Ask me Bafta
Brendan O’Carroll’s comedy, with its dirty jokes and malapropisms, might not be the critics’ choice, but his appeal to the taste for smut in Ireland and Britain has made him, and ‘Mrs Brown’, only massive, writes STEPHEN DIXON
HOW MANY PEOPLE – let’s rephrase that: how many Irish Times readers – do you know who would admit to liking Brendan O’Carroll? Yet his plays pack Ireland’s biggest theatres, and his Mrs Brown’s Boys special was the most-watched show on RTÉ last Christmas, with 880,000 – half of all viewers – tuning in. He taps into a predilection for smut here that lies mostly submerged, and now, particularly after his Bafta win last weekend, he has triumphed in Britain, where an enthusiasm for the robust joke is more openly acknowledged.
Something that struck me when I moved to Ireland from Britain was the scarcity of ribald jokes, invariably used in Britain’s more buttoned-up society to lubricate social interaction. There they are common currency in pubs and gatherings to break the ice: “Here, have you heard this one?” In Ireland, pub discourses often feature sex, of course, or matters scatological, but tend to take the form of very funny rambling monologues or witty off-the-cuff rejoinders rather than the structured set-up, build-up and punchline of the British dirty joke.
Our comic exports to Britain – Dara Ó Briain, say, or Ed Byrne – can be trusted to enliven the direst panel show with spontaneous wit. Graham Norton is a ubiquitous presence. New scripts by Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan are gratefully fallen on. Sightings of Dylan Moran are always welcome. Father Ted is repeated endlessly.
But the big success story of the past few years, in terms of Irish comedy in Britain, belongs to O’Carroll, an entertainer whose existence barely registers with some sections of Irish society. He didn’t need last weekend’s Bafta award for best TV comedy to tell him that he is, in the words of his other self, Mrs Agnes Brown, “only massive”.
His current UK theatre tour has sold out. More than six million people watched the final episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys on BBC One in February – Jonathan Ross’s interview with David Beckham, on ITV at the same time, attracted fewer than four million – and Mrs Brown DVDs sell in huge numbers. A clip from one of the shows, Mrs Brown’s Misunderstanding, has had more than three million hits on YouTube.
Brendan O’Carroll is not a comedian for the critics. He is a comedian for the people. He can be hilarious but never seeks to impress by being too smart, and he has said his intention is to provide belly laughs and make people forget their troubles for a while. Years ago he told me: “My audience expects to come and see me and switch off. I’m the action movie.”