’s a fair point,” he says. “Because she had been a nun, she had known the value of education. When she was a novice, she got a degree from Galway. Yet none of the 11 kids went to school past 14. Of course, there were monetary issues there too. We all did apprenticeships. She believed in personality. She believed in a personality of generosity. And we all worked.”
O’Carroll used to deny that Mrs Brown was in any way based on Maureen, but the truth eventually bullied its way to the front of his brain. He now argues that the grotesque character on stage and screen – “the adorable bitch” he laughs – is a version of what his mother might have been like if she hadn’t had an education.
“The more I thought about her as a person rather than just a superficial comedy character, the more I realised that she’s my mother,” he ponders. “Without getting too deep, I often wonder – remembering my mother was always out working – if Mrs Brown is the mother I wish my own mam had been: if she wasn’t involved in politics, if she wasn’t involved in the unions. I remember having Christmas on my own one year and she rang me from South Africa, where she was working with the anti-apartheid movement. Is that where Agnes comes from? Did I want a stay-at-home mam?”
There have been a great many struggles on the road towards O’Carroll’s current exhibition- worthy status. In 1989, he lost a fortune when a business partner (who subsequently killed himself) cleared out their bank account and fled the pub they were running jointly. One child died within a few days of being born with spina bifida. In 1999, he separated from Doreen, mother of his three children, and, six years later, married Jennifer Gibney, who plays his daughter on Mrs Brown’s Boys. There’s a great deal of living in there.
On reflection, it’s not fair to think of “Brendan O’Carroll” as any sort of creation. Indeed, as he tells it, the uninhibited chatterbox was always bursting to get out of the carapace he constructed for himself as a young man. Now, he finds himself interacting with the university-educated comics who, as he argued earlier, left “the people behind”.
I was intrigued to see him on a recent episode of QI. When O’Carroll makes a sharp observation, Stephen Fry, seeming slightly surprised, says: “You could be right, Brendan”.
O’Carroll narrows eyes and replies: “No, Stephen, I fucking am right.”
Were we wrong to sense that he felt patronised?
“That’s not right. No. I am sorry if it came across that way. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. Firstly, we are both members of Mensa. He revels in the fact that my IQ is 156 and his is 157. Afterwards, the producer said ‘we’d like you back and, if Stephen’s ever in a position where he can’t do it, would you like to host it’.”
Well, that sounds like a juicy exclusive. Until then, we have Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie. If you liked the series you’ll like the film. If you didn’t, then . . .
Well, we’ve already had that conversation. What is not in doubt is the sheer warmth and generosity of the project. There is a lot of the real Dublin here and, in the closing moments, Jennifer gets to deliver a stirring eulogy to Moore Street. “It’s a microcosm of Dublin and of Ireland as a whole,” he says.
There are some social politics in the picture as well. Jennifer’s speech makes a point of celebrating the immigrant communities that have added new colours to the area over the past few decades.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard this thing, ‘Oh they’re taking our jobs’,” he says with angry energy. “I’ve felt it. I was horrified by that. Firstly, the jobs were there. Secondly, thank goodness the rest of the world didn’t take that attitude to us in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Most of my family left. Then we say ‘taking our jobs’? The fucking nerve of us!”
You could be right, Brendan.
No, you fucking are right!